Switch who was known for their distinctive blend of Ohio-Funk, smoothed-out harmonies and soulful lyrics burst onto the music scene in the mid 70’s with key original members Bobby DeBarge (Deceased), Gregory Williams (Founder), Tommy DeBarge, Phillip Ingram, Jody Sims, and Eddie Fluellen. The band was discovered by Jermaine Jackson and his then wife Hazel Gordy-Jackson. The group was signed to Berry Gordy’s label Gordy— a subsidiary of Motown Records after being featured in a showcase where their ability to switch from singing vocals to playing instruments earned them the name “Switch” for the band. The group rose to fame with the song ‘I Call Your Name’ led by the “Father of the Falsetto,” Bobby DeBarge. The song would become their signature single.
We recently had the opportunity to speak with three original members of the 70’s group, Greg Williams, Phillip Ingram and Eddie Fluellen to discuss their feature on the TV One television series Unsung. We asked the gentlemen were they surprised to get the call to participate on the show? Williams in his distinctive baritone voice replied, “I wasn’t personally because I wondered what took them so long <laughs>! “The reason being, I was involved in the very first season where they were only to be locked into four episodes and if it did well they would do more.” Williams said TV One worked on the DeBarge one of the four and that’s when talks of doing an Unsung on Switch was discussed. The network was calling me for DeBarge and I was like, “What about Switch?” says Williams. “I was told if the series contract got extended a story on Switch would be included. One year goes by…two…then three and I said, Oh! they forgot my phone number, but finally they called.” Fluellen had the same thoughts as Williams when he shared, “I also wondered whether we were going to be on or not and what took them too long!” Ingram (brother of singer James Ingram) reminded us there is an Unsung Facebook page and how there were so many people who wanted an episode on Switch. “The fans have been asking for it for years.”
When asked why it was important for the remaining members to share the band’s story Williams replied, “First of all, the story was worth telling, you know the expression— 15-minutes of fame well, we had a whole day <laughs>!” he adds, “It was something worth talking about in that day.” The group acknowledges the platinum and gold albums along with the five records they did for Motown. “We had a good run. We made an impact. We had people that loved us and believed in us. We did great and it didn’t last as long as it should have. We could have done a lot more with it,” says Williams. He goes on to say, ‘The story needs to be told and then more so. From this point we need people to know the difference between DeBarge and Switch and we hope this helps it get known a little more.” Williams says in laughter, he gets a “little tired of people who hear the songs— I Call Your Name or There’ll Never Be and think it’s El DeBarge or the DeBarge’s! Bobby DeBarge was a part of Switch and not the whole Debarge group, he says. Williams distinguishes the fact that “DeBarge is DeBarge and they have theirs and I’m happy for all of us. That’s my family I love us dearly but put it where it is supposed to be. Give credit where it’s due and I think this will aid in folks knowledge of not having so many misconceptions out there.
So what set the Switch sound apart from other bands in the Motown era? Ingram shares, “When we got signed the Commodores were there and they were definitely a band. The Switch sound was unique in the fact that we all could play multiple instruments, but I think our vocals just really set us apart.” The group says a lot of magazines over the years have put them in the same category as singing groups like the Temptations or the Stylistics. “They didn’t put us in the category of bands which is what we actually were,” says Ingram. He goes on to say, “I think because we were a band and our vocals were so strong is what really set us apart. Matter of fact, even on the Unsung episode, Miller London said we were the closest thing to the Jackson 5 and they were singers though, Jermaine and Tito played guitar and bass; In essence they were a singing group…so he (Miller) compared us to a singing group so I think that was the biggest difference.” Fluellen added, “I remember specifically saying that we had defined what they called the sound of young America in that our sound was different.”
Then there’s the question of the band’s downfall? And in retrospect could it have been prevented? “I wish it could have been prevented,” says Fluellen. Ingram’s analogy, “When you are married and you don’t think as a unit there are going to be problems in the marriage. So, if you think about it in a group where you have six people, and they start thinking as individuals without the best interest of the others then you are going to have problems.” The group agreed the breakup of the band could have been prevented if all six members, including Bobby and Tommy thought as a unit. Williams, Ingram and Fluellen have known each other for over forty years— since they all were teenagers. They said they obviously had a more long term view in mind and thought of themselves more as a unit and not individuals. The three men don’t associate themselves with the phrase, downfall when speaking of the band. “Who fell?” says Williams. The three original members always hoped for longevity but didn’t ever consider themselves as having a downfall but more so the band just ran its course.
