So powerful is the legend of New Wave rock goddess Debbie Harry that she is often mistakenly called “Blondie,” the name of the band she co-created with her boyfriend Chris Stein. The trailblazing musicians (including founding members Clem Burke and Jimmy Destri) all had fine chops that took the punk/New Wave genre, glammed it up, filled it with polish, and brought it to the masses. But there can be no doubt that lead singer Harry is the face of the band: an icy beauty with two-toned platinum hair, piercing bedroom eyes, ineffable charisma, and a streetwise presence. She possesses a mystical voice that can handle high registers and deep altos with equal confidence.
Deborah Ann Harry was born Angela Trimble in 1945 in Miami, Florida. Adopted at the age of three months by her parents Richard and Catherine Harry, she spent her formative years in Hawthorne, New Jersey. Her childhood had a lot of the hallmarks of post-war, small-town America; playing in the woods, captivated by radio and books, up for a little harmless trouble. A child with a dreamy imagination, she was always trying to conjure up her own path. She explains in her memoir Face It, “I was still trying to discover who I was but I knew [in high school] that I wanted to be some kind of artist or bohemian.”
She always possessed unique style and fashion sense, rejiggering pieces of different garments to make something fresh and original, squirreling away makeup to magnify her natural beauty, leaning away from the preppy school-girl duds her mom wanted her in.
After college, she was well-placed to take on various jobs in and around New York City as she began to pursue creative opportunities. She was a secretary at the BBC, danced at a New Jersey disco, and worked as a Playboy Bunny. In the late ‘60s, she became a backup singer for a folk band called The Wind in the Willows, then joined the band The Stilettoes in 1974 where she met guitarist and her long-time partner Chris Stein. They had a brief band called Angel and the Snake before forming Blondie.
Blondie had a gritty, streetwise approach that made them popular at the punk venues of the day, CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City. They enjoyed modest success for a time, releasing two albums as Harry continued to hone her performing style. She utilized her beauty and sexuality with a compelling combination of humor and ironic detachment as she delivered songs often written by her male bandmates from their testosterone-y perspective, making them favorites of the LGBTQ community from their earliest days. They represented a kind of gender fluidity and acceptance rare for that era.
It was not until they signed with Chrysalis Records in 1977 that they began their ascent from popular underground band to worldwide success. Their 1978 album Parallel Lines became a global hit and charted at #1 in the United States. The track “Heart of Glass” became (and remains) a definitive New Wave standard. The danceable beat and innovative electronica aided and abetted lyrics that were arcane and clever. And always, there was Debbie Harry at the helm with her unparalleled presentation.
While Blondie was a classic punk band, Harry still managed to be stylish. She wore clothing by designer Steven Sprouse and managed to put his fashions in a punk context, an extraordinary sartorial feat.
By the time Blondie had achieved their superstardom, Harry handled her new celebrity with humor and nuance. Having knocked around the music industry for several years and being in her early thirties, she was a grown-up who knew and appreciated that she’d been given a pretty big shot. Debbie and her bandmates were determined to not let the “purity tests” of her punk counterparts derail commercial success.
Now in her mid-70s, she’s still performing, thrilling audiences while remaining witty and perpetually relevant. An impressive triumph for a small-town girl with big-city dreams.
Photo: Debbie Harry (Getty Images)