When Helen Reddy talks you listen to her in much the same way you listen to her when she sings: intently, drawn in by her humor and sharp instincts, her punctuated phrasing and determination. The native Australian’s unmistakable and now iconic voice, which seems to drift from a crackling fire on a cold autumn night, has taken hold of some of the most prominent pop songs of the 20th century and capsulated them into a genre that can only be described as “Reddy.” If you’re looking for motivation, ask her a question.
“I’d done it all; the movies and TV and endless concerts,” says Reddy on her ten-year retirement. “If I had to sing ‘Leave Me Alone’ one more time I was going to slash my wrists.” Her sarcasm in full mode at 8:30 a.m. Australian time, she continued, “Have you listened to the chorus? The composer was not up all not writing that song.”
The hit tune about “poor old Rudy Red Dress” does end with Reddy repeating the line “leave me alone” so many times that when she finally adds “God leave me alone!” you think she might have been directing her words at the lyricist.
Reddy hit it big, really big, with two other songs about troubled women—her “trio of crazy ladies,” she calls them—the Billboard Number One singles “Delta Dawn” and “Angie Baby,” the latter of which she calls a pretty much perfect tune.
“If I taught a music class I would use ‘Angie Baby’ as my textbook,” says Reddy. “It has every element; it’s not just three words being mindlessly repeated.” Reddy adds that “people will sidle up to me and say ‘What happens at the end?’ and I say ‘What do you think happens?’ Great art allows the viewer to interpret what happened.”
No discussion of Reddy’s music, with her or about her, lasts long before bringing up “I Am Woman,” the 1972 anthem that pop-defined the women’s movement as much as it’s come to define the singer, and lyricist. The song was the first number-one single for Capitol Records in five years (Bobbie Gentry’s “Ode to Billy Joe” being its predecessor), and it was a long roar to the finish line.
“I was told ‘Good God now, you’ve got to forget about the Women’s Liberation Movement; it will kill your career’” says Reddy on initial reactions to the song. “There were such terrible songs about women in the Sixties. Young girls were being indoctrinated into accepting domestic violence like it was some sort of sacrament. There was a groundswell of women’s dissatisfaction.”
Reddy says that the song debuted at number 99 and took nine months to get to the top. “There was a lot of prejudice in music; there still is,” she says. “They would say things like ‘Oh, we would love to play your record but we are already playing a female record. Or the DJ would say things like ‘I hate that song but my wife really likes it.’ At that time what was huge was boy bands. That was the era of The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.”
If you’ve listened to Reddy’s lyrics you already know she didn’t give up. “There were a lot of daytime talk shows back then,” she says. “I sang ‘I Am Woman’ on nineteen different shows. Women started calling up radio stations and requesting airplay. It was women who forced the song.”
Reddy is still passionate about women’s issues, and she plays close attention to the political climate.
“America is a very sexist country, and I hate saying that because I am an American.” A supporter of Hillary Clinton in 2008, Reddy says “She should have won. The best possible ticket for the Democrats would have been Hillary for President, Barack for Vice. It shows you how much prejudice there is. In the 1860s black men got the right to vote; it was 1922 for women.”
Gay men are now in the midst of their own civil rights struggle, and when asked, Reddy says that “I Am Woman” reaches across the discrimination aisle. “It’s about any group that is oppressed. My brother-in-law used to play ‘I Am Woman’ to get him going. It’s a song about empowerment.” When questioned about her gay fans and gay rights, Reddy interrupted me; not out of discourtesy or impatience; if anything, it seemed more linked to the frustration that bigotry still exists.
“I grew up in theater,” says Reddy. “Gay men have been part of my life all my life. Love is love no matter the gender.”
If I’ve avoided the important fact that Reddy is touring again, it’s because a conversation with her takes so many twists and turns it’s hard to decide which path to go down next. The woman who told me that her true love is blues and jazz (“It was never my intention to be a pop singer; I always wanted to be a nightclub singer”) also told me that she was destined for fame (“I was from a show-biz family. I just knew I had a particular destiny”). If her path went down a different musical avenue than originally thought, she’s not complaining.
“When I was a teenager all I wanted to be was a housewife and mother,” she says, without needing to stress the irony of the statement. “I’m going to have ‘Queen of Pop’ attached to my name forever.”
For Reddy, destiny meant getting out of Melbourne and off to New York. “I wasn’t successful in Australia. I could not get myself arrested.” Reddy high-tailed it to Sydney and got on a talent show TV series in which the grand prize meant a trip to New York. After six months of semi-finals and finals, she won. “It was always my feeling that America was where I had to be. I have to say that Australians are not very sophisticated, musically-speaking. Australians are very white-country. I would listen to Ray Charles and all this wonderful R&B music, things you never hear here.”
Reddy struggled in New York, she struggled in Los Angeles and she broke through with the 1971 pop hit “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” from Jesus Christ Superstar. The rest, they say, is herstory. Within ten years she would have 15 Top Forty singles, be the first Australian to hit number one in the United States, the first to win a Grammy, and the first to have her own TV variety show. She also acted in such hits as Airport 1975, and her “Singing Nun” character has been one of the major roles to be parodied in all the parodies. “I think Airplane is the best parody ever,” she says, admitting that her own part was “a bit silly.”
Since movie stars are commonly asked what roles they rejected, I wanted to know if Reddy passed on any major hits. “I turned down ‘Killing Me Softly’ because I didn’t like the word ‘killing,’” she says. “I thought ‘killing’ was grotesque. It sat on my turntable for nine months.” She also says that she recently found a demo of Barry Manilow’s “Daybreak” at the bottom of a box. “I had written ‘Could be for a TV production number.’ I didn’t see it as a hit.”
Reddy’s quick to point out that songs are meant to be hits for everyone, and added of the fast-approaching Seventies disco era, “There were two great disco songs, either one of which I would have loved to have recorded: ‘I Will Survive’ and ‘I love the Nightlife.’ Those, to me, are the two greatest songs to come out of the disco era.”
Disco has come and gone and (sort of) come again. While Reddy’s biggest hits coincided with female artists like Karen Carpenter, Linda Ronstadt, and fellow Aussie Olivia Newton-John, today’s female artists are more often than not coinciding with production values.
“So much of it is artificial noise,” says Reddy, adding that she rarely listens to new music. “You never hear a pure instrument. There are overlays. Here and there a good song comes along; they always will. But there’s a dumbing down of music; they don’t teach it in schools anymore.”
Reddy brought up an anecdote that has stuck with her for years, about a conversation she heard in the 1980s. “I remember when I heard these two girls talking, when Madonna first came out. They said, ‘Have you seen her new song?’ Music is no longer an audio medium.”
Unless you know too much to go back and pretend.
“I don’t sing ‘I am Woman’ now,” says Reddy. “I recite it. It has so much more impact that way. It puts more attention on the message.”
For more information on Helen Reddy, visit her website.