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Deborah Harry

Deborah Harry

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Also Known As: Debbie Harry,Deborah Ann Harry Died:
Born: July 1, 1945 Cause of Death:
Birth Place: Miami, Florida, USA Profession: Music ... actor singer <i>Playboy</i> Bunny songwriter beautician
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BIOGRAPHY

A pioneering figure in the development of women's roles in rock-n-roll, Debbie Harry was the visually and vocally striking singer for the punk-New Wave group Blondie, which rose to fame in the late 1970s and early 1980s with such sonically adventurous tunes as "Heart of Glass," "Hanging on the Telephone," "The Tide Is High," "Rapture" and many others. With longtime creative partner Chris Stein, Harry helped to explode the idea of a woman fronting an all-male band as a "cute" curiosity by virtue of her formidable vocals, smart and occasionally controversial lyrics, and icy stage presence. Blondie struck gold in the early '80s with experiments in dance, funk, rap and reggae, but sea changes in musical tastes and Stein's debilitating illness brought the band to a close by 1982. From then on, Harry worked primarily as an actress in films like "Videodrome" (1983) and "Hairspray" (1988) while releasing sporadic solo efforts before Blondie reunited in 1997. Her status as a powerful female foot soldier in the creation of punk rock, as well as the singer of some of the best pop music of the 1980s, preserved Debbie Harry's status as one of rock's best-loved singers.

Born July 1, 1945 in Miami, FL, Deborah Ann Harry was adopted by store proprietors Richard Smith and Catherine Harry, who raised her in suburban New Jersey. After graduating from Centenary College with an arts degree, she moved to New York City in the late 1960s, where she worked a variety of jobs, including as a secretary for BBC Radio. She made her singing debut with the folk rock group The Wind in the Willows, which released one unheralded album for Capitol Records in 1968. The band dissolved after the album flopped, and for a period, Harry worked as a Playboy Bunny. She soon landed work as a waitress at Max's Kansas City, the famed Manhattan club that counted Andy Warhol and William S. Burroughs among its habitu├ęs. Max's was also ground zero for the growing glam and punk scenes, having hosted performances by the Velvet Underground and the New York Dolls, among many other acts.

In 1973, she met Chris Stein, with whom she forged a long-running personal and professional relationship. At the time, she was performing as part of an all-female group called The Stilettos, but soon left to form Angel & The Snake with Stein. After a lengthy period of personnel turnover, the band settled into a lineup that featured Harry on vocals and Stein on guitar, who was joined by drummer Clem Burke, keyboard player Jimmy Destri and bassist Gary Valentine. In 1975, the group renamed themselves Blondie, which was inspired by the nickname bestowed upon Harry by passersby hoping to catch her attention, and not, as it was often assumed, by her own platinum locks. Blondie soon became a fixture on the New York punk scene, generating critical interest by the band's musical blend of '60s pop and chilly '70s downtown rock. For many, Harry's onstage persona and voice were the group's key attraction; a strikingly attractive woman with universally discussed messy hair, Harry toyed with accepted notions of how a "girl singer" should act by assuming a variety of identities - from icy pop queen to self-aware, girl-group bombshell and aggressive, self-confident punk. The band's early songs, primarily written by Harry with Stein and Destri or Valentine, reflected their deconstruction of pop music through subject matter ranging from illicit romance ("X-Offender," which concerned a prostitute's love for her arresting officer) to cartoonish violence ("Rip Her to Shreds").

By the late '70s and early '80s, Harry and Blondie began to experiment with a variety of sounds, from the straight-ahead rock of "Hanging On the Telephone" and "One Way or Another" to disco with "Heart of Glass," electronic pop with "Call Me" from the soundtrack for "American Gigolo" (1979), reggae with "The Tide Is High," and even proto-hip-hop with the controversial "Rapture," the first chart-topping song to include rap elements. Blondie soon vaulted from punk favorites to rock superstars, scoring four No. 1 hits on the Billboard singles charts with "Heart of Glass," "Call Me," "The Tide is High" and "Rapture." The band took a break in 1980, during which Harry recorded a solo album, Koo Koo. Released in 1981, the record blended the disco-R&B sounds of producers Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards with elements of funk and dance music. Fans of Blondie who had discovered the group during its hit-making phase found the album difficult to grasp, and it only reached No. 28 on the U.S. charts.

The bloom was off the rose for Blondie when Harry reunited with the group for 1982's The Hunter. Fan response was tepid, and during a North American tour to support the record, Stein became seriously ill. He was diagnosed with pemphigus, a rare autoimmune disease that affected the skin. Blondie soon called it quits as a band, and Harry would abandon her music career for the next five years to nurse Stein back to health. During this period, she found work as an actress, primarily in offbeat, independent projects like "Downtown 81" (1980), an urban fairytale featuring such fixtures of the Manhattan underground scene as artist Jean-Michel Basquiat and hip-hop pioneer Fab Five Freddy, whom Harry mentioned in "Rapture." An arresting turn as a sadomasochistic psychiatrist in David Cronenberg's disturbing "Videodrome" (1983) boosted her screen profile, but she returned to music in 1986 for her second solo album, Rockbird. Save for a minor hit with "French Kissing in the U.S.A.," a lightweight dance number penned by future "Two and a Half Men" (CBS, 2003- ) creator Chuck Lorre, the album made little impact on the charts.

Harry soon returned to acting where, billed as Deborah Harry, she scored some of her biggest hits, including the scheming Velma Von Tussle in John Waters' "Hairspray" (1988) and a bit part in Martin Scorsese's contribution to the anthology film "New York Stories" (1989). Her third solo album, Def, Dumb and Blonde (1989) was also released during this period, where it became a Top 20 hit in the U.K. but found few admirers in the States. Frequent tours with Stein and a brace of Blondie compilations kept Harry in the public eye, allowing her to pursue her solo career as well as vocalist duty with the avant-garde jazz group The Jazz Passengers, with whom she recorded albums in 1994 and 1997. By the end of the '90s, she was also enjoying critical acclaim as a character actress, playing a hard-bitten waitress and a tough bartender in James Mangold's "Heavy" (1996) and "Cop Land" (1997), respectively, as well as an unsettling turn as the possessive mother of a hitman in training (Norman Reedus) in "Six Ways to Sunday" (1997).

In 1998, Harry and Stein reunited with Destri and Burke for No Exit, their first album of original material in 17 years. Buoyed by its lead single, "Maria," the album reached No. 18 on the U.S. album charts and spawned successful tours of America and the U.K. A follow-up was planned in 2001, but the master tapes were lost in the air transportation nightmare that followed in the wake of 9/11. The Curse of Blondie finally saw a release in 2003, though it failed to make much of an impact on the charts. In 2006, Blondie's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame was upended by an ugly row between the original members and two former players, Frank Infante and Nigel Harrison, who took to the stage to protest their exclusion. In 2007, Harry released her fifth solo album, Necessary Evil, which broke the Top 40 on the Billboard Independent album chart. She promoted the record while performing with Cyndi Lauper's True Colors Tour, which benefited the Human Rights Campaign. The following year, she returned to the Blondie fold for a world tour to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their album Parallel Lines. The success of the jaunt inspired the band to record Panic of Girls, which eventually saw release in 2011.

By Paul Gaita

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