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19th February 1980

Debbie Harry – female vocalist of the year

Written by: David Fricke

Do blondes have more fans? Probably, because Deborah Harry, the sunshine-coiffed chanteuse with chart-topping New York pop-punk band Blondie, danced away with the Best Female Vocalist prize in the 1979 Circus/Shure Music Poll over the dark-tressed likes of Heart’s Ann Wilson, Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks (a light-brown shag streaked with white doesn’t qualify as blonde), Linda Ronstadt, and disco goddess Donna Summer.
But her placing first represents a more satisfying victory to Harry, 34, who once complained to Circus Magazine that “a guy in rock & roll – a man or boy – can be considered an artist more easily than a girl could ever be.” For once, Debbie Harry – a Miami-born, New Jersey-raised photographer’s dream with seductively kittenish features and a wide ruby-lipped smile that’s warmed many a punk-rock heart – has been recognized for her hard-working pipes and the important part they play in Blondie’s future-pop sound.
And Blondie is a group – Harry, drummer Clement Burke, guitarists Chris Stein (Harry’s live-in love) and Frank Infante, keysman Jimmy Destri, and bass guitarist Nigel Harrison. Together in present form since 1977 when (minus Harrison) they recorded their second album Plastic Letters, they have since gone on to strike a platinum fortune with Parallel Lines and its rock-disco signature song “Heart of Glass” and then refine their neo-new wave application of ’60s pop conceits, urban chic, and Kraftwerkian cool on Eat to the Beat (Chrysalis).
Yet just as the Blondie boys are not a mere back-up band, Debbie is not just a warbling punk pin-up. A singer since her grammar-school days in Hawthorne, New Jersey, she contributed high cosmic harmonies in a folkie group called Wind in the Willows after moving to New York City in the late ’60s. Several undistinguished gigs as a barmaid at Max’s Kansas City and Playboy Bunny later, Debbie joined a glitter-rock revue called the Stilettoes, where she met Stein who later joined as guitarist.
Together they came up with the idea of Blondie, a group that would make hit pop records with punked-up energy and a vocal style drawn from Debbie’s own love of the girl group sounds of the Ronettes and Shirelles. At the time of “Heart of Glass,” that idea seemed tailor-made for America’s new wave hungry crowd. But in 1974, Harry and Stein were just five years ahead of their time.
Five years later, Debbie Harry’s voice and provocative physical presence in rock has affected more than just record sales. Amid the flood of Blondie fan mail are letters from females asking Debbie how to break into the music business and not let it break you. Her answer is simple. “I just tell them to practice at it, become good at what they do, the way I did it. You have to really want it. And I wanted it.”
She wanted it so bad that she endured the sexploitation of early record company promotion efforts (including an undeservedly sleazy poster of her in a see-through blouse – not exactly enlightened advertising) and verbal harpooning by critics who then accused her of selling her sex to sell records. The simple truth, as Clem Burke tells it, is that “we’re a rock & roll band with a great lead singer.”
There is, however, more than a little truth to the fact that as a female singer several styles apart from the bluesed-out mama of Janis Joplin and the psychic penetration of a Grace Slick, Debbie Harry has set a fashionable model for others, and not just women, to follow.
Burke relates one incident during Blondie’s first full-scale tour of the U.S. with Iggy Pop in ’77. David Bowie – who was playing keyboards in the Ig’s band – “would watch us play from the side of the stage and stare at Debbie. We used to tell Bowie to comb his hair down in little bangs, like Debbie, and this was at a time when his hair was swept back in that pompadour look. Then one night he came to the side of the stage waiting to go on, and his hair was in these little bangs.”
But, according to Clem, he didn’t even credit Debbie. “He said, ‘This is my Tom Verlaine look. How do you like it?'”

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