Helen Reddy, singer of feminist anthem I Am Woman, dies at 78

The Australian-born singer, whose first No 1 hit propelled her to international stardom, had been diagnosed with dementia

Helen Reddy: I Am Woman, which sold more than 25 million copies in the US alone. Photograph: NBC Universal/Getty Images

Helen Reddy: I Am Woman, which sold more than 25 million copies in the US alone. Photograph: NBC Universal/Getty Images

 

Helen Reddy, the Australian-born singer whose 1972 hit song I Am Woman became the feminist anthem of the decade and propelled her to international pop-music stardom, died on Tuesday in Los Angeles. She was 78. Reddy suffered for decades from Addison’s disease (she had a kidney removed when she was 17) and, since at least 2015, from dementia.

A statement from Reddy’s children, Traci and Jordan, was posted to her official fan page on Tuesday afternoon. “It is with deep sadness that we announce the passing of our beloved mother, Helen Reddy, on the afternoon of September 29th 2020 in Los Angeles,” the statement said. “She was a wonderful Mother, Grandmother and a truly formidable woman. Our hearts are broken. But we take comfort in the knowledge that her voice will live on forever.”

I Am Woman, which sold more than 25 million copies in the US alone, reached No 1 on the Billboard charts at the end of 1972 (a good six months after it was released and earned her the Grammy Award for best female pop vocal performance. She was the first Australian-born artist to win a Grammy and the first to make the Billboard 100 record charts.

While rock star Alice Cooper dubbed her the “queen of housewife rock”, some male observers called the song – beginning with the words “I am woman/ Hear me roar/ In numbers/ Too big to ignore” sung by a 5ft-3 soprano – angry, man-hating, dangerous or all three. During the 1970s, three of Reddy’s songs – including Delta Dawn and Angie Baby – went to No 1 on the Billboard chart. Three others – Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady, You and Me Against the World and Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress) – made the Top 10. More than three decades later, The Chicago Tribune declared her the “queen of ‘70s pop”.

Helen Maxine Lamond Reddy was born on October 25th, 1941, in Melbourne, Australia, the only child of Max Reddy, a writer, producer and actor; and Stella (Lamond) Reddy, an actor whose stage name was Stella Campbell. Her father was in New Guinea, serving in the Australian army, when she was born. The Reddy’s performed on the Australian vaudeville circuit, and Helen began joining them onstage when she was 4.

At 12, she rebelled by quitting showbusiness and going to live with an aunt while her parents toured. But her financial situation – after an early marriage, parenthood and divorce – persuaded her to return. Reddy had a solid reputation in Australian television and radio when she won a 1966 talent contest sponsored by Bandstand, a Sydney pop-music television show. The prize was a trip to New York City and a record-company audition there. The audition did not pan out, and her career got off to a slow, discouraging start. Before Capitol Records signed her in 1970, at least 27 record labels rejected her, and she and her new husband, Jeff Wald, who was now her manager, moved – first to Chicago, then to Los Angeles.

Times were hard, especially when the couple lived in New York. In The Woman I Am: A Memoir (2006), she wrote, “When we did eat, it was spaghetti, and we spent what little money we had on cockroach spray.”

I am woman video

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Reddy’s first hit was a 1971 cover of I Don’t Know How to Love Him, a hit from the award-winning stage show Jesus Christ Superstar. The success of I Am Woman, with Reddy’s lyrics and Ray Burton’s music, came a year later. She was a frequent guest in the early 1970s on variety, music and talk shows . The Helen Reddy Show (1973) was an eight-episode summer replacement series on NBC.

She made her big-screen debut in the disaster movie Airport 1975 (released in 1974) as a guitar-playing nun who comforts a sick little girl (Linda Blair) on an almost certainly doomed 747. Reddy always liked to point out that Gloria Swanson and Myrna Loy were also in the cast.

That was followed by a starring role in the Disney movie Pete’s Dragon (1977), as a sceptical New England lighthouse keeper who doubts an orphaned boy’s stories about his animated fire-breathing pet.

By the 1980s, her glory days were largely in the past, and she was bored. “I remember the Vegas days when it was two shows a night, seven nights a week,” she told The Chicago Tribune in 2013, “and it became so rote that I’d be thinking about wallpaper while I was singing.”

She had a busy stage career, starring in productions of Anything Goes, Call Me Madam and Shirley Valentine in England and the US.

The last Helen Reddy song to make the American charts was I Can’t Say Goodbye to You (1981), and Imagination (1983) was her last album. Her final screen appearance was in The Perfect Host (2010), a crime comedy with David Hyde Pierce.

When Reddy retired in 2002, she meant business, going back to school, getting a degree in clinical hypnotherapy and practising as a therapist and motivational speaker. In 2012, she announced a comeback and made several concert appearances in the United States before retiring again.

She was a strong believer in past-lives regression. (In 1969, as a newcomer in Los Angeles, she studied parapsychology part time at UCLA.) In her 2006 memoir, in a slightly surreal section on British royalty, she declared that the Duchess of Windsor had been the reincarnation of Richard III and that Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret had been, in past lives, the little princes Richard had once locked in the Tower of London.

In a 2013 interview, Reddy seemed philosophical. “I am at the age where I can just kick back and say what a wonderful life I’ve had,” she told The Sydney Morning Herald. And she laughed when one very familiar question came up: whether she was nervous the first time she went onstage.

“I don’t remember the first time I went onstage,” she said.

Reddy married and divorced three times. In 1961, she married Kenneth Claude Weate, an older musician who was a family friend. They had a daughter and divorced in 1966. In 1968, she married Wald, and they had a son. They separated in 1981, when he checked into a treatment facility for cocaine addiction, and divorced two years later. That same year, she married Milton Ruth, a drummer in her band. They divorced in 1995.

Survivors include her two children, Traci Wald Donat, a daughter from her first marriage, and Jordan Sommers, a son from her second; her half sister, Toni Lamond, an Australian singer-actress; and one grandchild.

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