Helen Reddy shocked audiences in 1973 as she accepted her Grammy Award for Best Female Vocal Pop Performance and thanked God “because She makes everything possible.” The trophy, of course, was for “I Am Woman,” and it was the acceptance speech heard ’round the world. Helen Reddy had roared. News broke last evening that the Australian-born singer died at the age of 78, but not before she witnessed her classic anthem take on renewed meaning in modern-day America and around the globe.
Entertainment was in Helen’s blood. Her mother Stella Lamond was an actress, singer, and dancer; her father Maxwell Reddy was a writer, producer, and actor. (The family business continues still, as her half-sister Toni Lamond and nephew Tony Sheldon are both stage stars.) By age four, she was appearing on the Australian vaudeville circuit but as she approached her teenage years, second thoughts crept in. “It was instilled in me: You will be a star,” Reddy remembered. “So, between the ages of 12 and 17, I got rebellious and decided this was not for me. I was going to be a housewife and mother.” But when her marriage didn’t work out and she found herself a single mother, she realized that music would put food on the table. She relocated to the United States, paying her dues at small venues and earning a contract with Fontana in 1968. Her first single, “One Way Ticket,” failed to chart in America but made some noise in her native Australia.
Even as she enrolled in college to pursue academia and presumably a steadier paycheck, she didn’t lose sight of her dreams. Remarried to music manager Jeff Wald, she was signed to Capitol Records. The venerable label took a chance on her for a one-off single pairing Mac Davis’ “I Believe in Music” (which the singer-songwriter had introduced in 1970; it became a hit for the group Gallery in 1972) with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s ballad “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from their rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. DJs didn’t take to “I Believe in Music,” but they did cotton to the B-side. They flipped the record, and in March 1971, it entered the Pop charts. By that point, MCA had already issued the Superstar original by Yvonne Elliman, but Reddy’s version prevailed with a No. 13 peak to Elliman’s No. 28. Once again proud of its favorite daughter, Australia made the single a No. 2 smash.
But it was Reddy’s own song that sealed her stardom and inspired a generation or more of women. “I Am Woman” was her defiant and powerful answer to songs in the mold of “I Feel Pretty” or the Sandy Posey hit “Born a Woman,” neither of which reflected her views. She thought back to the struggles the women in her family had experienced and overcome, and reflected on the objectification of women she had witnessed in her vaudeville days. Reddy felt that the lyrics had come to her via divine inspiration, and once composer Ray Burton set them to music, an anthem was born. “I Am Woman” was initially recorded on her I Don’t Know How to Love Him album and also included on the soundtrack to Stand Up and Be Counted, a lightweight, big-screen comedy about women’s liberation starring Jacqueline Bisset, Stella Stevens, Loretta Swit, and fellow singer Steve Lawrence.
Capitol implored Reddy to re-record “I Am Woman” as a single should the film succeed. Her single re-recording, featuring members of The Section and The Wrecking Crew, soon eclipsed any memory of the forgettable movie. It was released in May 1972 and before the year was out, it had reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 after a long climb. It was Capitol’s first No. 1 since Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billie Joe,” the first No. 1 by an Australian artist, and the first Grammy winner by an Australian writer(s). But its impact was, indeed, greater. “I Am Women” dovetailed with the birth of the magazine Ms., and was adopted by the women’s liberation movement and its leading activists. Its words were both personal and universal, and threw down the gauntlet in their demand for equality. When Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away earlier this month, numerous articles written about her life as a champion of women’s rights were titled or otherwise referred to “I Am Woman.”
Helen Reddy went on to have other notable hits, including Alex Harvey’s “Delta Dawn,” Linda Laurie’s “Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress),” Paul Williams and Kenny Ascher’s “You and Me Against the World,” Alan O’Day’s “Angie Baby,” Harriet Schock’s “Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady,” and Richard Kerr and Will Jennings’ “Somewhere in the Night” (three years before Barry Manilow recorded it). After leaving Capitol, she recorded for labels including MCA and Varese Sarabande, and she also found success in other media. Her stardom on records led to memorable roles onscreen (Walt Disney Productions’ original Pete’s Dragon), on television (from The Love Boat to Family Guy), and on stages across the world (Blood Brothers, Anything Goes, The Mystery of Edwin Drood).
While she embarked upon a well-publicized retirement in 2002, Reddy returned to performing a decade later. In January 2017, she joined the Women’s March in Los Angeles. Introduced by Jamie Lee Curtis, she performed a fiery and still thrillingly relevant a cappella version of “I Am Woman.” Just weeks ago, the biopic called – what else? – I Am Woman starring Australia’s Tilda Cobham-Hervey was released in the United States, chronicling the artist’s rise to fame.
She was strong, she was invincible, she was Helen Reddy…and she leaves behind a legacy of song that will doubtless continue to inspire and empower.