R.I.P. Helen Reddy

I had already been planning a post on Helen Reddy (b. 1941), her birthday is in less than a month, but upon learning of her passing yesterday, we elevate her to where she was during much of my childhood: the top of the heap.

There will be over the next few days (as there has long been) a tendency to talk about Reddy in terms of a single song but I want to take the opportunity to underscore the fact that she was a pop culture presence for around a decade, not just on the radio, but on television and in films. She was exotic at the time not because she was female (after all, half the people in show business are females) but because she was AUSTRALIAN, in fact she was the first Australian to crack the U.S. pop charts, paving the way for her friend Olivia Newton-John (and not counting the Bee Gees, who were actually born in England and moved Down Under later).

Reddy was second generation show biz: her parents Max Reddy and Stella Lamond were stars in her native country. Helen began performing with them on stage in Australian vaudeville when she was only four years old (as we wrote in No Applause, Australian vaudeville was still plugging away as late as the 1950s.) As a teenager, Reddy dropped out of show business for awhile, but later went back into it with a will as a single mom with a child to support. At 25 she won a nationwide talent content on an Australian tv show called Bandstand, and the prize was a trip to a New York and the chance to audition for Mercury Records, but nothing came of it. She moved to the U.S. anyway, and together with her second husband, agent Jeff Wald, she finally got where she wanted to go.

Believe it or not, Reddy was already on our radar prior to her most famous hit. In 1971 she released a cover of Mac Davis’s “I Believe in Music” (Davis also died today, at age 78), backed with “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar. The B side became the hit, and so we were already hearing that on the radio that year, and seeing her on TV shows like The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, The Mike Douglas Show, The Merv Griffin Show, and American Bandstand prior to her biggest hit.

“I Am Woman” (co-written by Reddy and Ray Burton) was a sleeper hit, first recorded in 1971, then used over the closing credits for a quickly forgotten film called Stand Up and Be Counted, and then released as a single in 1972. It began to be in demand, radio requests swelled, it went to #1 on the charts, and rapidly achieved anthem status, becoming the unofficial theme song of American feminism. No one was unaware of it. In my distinctly reactionary house (I was 7 or 8 at the time) its joyous, swelling sounds of celebration were greeted with derision by my folks, who scoffed not just at lyrics like “hear me roar”(admittedly pretty funny) but at the very premise, the very theme of the song. And that’s not so funny. As I write this, nearly a half century later, it feels like zero has changed. For an over-obvious metaphor, it feels like the past half century has been like a broken record, frozen at the same section of the song. You can be sure that the same people who said nasty things about Justice Ginsburg a few days ago are saying nasty things about Reddy today. And that’s where we’re at. Mourn Reddy, yes, but more importantly mourn THAT.

The above would have been a logical place to end a piece about Reddy and her passing, and I’m certain many obits and tributes today will be doing that very thing. But this is a show business blog and “I Am Woman” was not the end of Reddy’s career, but the beginning. Note the significant fact that Reddy wasn’t (at the time) some activist folk singer or something. She was a pop singer, not unlike Karen Carpenter, or the later Toni Tennille. She wrote “I Am Woman” out of frustration at some of her own life experiences, and because no one had written a song that said what she wanted to say. So she got it off her chest. And then proceeded to show that she was “strong” and “invincible” by having a string of other pop hits. Her next single “Peaceful” (1973) went to #12. But the one after that was her second #1 hit, and I remember that one best of all. It was a sentimental number called “Delta Dawn” (1973), and my sister, who was all of six at the time, used to sing it at family gatherings. This was followed by “Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress)” which went to #3 — it’s refrain of “Leave Me Alone” too sounds significant in the #MeToo era.

By this point Reddy had expanded beyond just singing her hits on talk shows. I vividly recall as a frequent guest on The Carol Burnett Show, where she participated in comedy sketches. She hosted The Midnight Special several times. In 1973 she had her own tv variety program The Helen Reddy Show, a summer replacement for The Flip Wilson Show. In 1974 her cover of Paul Williams’ “You and Me Against the World” went to #3, followed by her third #1 single “Angie” (quite different from the Rolling Stones song of the same name which had come out the previous year.

That year she also got her first movie role, as a nun in Airport 1975 (a turn that was later parodied in the Zucker Brothers 1980 comedy Airplane!). In the unintentionally loaded scene, Reddy’s catholic nun sings a song called “Best Friend” to Linda Blair from The Exorcist.  The subtext for any crazy person watching the movie is a battle between God and Satan — surely THAT’S what put a hole in the 747?!

Reddy’s last top ten hit was “Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady”, which went to #8 in 1975. In 1977 she was in the Disney movie Pete’s Dragon and sang the theme song “Candle on the Water”, which was released as a single. She continued having hits in the Hot 100 and appearing regularly on television through the early 1980s. Appearances on The Love Boat and Fantasy Island, as they did for so many, signaled a sea change. Unavoidably, over time, Reddy became strongly associated with her most famous song, and thus, was rather locked into an association with a certain time period, which can be harmful to a career. She continued performing and making appearances throughout the years, however, with one brief period of retirement.

About a decade ago my pals Lance Werth and Joanna Parson put together a two person show called Reddy or Not, which they performed over a three year period. One of the highlights was when Reddy herself attended (along with a bunch of her fans) as part of the rollout of her book The Woman I Am. By all accounts she was lovely. And now they have a podcast about it (and her)! Check it out here. 

And a bio-pic about her came out just last year!

In recent years Reddy suffered from Addison’s disease and dementia. (She had also had a kidney removed at age 17, possibly shortening her life). She was 78 when she passed away yesterday. But she is of course also, to be more accurate, immortal.