Trailblazing ‘I Am Woman’ singer Helen Reddy dead at age 78

Helen Reddy in the early '70s. (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Helen Reddy in the early '70s. (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

In an age when women’s rights are increasingly under political attack, the artist who was the voice of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s has died. Australian singer-songwriter Helen Reddy, best known for her 1971 second-wave feminist anthem “I Am Woman,” died Tuesday at the age of 78. The news comes just one month after the official widespread release of Reddy’s biopic, also titled I Am Woman, and was announced just as the first 2020 presidential debate — where women’s reproductive freedom was one of many hot-button issues up for discussion — was getting underway on Tuesday evening.

Reddy was born into a show business family in Melbourne, Australia, on Oct. 25, 1941, and she began working the Australian vaudeville circuit at age 4 alongside her parents. She journeyed to New York City in 1966 after supposedly winning a contract with Mercury Records on an Australian TV talent show called Bandstand; while that offer turned out to be bogus, the divorced mother remained in the United States with her 3-year-old daughter, Traci, to continue pursuing her music career. She soon met Jeff Wald, a rising young employee at the William Morris Agency, who would become her husband and manager. While Reddy married Wald just three days after meeting him, it would take several more years before she finally found professional success.

The couple later relocated to Los Angeles, where Wald began managing successful male recording artists like classic rock band Deep Purple and ukulele-strumming novelty act Tiny Tim — while neglecting his wife’s career. However, after a frustrated Reddy gave him an ultimatum, Wald refocused on her aspirations, eventually persuading Capitol Records executive Artie Mogull to give Reddy a chance. Although Reddy’s first single for Capitol, the Mac Davis-penned “I Believe in Music,” stiffed, its B-side, a passionate cover of “I Don't Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar, became a surprise hit after radio disc jockeys opted to play that song instead. But it was “I Am Woman,” which also appeared on Reddy’s debut album, I Don't Know How to Love Him, that made Reddy a superstar and feminist icon at age 30.

Reddy co-wrote “I Am Woman” with Australian musician Ray Burton, partially inspired her many personal experiences with misogyny and sexism in the entertainment industry. “Women have always been objectified in showbiz. I'd be the opening act for a comic and as I was leaving the stage he'd say, ‘Yeah, take your clothes off and wait for me in the dressing room, I'll be right there.’ It was demeaning and humiliating for any woman to have that happen publicly,” she told Australia’s Sunday Magazine in 2003. Reddy further explained: “I couldn't find any songs that said what I thought being woman was about. I thought about all these strong women in my family who had gotten through the Depression and world wars and drunken, abusive husbands. But there was nothing in music that reflected that. The only songs were ‘I Feel Pretty’ or that dreadful song ‘Born a Woman.’ These are not exactly empowering lyrics. I certainly never thought of myself as a songwriter, but it came down to having to do it.”

While the original version of “I Am Woman” was not a hit, a May 1972 rerecording touched a nerve and became a smash, selling 1 million copies and going to No. 1 in the States (making Reddy the first Australian singer to top the U.S. charts.), Canada, and Australia by September of that same year. The anthem earned Reddy a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance; in her acceptance speech, she controversially thanked God "because She makes everything possible.”

During her career, Reddy landed 15 singles in the Billboard Top 40 (including three No. 1s and six top 10 hits) and 25 singles on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart. But it was “I Am Woman” — released during the early 1970s’ burgeoning women’s rights movement, when Gloria Steinem was launching Ms. magazine and Roe v. Wade was headed to the Supreme Court — that had the most lasting impact, with “I am woman, hear me roar” becoming a bumper-sticker catchphrase. National Organization for Women founder Betty Friedan later wrote in the book It Changed My Life: Writings on the Women's Movement that when the song was played at a NOW gala in 1973, "women got out of their seats and started dancing around the hotel ballroom and joining hands in a circle that got larger and larger until maybe a thousand of us were dancing and singing, ‘I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman.’ It was a spontaneous, beautiful expression of the exhilaration we all felt in those years, woman really moving as woman.”

Ironically, Reddy’s career took a downturn after her acrimonious 1982 divorce from the now-very-powerful Wald, who she claimed got her blacklisted in the industry. She announced her retirement from performing in 2002, giving a farewell concert with the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra before adopting a reclusive and reportedly modest and frugal lifestyle in a Sydney apartment. Though she once vowed never to return to the stage, she did begin occasionally performing again in 2012. She memorably appeared at the first annual Women's March on Jan. 21, 2017, introduced by Jamie Lee Curtis and singing an a cappella rendition of “I Am Woman” in front of 750,000 people in downtown Los Angeles. That moment was recreated for the climactic final scene of this year’s biopic I Am Woman, in which Reddy was perfectly portrayed by Australian actress Tilda Cobham-Hervey.

The cause of Reddy’s death was not revealed at press time, but in 2015 it was reported that she had been diagnosed with dementia and was living at the Motion Picture and Television Fund's Samuel Goldwyn Center nursing home in Los Angeles. Reddy is survived by her daughter, Traci (from her first marriage to musician Kenneth Claude Weate), and her son with Wald, Jordan. A statement from Reddy’s two children was posted to her official fan page Tuesday afternoon, reading: “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. 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.”

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