Underneath electric stars: In 1985, Motown’s DeBarge felt the beat of the rhythm of the night

By on March 13, 2019

In this vintage 1985 episode of “Night Flight,” now streaming on Night Flight Plus, we took a look at the Motor City’s successful Motown label, which Pat Prescott tells us was, at one time, “the largest black-owned corporation in America.”

Below, we’ll tell you a little about Motown’s then-reigning family act, DeBarge, whose music video for “Rhythm of the Night” — from the Berry Gordy-produced Hollywood film, The Last Dragon — is featured, along with an excerpt from an exclusive Night Flight interview with the group’s lead vocalist, Eldra “El” DeBarge.

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DeBarge — considered one of the top teen ’80s vocal groups, marketed as Motown’s next Jackson 5 — also featuring El’s sister Etterlene (nicknamed “Bunny”) and, at the time, their three brothers, James, Mark and Randy.

The Grand Rapids, Michigan-based group (who formed in 1978) had released their debut album on Motown’s Gordy imprint in 1981.

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“Rhythm of the Night’ was actually written by the very successful and prolific songwriter Diane Warren, who, when asked by musical supervisor Suzanne Coston to write a song for the film, gave her something she’d just demoed.

One of her first song-for-hire hits, its success helped launch Warren’s career, writing songs for artists like KISS, Aerosmith, the Cult, Elton John and literally dozens of other acts who didn’t get much airtime on “Night Flight.”

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“Well I know a place where we can dance the whole night away,
Underneath electric stars
Just come with me and we can shake your blues right away,
You’ll be doing fine once the music starts…
Oh, to the beat of the rhythm of the night, dance until the morning light,
Forget about the worries on your mind, you can leave them all behind…”

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DeBarge’s “Rhythm of the Night” was not produced by Motown’s Gordy, but by veteran record producer Richard Perry (this would be the sixth Top Ten single he’d produced in a twelve month period during 1984-’85).

“Rhythm of the Night” ultimately earned the Motown label a Top Ten chart hit: #3 on Billboard‘s Hot 100, #1 Hot Adult Contemporary Tracks, and #1 Hot Black Singles.

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DeBarge were outside the U.S. — touring Europe, where the single had charted at #4 UK Singles — when their single was released, timed with the March 20, 1985, theatrical premiere of The Last Dragon.

Budgeted at $100,000, the video — directed by European director Peter Heath, who had segued from doing commercials into lensing music videos — was filled with colorful choreographed dance scenes in and around various locations in the Los Angeles area, including gas stations and parking lots.

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“I would like to take DeBarge over the top,” says El DeBarge in our interview.

“Some people want to reach the top, I wanna go over it, meaning that I never want to really get there, even when I do I always wanna be reaching, and searching for more.”

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El DeBarge would end up leaving the group just a year later to pursue a solo career.

The remaining brothers signed a recording deal with Striped Horse Records in 1987, but the DeBarge family — who’d all been sexually and physically abused by their now-deceased father — faced even more challenges when Chico and Bobby DeBarge were convicted of cocaine trafficking a year later (Bobby later died of AIDS complications in 1995).

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Read more about The Last Dragon below.

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We couldn’t let this opportunity go by without penning at least a few paragraphs on The Last Dragon, the low-rent fantasy/romance martial arts flick which featured DeBarge’s hit song “Rhythm of the Night.”

The song is featured prominently in one of the film’s dance club scenes (you can see scenes from the movie about forty minutes into this nearly hour-long “Take Off” episode).

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The movie was directed by Michael Schultz, who’d previously used Motown music to great effect in his 1975 film Cooley High.

Former Motown producer Norman Whitfield had even been commissioned by Shultz to produce the soundtrack for his 1976 film, Car Wash.

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Set in New York City during the 1980s, The Last Dragon‘s screenplay was written by Brooklyn-born Louis Venosta, who used elements of dance/hip-hop combined with ’70s kung fu and Blaxploitation movie plotting.

Martial arts champion, actor and stuntman Taimak Guarriello plays a martial artist from Harlem named “Leroy Green” (jokingly nicknamed “Bruce Leroy”).  One-time Prince protégé Vanity stars as his love interest, the singer “Laura Charles.”

Julius J. Carrey III plays Leroy’s nemesis, “Sho-Nuff,” the self-proclaimed “Shogun of Harlem,” who challenges Leroy to prove his kung fu skills after running into him at a matinee screening of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973).

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The Last Dragon — budgeted at around $10 million — features Berry Gordy’s name in the title ss a sign of his personal commitment to the project.

Gordy was able to secure financing and distribution with Tri-Star Productions, which was considered quite a step downwards after working with Paramount and Universal on the Motown film projects Mahogany, The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings, and The Wiz.

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The Last Dragon earned more than $25 million at the box office, and later gained renewed interest after airing on pay cable and home video releases, which helped make it a cult classic.

The soundtrack to The Last Dragon featured songs by DeBarge, Stevie Wonder, Smokey Robinson & Syreeta, Rockwell, Vanity, Charlene, Dwight David, Willie Hutch (solo and with the Temptations), and Motown’s newest artist “Alfie” (Silas).

The album peaked at #29 R&B and #59 Pop for what was Motown Productions last-ever feature film venture.

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Watch Night Flight’s Take Off to the Motown Sound on Night Flight Plus.

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.