EDITOR’S NOTE: Created by Terry Ellis, co-founder of the iconic Chrysalis Records, the Chrysalis Orchestra is an intriguing new project in which great rock compositions are performed by a live orchestra of young musicians. They’re not dressed in black and reading charts; these young virtuosos stand, move, dance, and interact with the audience. Think of it as a forty-piece rock band!
Ellis and his label took a chance on a young singer working in a low-key cabaret/wedding band scene and helped turn her into an 80s rock icon — even shopping for her first round of spandex! That singer was Pat Benatar.
To quote her hit song, “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” Pat Benatar herself is “a real tough cookie with a long history.” The Brooklyn-born, Long Island-bred performer was born Patricia Andrzejewski in 1953 in a rather staid Catholic home to working-class parents. Small in stature but infused with a feisty spirit, little Pat was the free-spirited tomboy who fought against the expectations placed upon her as a result of her petite frame and the mores of the day. As she said in a 1981 interview for the TV show 20/20, “It used to irritate me that so early in life you had already been given a thing that you had to be because you were small or a girl…I reacted with a lot of punchin’ and fightin’.”
Her beautician mom had been an amateur opera singer in her youth and strongly encouraged Pat’s instinct for singing. In fact, in high school, Pat aspired to become an opera star, receiving formal training that honed her 5-octave vocal range. She starred as the lead soprano in her high school’s performance of Camelot. Her talent was undeniable but her aspirations wavered for a time. Benatar’s lilting soprano was put on hold during a marriage to her high school sweetheart Dennis Benatar. He was a military man whose professional demands took a toll on her creative endeavors; she worked in a bank for a few years before growing weary with her life. She left Benatar (retaining his surname), and went to New York City to get back into the world of an aspiring, auditioning singer.
Pat had a lovely crystalline voice that was well-utilized in Cole Porter standards and other chanteuse material. But increasingly she came to know that her calling was rock – she wanted to use her fabulous voice for more gritty belting. In fact, she used to spend time at the beaches near her hometown, screaming at the waves in an effort to “roughen up” her vocal cords.
She was more than up to the rock task, yet her agents and advisors were dead set against it, wanting to keep her more contained. But she always knew who she was and what she wanted; the more she leaned into her tough-tender rock goddess self, the more the public began to respond. In time, Benatar became one of the great female rock superstars of the era, beginning in 1979 with her debut album In the Heat of the Night. Her breakout track was “Heartbreaker.”
This is when the iconography of Pat Benatar began to take shape: a tiny, tough 80s broad with short spiky hair, wearing a profusion of belted Spandex. But her legend ultimately comes from her powerful vocal range, take-charge charisma, and a willingness to sing about the dark side of romance that few had attempted before. She acknowledged the fragility of love without allowing herself to be destroyed or undone by it; it’s a universally relatable persona that was fresh and brave 40 years ago and still holds up today.
Best of all, Benatar’s tracks about the struggles of love yielded a great result for her and her long-time musical partner, Neil Giraldo: the two married in 1982 and remain one of rock’s favorite “power couples.”