Helen Reddy – Singer, songwriter, activist

Born: October 25, 1941;

Died September 29, 2020.

HELEN Reddy, who has died aged 78, was a singer whose defining hit, I Am Woman, took second wave feminism into the pop charts. Her self-penned anthem arguably opened up a generation of women to ideas of empowerment and self-determination as much as anything written by Germaine Greer or Gloria Steinem.

In its simple proclamation, built from a country twang into a horn-laden call to arms, it sounded tailor-made for both marches and daytime radio.

I Am Woman wasn’t an immediate success. Set to music by Ray Burton, the song originally appeared on Reddy’s debut album, I Don’t Know How to Love Him (1971), named after the title of the Jesus Christ Superstar ballad that had given Reddy her first hit single.

I Am Woman also appeared on the opening credits of bandwagon-jumping ‘women’s lib’ comedy film, Stand Up and Be Counted.

A new recording was released in 1972, though it took six months of radio requests by the women with whom the song’s message chimed for momentum to build. While it went to number one in America, I Am Woman never made the UK chart on either its first release or a re-release in 1975 attempting to capitalise on the success of another Reddy single, Angie Baby.

I Am Woman nevertheless filtered into global pop cultural consciousness, and its impact remains unbowed. This was proven in 2017, when Reddy sang it a capella while standing alongside actress Jamie Lee Curtis in front of a crowd of 750,000 at the Los Angeles Women’s March the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration as American president.

Just last month, Dame Jenni Murray used I Am Woman as her exit music for her final stint hosting BBC Radio Four’s Woman’s Hour programme.

If Reddy’s delivery possessed a surface cosiness, there was some pretty grown up stuff going on beyond: Summer of ’71, written by Reddy for her eponymous second album, was about a three-day mescaline trip taken with second husband Jeff Wald.

Even on numbers she didn’t write, such as Alan O’Day’s Angie Baby (1974) and Harriet Schock’s Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady (1975), sounded steeped in Me-generation adult contemporary experience Reddy had lived first hand.

Helen Maxine Lamond Reddy was born in Melbourne, Australia into a well-known show-business family. Her mother, Stella Campbell, was an actress, dancer and TV and stage star. Her father, Max Reddy, was a writer, producer and actor. By the time she was four, Reddy was singing and dancing in her parents’ touring vaudeville act.

By the time she was twelve, Reddy had moved in with an aunt to avoid her mother and father’s constant arguing. While being groomed for stardom, Reddy’s teenage rebellious streak saw her effectively run away from the circus aged 20 to lead a life of wedded bliss to musician Kenneth Weate, a family friend. It didn’t last.

By now a single mother, Reddy returned to the stage, and won a talent contest on Australian TV. First prize, she was told, was a chance to cut a single for Mercury Records in New York. On arrival in America, the label informed her that the prize was actually an audition, which they considered her TV appearance to have been, and failed her.

Reddy decided to stay in New York with her toddler daughter anyway, scraping a living performing in lounge bars. Reddy met Wald at a party thrown for her to raise funds to pay her rent. They married three days later, and he became her manager. An early single, a version of Stephen J. Lawrence and Bruce Hart’s One Way Ticket, became a minor hit in Australia in 1968.

It wasn’t until 1971 and after much persistence that Reddy cracked the American charts with I Don’t Know How to Love Him, originally the B-side of a cover of Mac Davis’ I Believe in Music. I Am Woman’s eventual chart-topping stint saw Reddy win a Grammy for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.

More hits followed, including Delta Dawn (1973), Angie Baby and Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady. Reddy and Weld lived the high life, with Reddy playing Las Vegas even as she remained politically active. She also acted in films, playing a singing nun in Airport (1975). As musical fashions shifted, however, the hits dried up.

Having divorced Weld – a third marriage, to drummer Milton Ruth, ended in 1995 – Reddy moved into theatre. The pinnacle of this saw her appear on the West End and Broadway in a 1995 production of Willy Russell’s musical play, Blood Brothers. She went on to tour America in Russell’s solo piece, Shirley Valentine. The two were made for each other, with the play spreading feminist ideas outwards across the class scale just as I Am Woman had done previously.

In 1990, Reddy released her first album for seven years, Feel So Young, on her own label, and in 1998, a collection of show-tunes, Centre Stage. She retired in 2002, trained as a clinical hypnotherapist, and in 2006 published The Woman I Am: A Memoir. This formed the basis for Unjoo Moon’s 2020 bio-pic, I Am Woman, which starred Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Reddy in a glossy tribute to a singer who continues to inspire many.

Reddy is survived by her children, Traci and Jordan, and her sister, Toni Lamond.