We asked the group how did the loss of Bobby DeBarge affect the group? “Bobby was an equal part of this group and when you lose a part of anything whether it’s a family member, business relationship or whether it’s your computer…it shows things do deteriorate,” says Williams. That’s the situation from my point of view with Switch. I think Bobby was missed but thank God! again, there were five more to go on.” Williams reminds us the group is still here today “gigging!” Fluellen says, “Thingsmn were obviously different because a part of the group was broken when Bobby left. Was it a change for the better or worse? That’s up for the public to decide but we (the group) moved on.” Ingram added, “When we originally got our interest in Motown Bobby was not a part of the group, it was Arnie Haynes at the time who was a phenomenal talent but he decided not to continue with the group. We were still left with this deal on the table so we had to make some moves.” Williams, Fluellen and Ingram know that if you lost any element of the group it would change things. They likened it to when Lionel Richie left the Commodores and though those members had some hits after Lionel— there were still some differences. The original Switch members says it also depends on how the record company shapes the group as well but they all felt there was enough talent and lead singers to carry on without Bobby. “We preferred for him to stay but we had to move on.”
With true vocals and great musicianship between them we asked the group who are some of the singers they like? Mint Condition was the one group they all seemed to admire. “I’ve always like Mint Condition and when I heard ‘Pretty Brown Eyes’ I thought, man…that’s phenomenal talent, says Ingram. He says the group actually gave Switch and other bands credit on one of their albums as to who inspired them. Williams, Fluellen and Ingram says they come from an era where there was a lot of musicality and good melodies so they like artists like Brian McKnight, Take 6, Boyz II Men (who did a cover themselves of “There’ll Never Be), and of course the legendary Luther Vandross. Above all, the band members agree that Mint Condition is the one group most comparable to their sound.
What’s next for the group as they’ve enjoyed touring and more? Williams replied “I’m having fun being back with my brothers performing. As far as what’s next we will just continue to do what we do, touring, recording and writing.” Ingram says, when he, Eddie and Greg first got back together Tommy Debarge was with them too, but because of health issues he hasn’t been able to continue performing so, there was originally the four members on tour. The band members say on the Unsung episode you will see Michael McGloiry who has been with the group since 2003 and was previously Jermaine Jackson’s guitar player though, not a part of Switch, McGloiry played the guitar on all of their hits so when touring you have three of the originals and then you have Michael McGloiry. There’s also Akili Nickson who the group acknowledges has a similar DeBarge sound. Williams says, “I don’t mean this in a derogatory way but if Bobby were still living there would be a comparison with Akili and him but since he’s not living the fans don’t compare.” The group says their concerts have been very well received because you do have some originals. Williams: “Who we are now is who we were destined to be— those guys were great (Tommy and Bobby) and I miss them personally, I miss working with them, making music and having fun because that’s what we did when we were young cats, but who we have now is also incredible musicians especially, after all the time that’s passed. We are now older middle aged men who have sustained through it all, maybe not with the level of success you guys knew about but the level of sustenance. We have kept it going and it shows when we perform now and for the future as far as I am concerned. Today is all we got and I am going to live it like it’s the last and make the most of it!”
Why should viewers tune in to watch the Unsung: Switch episode? Williams reminds us all that we are about to “get educated!” but then adds that viewers should watch to know their story.” Ingram adds, “They get to see who we are and were at the time without any of the DeBarge’s. So, yes, they definitely should tune in!”
Insights from family and friends are provided by Greg Williams, Jody Sims, Tommy DeBarge, Phillip Ingram, Cynthia Horner, Marcus Chapman, Margena Christian and El DeBarge.
Tune-In: Watch Unsung featuring SWITCH on Sunday, July 23 at 10 p.m. ET on TV One.
CONNECT WITH TV One at www.tvone.tv or on social media using the hashtags #REPRESENT and #UNSUNG
Photo courtesy of TV One
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