Reddy, Helen (1942—)

views updated

Reddy, Helen (1942—)

Australian-born singer and actress whose song "I Am Woman" became the anthem of the 1970s feminist movement. Born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1942; married second husband Jeff Wald (divorced 1982); married Milton Ruth, in 1983 (divorced 1996); children: (first marriage) daughter Traci; (second marriage) son Jordan.

Helen Reddy's song "I Am Woman," with the lyrics "I am woman, hear me roar, in numbers too big to ignore," became the anthem of the American feminist movement of the 1970s, and its title a cultural catchphrase so resonant it remains instantly recognizable and still powerful enough, over 30 years later, to evoke ridicule by no small number of people. Reddy herself remained indelibly linked with the song in the public mind, even as she continued to produce hit songs in the 1970s and then became an actress and a nightclub and concert singer.

Reddy was born in Australia in 1942 into a family of performers, making her professional debut on her parents' radio show at age two, when her parents held her up to the microphone. After her dreams of becoming a dancer had to be shelved due to a kidney operation, she decided to become a singer. The rock 'n' roll boom occurring in America in the 1950s did not reach isolated Australia, and Reddy's favorite music was jazz. Only in 1958, when her parents returned from a trip to the U.S. bringing her a gift of the top singles—all 40 of them—did she hear the new genre of music. Chief among the performers on her acquisitions were Chuck Berry and Ray Charles, and Reddy was intrigued. By the 1960s, she had moved on to pop, which she considered "a nice middle ground" between jazz and rock. Now in her early 20s, she had a twice-weekly radio show on the Australian Broadcasting Commission, "Helen Reddy Sings." Despite her success, she longed for more.

In 1966, Reddy entered and won a "Band-stand International" singing contest, the advertised

first prize of which was a trip to New York and a recording contract with Mercury Records. In an early hint of trouble, she had to badger company officials for four months to receive her plane ticket. Finally, ticket in hand, she sold her furniture, bought another ticket for her three-year-old daughter (she had been married and divorced), and left Australia with no intention of returning. The promise of a record deal proved to be a sham, as she found when she met with Mercury Records. "I said," Reddy later recalled, "'What's happening about the record deal?' And he said, 'Oh, well, the prize was for an audition, and they sent us a tape, and you sing very nicely, dear, but we were really hoping for a male group; do give us a call before you go back to Australia, and have a nice time while you're here.'" Undaunted, Reddy stayed in New York without a green card, making occasional careful trips to Canada to sing for low pay, and scraped together a living for herself and her daughter while waiting for her big break.

During this precarious financial time, Reddy met Jeff Wald, an agent at the William Morris Agency (his clients included comedian George Carlin and singer Tiny Tim) who would become her husband and manager. They moved to Chicago, where Reddy found work in a theater revue. In 1968, they moved to Los Angeles, but even there, in one of the top music centers in the country, her career remained stalled.

Reddy got her break in 1970 when she landed a spot on "The Tonight Show," which opened doors to a one-single contract with Capitol Records. Under pressure to produce a hit, Reddy chose a song she liked for the A-side of the single, and without much enthusiasm agreed to record "I Don't Know How to Love Him," a song sung by the character of Mary Magdalene in the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar that had already been recorded by several artists, for the B-side. ("They said to me if it's on the B-side, it doesn't matter. No one listens to the B-side.") When the tapes from the recording session were played, however, all agreed that the B-side song should be on the A-side, and upon its release in 1971, "I Don't Know How to Love Him" went to #13 on the charts. This was enough to secure her a contract for a full album, and that same year Reddy recorded two of them, I Don't Know How to Love Him and Helen Reddy. However, none of the singles from the albums made the Top 40 chart.

Prior to recording the albums, Reddy had become involved in the growing feminist movement. "When the women's movement, as we called it, first started to happen, it was like I'd come home," she once said. "At long last, there were other people who felt the way I did, that women should be valued." She wanted to include a song about the feminist movement on her first album, but in casting around found nothing that fit the bill. "I finally realized that I was going to have to write the song myself because it simply didn't exist. And that was the genesis of 'I Am Woman.' It was my statement as a feminist." She co-wrote the song (with only two verses) with Ray Burton, and included it on the I Don't Know How to Love Him album. "I Am Woman," like the other songs on the album, languished without radio play for over a year, until makers of a feminist documentary, Stand Up and Be Counted, requested permission to include the song in their film. Seizing the opportunity, Capitol Records agreed and decided to release the song as a single. Reddy wrote a third verse to make it fit the single format and recorded the song again. Radio stations were not quick to embrace the song, but individual women were. To circumvent the lack of airplay, Reddy sang "I Am Woman" on 19 television variety shows. Women started calling radio stations to request the song, and soon it hit #1 on the charts. That same week, Reddy's second child, son Jordan, was born.

Critical reaction to the song was harsh, perhaps all the more so because "issue" songs of the era were typically rough performances by folk or rock musicians, not lushly orchestrated songs by pop singers. One of the (mostly male) critics called Reddy "a purveyor of all that is silly in the women's lib movement." She nonetheless won a Grammy award for Best Contemporary Female Pop Vocal Performance for "I Am Woman," and caused even more controversy when in her acceptance speech she thanked God "because She makes everything possible." Angry letters poured in. Defending herself in an interview, Reddy said, "I knew any feminist would understand what I was saying; it seemed like the only thing I could say that summed it up." While attacked as a blasphemous feminist by some, she was also criticized for not being enough of a feminist by those who saw her popularity as an obstacle to her political correctness. Despite all the brouhaha, in 1975 the United Nations declared "I Am Woman" the theme song of its International Year of the Woman.

Reddy, meanwhile, was on a roll. Between 1972 and 1976, she released seven albums that made the Top 20, and had two more #1 hits, the narrative songs "Delta Dawn" (about a pitiable insane woman) and "Angie Baby" (about a powerful insane woman). In addition, "Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress)," "You and Me Against the World," and "Ain't No Way to Treat a Lady" made the Top 10. In 1973, Reddy hosted the premier show of the television rock music variety program "The Midnight Special," and became its regular host in 1975.

As her music dropped off the charts in the later 1970s, Reddy began acting, and made her film debut in 1977, in the Walt Disney feature Pete's Dragon. She also began performing cabaret-style concerts in nightclubs, and was one of the first to include songs by Simon and Garfunkel in an act intended for non-rock 'n' roll audiences. She has made numerous television specials and had guest spots on various television series. Reddy has also appeared frequently on stage, in revivals of Call Me Madame and Anything Goes, among others, as well as starring roles in both the West End and Broadway productions of Shirley Valentine and Blood Brothers. While she no longer records, she continues to give live concerts, on occasion backed by symphony orchestras or jazz groups. Reddy lives in California, where she served as the state commissioner of parks and recreation for three years.


The Boston Globe. March 21, 1997, pp. C3–C4.

Gaar, Gillian G. She's A Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll. Seal Press, 1992.

People Weekly. June 17, 1996, p. 59.

Roxon, Lilian. Rock Encyclopedia. NY: Workman, 1969.

Jacqueline Mitchell , freelance writer, Detroit, Michigan