As frontwoman of Blondie, Debbie Harry has been a pop-culture fixture for nearly half a century. The new wave pioneers and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductees have released 11 studio albums to date, and have sold an estimated 40 million albums worldwide, according to Sony. They have also earned four career Billboard Hot 100 No. 1s: “Heart of Glass,” “Call Me,” “The Tide is High” and “Rapture.”
“As soon as I heard Deborah singing a rough version of ‘Call Me,’ I knew we had a hit,” says Giorgio Moroder, who co-wrote and produced Blondie’s biggest hit alongside Harry for the Paul Schrader film American Gigolo. The song ruled the Hot 100 for six weeks beginning in April 1980, and finished the year as the No. 1 single of the year in Billboard’s year-end issue, ahead of Pink Floyd‘s “Another Brick in the Wall (Part II),” Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic” and Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You.” The following year, the track earned Blondie nods at the Grammy Awards and Golden Globes, for best rock performance by a duo or group with vocal and best original song, respectively.
In 2019, Harry released her memoir, Face It, where she chronicled the group’s early days in New York City and becoming fixtures at iconic punk club CBGBs, where they performed alongside David Bowie, the Ramones, Television, Talking Heads, Iggy Pop and many others.
Below, Harry recalls the hit’s unexpected rise 40 years ago.
The Billboard Hot 100 was the bottom line for the industry at a time when labels ruled. Airplay was the main goal for a commercial band, and the charts favored a blues-rock sound [at the time]. We had come out of a club scene, but tastes were slowly changing. At that time, people were experimenting with the idea of a ‘crossover’ and using different musical influences, in a way that’s considered normal and done very casually today.
When “Call Me” hit No. 1 in April 1980, we were on the road. I was doing a lot of promo, going out to radio stations, and we did a lot of appearances and performances of that song, which was really exciting and fabulous. They were giving out a lot of gold 45s and LPs at that time, and I remember speaking with Giorgio [Moroder] who was very enthusiastic and jumping for joy. He had so many hits by then, but this one was important for him, being in the film industry as well.
I first saw the rough cut of American Gigolo at the Pierre Hotel with Paul [Schrader]. I had the music and Giorgio had written a lyric from his perspective which was called “Man Machine” and was about being very masculine and sexual but treated like a mechanical robot kind of sex toy. He wasn’t married to it and suggested I write something else. He’s full of energy and great to work with. I did another song with Giorgio later for Scarface [“Rush Rush”] but I didn’t get to see the film in advance and that was a mistake. For a writer like me, I have a very strong visual sense and it made a huge difference.
After we saw the rough cut, we were walking across 59th Street at the bottom of Central Park and the visuals were fresh in my mind. I wrote the lyrics really quickly. The colors had a really strong effect on me, and that’s the first line of the song. [“Color me your color baby / Color me your car.”] Later I found out from Giorgio that the film was fashion designer Armani’s big break as well. You know that palette of color throughout the film, those beautiful greys, blues and browns, it was so beautifully done.
To spend six weeks at No. 1 was a complete amplification of everything we had achieved outside of the United States. We didn’t expect it, but it legitimized us in this country and made people realize that we were adventurous and had a vision that could transcend the styles of the day. We embraced the punk attitude — we were happy but belligerent at the same time. I hear bits and pieces of “Call Me” in other people’s songs even today, not direct copies of it, but similarities. Music either works or it doesn’t work. It was the right place, right time, right sound. It all just sort of fell into place. What could be better? What more could you ask for, really?