About Helen Reddy
A singer admired for her warm, crystalline vocal tone and smooth light-pop songs, Australia's Helen Reddy is best remembered for the chart-topping feminist anthem "I Am Woman" (1972). She reached the Top 40 over a dozen more times through the late '70s, including with the U.S. number ones "Delta Dawn" (1973) and "Angie Baby" (1974). During the peak of her career, she had a pair of Top Ten albums (1973's Long Hard Climb and the next year's Free and Easy) and briefly hosted her own summer variety series, The Helen Reddy Show, on NBC. Acting opportunities, including a starring role in the Disney musical film Pete's Dragon (1977), soon followed. Though she last reached the Hot 100 in 1981, Reddy found work on the stage, including a 1995 Broadway debut in the musical Blood Brothers. Meanwhile, she continued to release periodic recordings through 2000's The Best Christmas Ever, her 17th and final studio album. A movie about her life, I Am Woman, saw release in 2019, a year before Reddy's death.
Born Helen Maxine Reddy on October 25, 1941 in Melbourne, Reddy came from a dedicated show business family. Her father, Max Reddy, was a writer, actor, and producer, and her mother, Stella Lamond (aka Stella Campbell) was a regular on Australian television series such as Homicide and Bellbird in the '60s and '70s. Her older half-sister, Toni Lamond, was a performer from childhood, having been raised on the vaudeville circuit. Helen was born while her father was deployed as part of an Army entertainment unit that also included actor Peter Finch. When the Second World War ended, four-year-old Helen joined her parents on the vaudeville stage as a singer and dancer. At the age of 12, Reddy opted to live with her aunt, partly as a rebellion against her parents' lifestyle. After finishing school, a short-lived marriage to an older musician left her a single mother in her mid-twenties, and she turned to singing to support the household. Reddy quickly earned spots performing on radio and television, and in 1966, she took the top prize in a talent competition on TV's Bandstand, winning a trip to New York City and the chance to audition for Mercury Records. Though the trip was unsuccessful, she decided to stay in the States with her daughter.
For the next couple years, Reddy frequently traveled to Canada (a fellow Commonwealth country) for singing gigs, as the lack of a U.S. work permit proved a major obstacle. In 1968, an acquaintance in New York threw Reddy a party, charging admission to help her raise rent. It was there that she met Jeff Wald, whom she married just a few days later. Wald, who had been a working as a secretary at William Morris Agency, soon lost his job, and the couple moved to Chicago, where Reddy, now a U.S. citizen, found steady work as a lounge singer. Before 1968 was over, she signed with Fontana Records, a division of Mercury. Her debut single, "One Way Ticket," reached number 83 in Australia.
In 1969, Wald moved the family to Los Angeles and found work managing acts including Deep Purple and Tiny Tim. He eventually got Reddy the shot to record a 7" as a trial for Capitol Records. She decided on Mac Davis' "I Believe in Music" backed with "I Don't Know How to Love Him" from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar. The Andrew Lloyd Webber tune proved to be her breakthrough hit, reaching number 13 on the Hot 100 as well as the Top Ten in Canada and Australia in 1971. The album I Don't Know How to Love Him arrived on Capitol that May, peaking at number 100 in the U.S. She followed it six months later with Helen Reddy.
In 1972, Reddy hit number one with "I Am Woman," the title track to her third album. Co-penned by Australian musician Ray Burton (the Delltones, the Executives) and Reddy, who wrote the inspirational lyrics ("I am woman, hear me roar/In numbers too big to ignore"), the song became an anthem for female empowerment in the counterculture era. It won Reddy the Grammy Award for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female in 1973, the year that also saw the Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision. Reddy was soon in demand on variety shows and late-night TV, earning her own summer replacement series in 1973 with NBC's The Helen Reddy Show. In the meantime, the I Am Woman LP reached number 14 on the Billboard 200 and the Top Ten in Canada and Australia. She hit number one in all three countries with "Delta Dawn" from the 1973 follow-up Long Hard Climb. That album went as high as number eight in the States. The year 1974 brought two more hit albums, Love Song for Jeffrey and Free and Easy, the latter of which tied a career-high number eight on the Billboard 200. Free and Easy included her third U.S. number one single in as many years, "Angie Baby." That same year, she portrayed a guitar-playing nun in the action film Airport 1975 and reached the number nine spot on the Hot 100 with the Paul Williams-penned "You and Me Against the World," which featured her daughter, Traci. (By then, the family had grown to include a son, Jordan.) As Reddy became a pop culture fixture with multiple slots on TV series like The Carol Burnett Show and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (including as guest host), she returned to the U.S. Top Ten with "Ain't No Way to Treat a Lady" from 1975's No Way to Treat a Lady. Early the following year, Helen Reddy's Greatest Hits reached the Top Five in the U.S., U.K., and New Zealand. As Reddy's brand of adult-contemporary pop began to fall out of fashion, she made her final appearances in the Billboard 200 with 1976's Music, Music, which reached number 16, and 1977's Ear Candy, which topped out at number 75. In 1977, she could be seen in Disney's animated live-action hybrid musical Pete's Dragon alongside Hollywood legends like Mickey Rooney and Shelly Winters. The following year included an appearance in the musical comedy film Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and she was the celebrity guest on an episode of The Muppet Show. As her commercial success wound down in the late '70s, albums like 1978's We'll Sing in the Sunshine, Live in London, and the next year's Reddy failed to chart in the U.S. or Australia (Reddy reached number 97 in Canada). Released in May of 1980, Take What You Find turned out to be her final album for Capitol.
Still a household name, Reddy signed with MCA and released Play Me Out in 1981. The label followed it with Imagination in 1983. That year, Reddy and Wald divorced, and Reddy married drummer Milton Ruth. Parting ways with MCA, she took to the stage, performing in regional theater on the West Coast, including productions of the Cole Porter musical Anything Goes and Irving Berlin's Call Me Madam. Reddy also appeared in episodes of prime-time TV's The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Eventually, she returned to music with the self-released studio album Feel So Young, a mix of re-recorded hits and original material, in 1990. Reddy made her Broadway debut in January 1995, replacing Carole King as Mrs. Johnstone in Willy Russell's Blood Brothers, a role she reprised on the West End. Following her third divorce, she toured the U.S. as Shirley in Shirley Valentine in 1997 and released the show tunes set Center Stage on Varèse Sarabande in 1998. What would be Reddy's last album, The Best Christmas Ever, followed in 2000.
After retiring from recording, Reddy went back to school and became a practicing therapist and motivational speaker. She still turned up occasionally on television, including on episodes of Diagnosis: Murder and Family Guy as late as 2011. She gave a concert in Los Angeles in 2016, and a film based on her life starring Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Reddy, I Am Woman, premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019. Helen Reddy died in Los Angeles on September 29, 2020. She was 78 years old. ~ Marcy Donelson
BORNOctober 25, 1942