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Deborah Wesoff Lopez's music career got off to a brilliant start.
As Debbie Deb, her first single, "When I Hear Music," recorded with Miami electro legend "Pretty" Tony Butler when she was just 17, helped define the aesthetic of the burgeoning freestyle genre in the mid-'80s. And her dreamy 1985 followup, "Lookout Weekend," became a seminal dance anthem.
But just as quickly as she made her name, it was snatched from her. Concerned about Debbie's weight and image, her label Jam Packed (an alias of infamous Miami-based company Music Specialists, funded and run by Sherman Nealy, a well-known Miami drug dealer) hired stand-ins to perform her twin hits.
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Another "Debbie Deb" was even recruited to record subsequent singles. "They didn't want a heavy girl. They wanted a Madonna type," she recalls. "There was no picture of me, so nobody knew the difference."
Crushed by the experience, the real Debbie Deb ditched music, became a hairstylist, got married, and left Miami for Pennsylvania. But thanks to a resurgence of interest in her music (Janet Jackson, the Black Eyed Peas, and Jason Mraz have covered "Lookout Weekend" in recent years) and freestyle in general, the genuine article, now in her late 40s and performing regularly, has been able to claim her place as one of the oft-forgotten, teen-driven dance genre's original queens. "It's funny how things change," she says. "I'm so busy now, and I'm still heavy. It's more accepted now."
Back in 1984, though, Debbie was a North Miami Beach High School senior when Butler, already renowned for electro singles such as "Fix It in the Mix," introduced himself at her job at Peaches Records on 163rd Street. "When I Hear Music" was recorded the next day. "To me, it was just a fun thing to do," she says. "I was never looking to be a singer. My own family didn't even know I sang."
Debbie admits she was ill prepared at the time for a music career. "I had no training. I didn't know how to perform for people," she says. "And they saw that, obviously. The voice was good for them, but the rest of the package wasn't."
The singer says she co-wrote "When I Hear Music" and "Lookout Weekend" with Butler but received only $100 for each at the time. Later she sued, successfully, for a small share of the profits. "I had enough to buy a car," she says. "I was still young and I was happy with that, and I was done with it."
A decade after "When I Hear Music," Bo Crane of Miami label Pandisc tracked her down at an Aventura hair salon. The result, the 1995 album She's Back, was too late to capitalize on the freestyle fad (the style peaked in the late '80s and faded by '92), but it gave the genre's die-hard fans a face to match with the voice. "And ever since then, every year I do more and more shows," she says proudly.
Often, the performances are package bills with other freestyle singers such as Stevie B (with whom she plays Magic City Casino this weekend), Exposé, and fellow Pretty Tony muses Connie and Trinere. These same artists, who competed for airplay as teens, have developed a tight bond since being summarily discarded by labels and radio when rap and house took over in the '90s.
"We got lost somewhere in the industry, not knowing what to even call it," she says of the freestyle sound, typified by up-tempo electronic beats in the mold of Afrika Bambaataa's "Planet Rock" and vocals dealing with themes of heartbreak and dancing. "We all get along almost like brothers and sisters."
And these days, though weight may still be an issue for Debbie Deb, confidence certainly is not.
"When I do a show, I try to sing to everybody individually [and] make everybody feel like I'm their friend," she says. "I'm very close with the crowd. I'm kind of known for that now."