Just who is Debbie Harry? And why should you care?

Debbie Harry

On July 1 1945, a pretty baby girl was born in Miami, Florida, and adopted at three months by Richard Smith Harry and his wife Catherine (Peters).

Deborah Ann Harry grew up in Hawthorne, New Jersey, where her adopted parents owned a gift shop. As a child, she daydreamed that Marilyn Monroe was her real mother, and at 12 began dying her hair various shades of violet until she settled on her trademark blonde.

She attended Hawthorne High School and Centenary College in Hackettstown, New Jersey, where she graduated in 1965 with an Associate of Arts degree. In the late 60s, Debbie moved to New York City and worked in a variety of roles, including a secretary at BBC Radio, a Playboy bunny and a waitress at Max’s Kansas City (“a lot of fun, fast-paced and a lot of really interesting people hung out there,” as quoted in The Chicago Tribune, October 2015).

She began her musical career as a backing singer for the folk group The Wind in the Willows, which released one self-titled album in 1968, before joining The Stilettoes with Elda Gentile and Amanda Jones. In 1973, Harry met a graduate of New York’s School of Visual Arts named Chris Stein and within a year they had formed Angel and the Snake.

Debbie and Chris Stein became romantically involved and by 1974 had christened the band ‘Blondie’ after the countless catcalls from truck drivers who would yell out the window: “Hey Blondie, give us a screw” as Debbie would pass by.

In 1975, drummer Clem Burke, bassist Gary Valentine and keyboard player Jimmy Destri had joined the group. Valentine left the band in 1977, and guitarist Frank Infante and bassist Nigel Harrison subsequently joined.

To curb the confusion surrounding the band’s name, Deborah issued a press release in 1981 stating that her name was not “Debbie Blondie” or “Debbie Harry”, but Deborah Harry. “Blondie” was a persona that she had adopted for the band – they even designed a promotional slogan stating: “Blondie is the name of the band”

Debbie’s iconic looks and individualist style would define an era. She said: “Everything was either as sexy as possible or as outrageous and funny as possible. I’d find disgusting spike heels with leopard spots and tight Capri pants, or pedal-pushers, with big plastic purses and drop earrings,”(bbc.com) Of her status as a sex symbol Harry remarked :”Being hot never hurts!” (imdb.com)

Blondie transcended genres and could not be categorised. They resisted classification, but their musical style was defined as ‘new wave’, a type of rock music inspired by punk, reggae, ska and funk. “I think it’s a Blondie tradition that all of our albums sort of have a wide spread of styles,” Harry would remark (brainyquote.com)

Blondie became a fixture at downtown clubs such as CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City and the Mercer Arts Center. “The scene was very stimulating,” Harry recalls (blondie.net). Blondie signed with the independent Private Stock label, and in 1977 released their first self-titled album. The album was produced by the legendary Richard Gottherer and was well received. After a successful spell in L.A., Blondie toured in support of Iggy Pop and David Bowie. “We set out to push as many boundaries as possible,” Debbie explained to the Belfast Telegraph in October 2015. “We were ambitious. It was important to us to be successful.”

The following year, their second album ‘Plastic Letters’ scored No. 2 in the British charts with the song ‘Denis’ but it would be their third album that was the breakthrough. Parallel Lines would sell 20 million copies worldwide and catapult Blondie into pop stardom. The album yielded ‘One Way or Another’ and ‘Heart of Glass’, which topped the US charts in 1978. During the late 70s and early 80s, Blondie would have 8 Top 40 hits, including 4 that went to number 1.

Harry wrote many of Blondies songs with Chris Stein. “I certainly wasn’t the first female singer to have an attitude and do my own thing. But there was definitely a shift around the time of punk and I was part of that shift,” Debbie Harry said in The Mail, June 2014.

With her platinum blonde hair, high cheekbones, full lips and killer sneer, Debbie Harry soon became a pop music icon. “Looks have been one of the most saleable things ever,” she told journalist Karen Davis. “When I woke up to that, mine helped a lot.” (rockhall.com) Harry became a regular at Studio 54 in New York and in June 1979, Blondie was featured on the cover of Rolling Stone.

The band continued to be successful with their following albums ‘Eat to the Beat’ (1979), which was the first video album and included the tracks ‘Dreaming’ and ‘Atomic’, and ‘Autoamerican’ (1980), which featured ‘The Tide is High’ and ‘Rapture’. In April 1980, ‘Call Me’ featured in the movie American Gigolo and topped the US charts. Harry also endorsed Gloria Vanderbilt designer jeans, which upped her celebrity status. That year, during a tour with Blondie, Debbie hosted a tea party at a London hotel and gathered prominent women in music together, such as Chrissie Hynde and Siouxsie Sioux, for a “celebration”.

