Famed gospel singer Etterlene "Mama" DeBarge dead at age 88

 February 17, 2024

Famed gospel singer Etterlene DeBarge, the "matriarch" of the DeBarge R&B and Soul group that was popular in the 1970s and 80s, passed away Friday morning at the age of 88, according to TMZ.

Though no cause of death has been revealed yet, the outlet indicated that its sources said she'd been battling dementia and other unspecified illnesses for several years.

"She's in a better place"

The sad news was first announced and later confirmed by DeBarge's daughter, Etterlene "Bunny" DeBarge, who said in an Instagram post, "Momma has gone to see her king! Mom died in Woodland Hill in California at 7:40AM this morning (Friday, February 16th) Pacific time. She died peacefully in her sleep at 88 years old."

Bunny also shared the news on her Facebook page in a series of posts over the past few days, several of which were prayerful and clearly posted before her mother died but culminated with one that stated, "My mom is gone!!! She's in a better place!!"

A message was also posted to the elder Etterlene's Facebook page along with a video of her singing her gospel hit "Walk Around Heaven."

"Our hearts ache as we share the news of the passing of our dear Mama DeBarge, Etterlene DeBarge," the post said. "Her warm smile, wise words, and nurturing spirit have left an indelible mark on all of us. Let's cherish the memories we shared with Mama and carry forward the love she so effortlessly bestowed upon us. Rest peacefully, Mama DeBarge. Your light will forever shine in our hearts."

Raised a famous musical family

Soul Tracks reported that Etterlene "Mama" DeBarge was born as one of 12 children in Royal Oak, Michigan, but was raised in a "notorious" housing project in Detroit before she met her husband, Robert DeBarge, with whom she had 10 children -- Bunny, Tommy, Bobby, Randy, Marty, Eldra, James, Chico, Peaches, and Young.

The DeBarge family later moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where in 1974 the mother divorced the "volatile" and "violent" father and proceeded to raise their children on her own, instilling in them her love of music and faith in God that had sustained her through the difficult times.

Etterlene's progeny would go on to form two musical groups with her approval and support, the famed DeBarge family group as well as the less well-known group Switch.

Chronicled her life's struggles in a 2014 memoir

According to TMZ, the DeBarge family group was popular in Motown from 1979 through 1989 and won multiple Grammy Awards before breaking up for a variety of reasons, including solo careers pursued by Bunny El DeBarge.

Following her 1974 divorce from Robert, Etterlene later married George Rodriguez in 1980, with whom she remained wed until her death, and also later wrote a book about the adversity and struggles she'd faced throughout her life that was titled "Other Side of the Pain," which she published in 2014.

That pain undoubtedly included the 1995 death of her son Robert Jr. -- she later lost her son Tommy in 2021 -- as well as the "drug addictions and imprisonments of her talented, but sometimes troubled children" that she witnessed, per Soul Tracks.

A "strong woman of faith" whose "legacy" will carry on through her children

Soul Tracks highlighted the fact that Etterlene DeBarge was a "strong woman of faith," as evidenced by the gospel albums she released over the decades, and concluded, "A mother of great faith who bore such trials with dignity, we can’t help but believe that she is now receiving a heavenly reward for her extraordinary life."

TMZ noted that Mama DeBarge is survived by her husband George, her remaining eight children, along with several grandchildren, and observed that "her legacy and impact in music lives on" through her family.

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