In 1981, Debbie made the ‘10 Most Beautiful Women in America’ list in Harper’s Bazaar and made her solo debut with Koo-Koo, which was produced by Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards of Chic.

Blondie released ‘The Hunter’ in 1982 to mixed reviews and, coupled with diminishing record sales and internal struggles, the band split up. Around this time, Chris Stein contracted a rare autoimmune disease called Pemphigus and Harry spent the next five years caring for him. Stein made a full recovery, but the couple amicably split up. In 1986, Harry returned with the critically acclaimed ‘Rockbird’ and the Chuck Lorre-penned ‘French Kissin’’.

Debbie increasingly focused on her acting career, going by ‘Deborah Harry’. She appeared in ‘Union City’ (1980) and David Cronenberg’s cult horror ‘Videodrome’ (1983,) and in 1985 she appeared in the John Waters musical drama ‘Hairspray’ and an episode of ‘Wiseguy’ (1989) on CBS. Her prolific acting resume includes appearances in ‘Roadie’ (1980), ‘Forever Lulu’ (1985), ‘Tales from the Darkside: The Movie’ (1990), ‘Intimate Stranger’ (1991), ‘Heavy’ (1995), ‘Copland’ (1996), ‘Spun’ (2002) and ‘My Life Without Me’ (2003). She was also up for roles in movies ‘Raging Bull’ (1980) and ‘TRON’ (1982), and was also the original choice for Pris in ‘Blade Runner’ (1982) before Daryl Hannah was cast. Her television work includes roles in ‘Will and Grace’, ‘Sabrina the Teenage Witch’, ‘Absolutely Fabulous’ and ‘The Adventures of Pete and Pete’.

In 1989, Debbie released ‘Def Dumb’, which yielded the hit single ‘I Want That Man’ (1989), and ‘Debravation’ in 1993. She continued to collaborate with major recording artists and from 1994 to 1997 was lead vocalist with avant-garde New York troupe The Jazz Passengers. In 1997, Harry was reunited with her Blondie band mates and toured Europe and in 1999 their first album in over fifteen years was released. No Exit and yielded the song “Maria” (1999) which topped the British charts. Also that year, Harry was listed as 12th on VH1’s 100 Greatest Women of Rock and Roll. In 2003, the group released their eighth studio album titled The Curse of Blondie and, although it failed to lived up to the success of earlier albums, the band remained as influential as ever.

In 2006, Blondie were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and would continue to record and tour successfully. “Making new music is really, really important to us,” Debbie stated. “When we first got back together, one of the stipulations I had was that we had to move ahead and do new music, and not just play our greatest hits” (blondie.net). Also that year, Harry appeared in the theatrical dance production ‘The Show (Achilles Heels)’ and the indie movie ‘Full Grown Men’ (2006).

Harry released the solo album ‘Necessary Evil’ in 1997 and joined Cyndi Lauper’s ‘True Colors’ tour with Erasure for the Human Rights Campaign. “How can one be a woman and not be a feminist? That’s my question,” Debbie has commented (nikkimmascali.wordpress.com) In 2014, Debbie told the Mail she was bisexual, in spite of her long relationship with Stein. Also that year, Blondie released their 10th studio album ‘Ghosts of Download’ and in 2015, Harry and fellow Blondie member Chris Stein made a guest appearance alongside The Gregory Brothers in an episode of ‘Songify the News’. In March 2015, Harry started a residency of several weeks at the Café Carlyle in New York.

Debbie Harry is one of popular music’s most enduring icons. Together with Blondie, she captured the zeitgeist of the late 70s and 80s, becoming one of the most influential female artists of all time. A restless creative spirit who has followed her own idiosyncratic path, Debbie Harry has consistently broken new ground and has always been relevant.

“I want to entertain people, but I also want to make things challenging and thought-provoking,” she concludes. “That’s what we’ve always done, I think. In some ways, that’s more of a challenge, because the audience is more sophisticated and because what was alternative is now mainstream. But it’s important to me” (www.blondie.net).

When asked by Popjustice what it would take to stop her making music, Debbie Harry replied: “Oh, let me think… Well, I don’t think there’s anything that would make me want to stop it.” (popjustice.com)

Words: Alex Karas
Image: Tracy Ryan

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