Helen Reddy came to the US in the mid-1960s after winning a talent contest in her home country of Australia. The 24-year-old single mom had $234 to her name when she landed a recording deal. But the record company hastily told her it had enough female singers and she should have fun in New York and then go home.
Fast forward a few years, and Helen Reddy’s songs were on the Billboard Top 10, including her hit anthem I Am Woman. Heck, she even scored her own TV show. While she wasn’t big in the UK, she was a huge star in both the US and Australia. Alice Cooper called her “the Queen of Housewife Rock,” which was actually a name Reddy thought was appropriate. But her approachable, easy listening music veiled the strangeness of some of her songs.
This is her story…
During the first half of the ‘70s, Helen Reddy topped the Billboard easy listening chart eight separate times and had nine Top 20 singles under her belt, all of them as soft and calming as she was herself. Everything about her – her songs, style, and personality was considered safe. So much so that it was mocked in the Frank Zappa song Honey Don’t You Want a Man Like Me?
His lyrics went: “She was an office girl / ‘My name is Betty’ / Her favorite group was / Helen Reddy.” Zappa seemed to hit the nail on the head as Reddy’s relatable songs were favored by women (and some men, of course) who valued classy over cool.
Reddy was the world’s top-selling female vocalist in 1973 and 1974, and her unpretentious voice was heard on the radio for a long time. Throughout her career, she sold 25 million albums. She also performed in Vegas in 1976 and clowned around on Carol Burnett’s variety show. But midway through her career, Reddy released a trio of singles so strange that the rest of her work seems even more vanilla in comparison.
Songs centered on marginalized women were quite popular in the early ‘70s, like Cher’s Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves, Half-Breed and Dark Lady. But Reddy’s trilogy of Delta Dawn, Angie Baby, and Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress) are among some of the darkest in pop.
Before she started singing about the stigmatized and mentally ill characters of Ruby, Angie and Dawn, Reddy scored a huge 1972 hit with her single I Am Woman. It was the first, openly feminist anthem to reach number one. She was clearly fed up with being objectified by men in the entertainment industry.
She had, after all, been in showbiz since the age of four. As a feminist, she wanted an empowering song. She starts with the lines, “I am woman, hear me roar / In numbers too big to ignore.” I Am Woman was a major achievement. The girl-next-door who delivered this powerful number with elegant restraint really resonated with people in America.
Reddy earned a Grammy in 1973 for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. When she took the stage to accept, she said, “I would like to thank God, because she makes everything possible.” To go from this revolutionary hit to the broken story of Delta Dawn in the same year was definitely a curveball people weren’t expecting. None of her preceding work had ever hinted that she could undertake such unsettling material.
Aside from I Am Woman, her songs were mostly about sunny-day sprints and covers of songs like Van Morrison’s Crazy Love. And then comes Delta Dawn, with its unforgettable first verse: “She’s 41, and Daddy still calls her Baby / All the folks round Brownsville say she’s crazy / ’Cos she walks downtown with a suitcase in her hand / Looking for a mysterious dark-haired man.”
Even now, decades later, the song is as odd as ever – something that fits a country-gothic playlist more than Top 40 radio. In fact, Reddy took the song from a country singer named Tanya Tucker (which would easily raise eyebrows now since the subject matter was way too mature for the 13-year-old singer). Tucker’s version was earthy, but Reddy’s was unnervingly calm.
Her delivery of the song was cool. Her tone made the Dawn character’s situation even darker. She was the town belle – the “prettiest woman you ever laid eyes on” – until “a man of low degree stood by her side, promised her he’d take her for his bride.”
What happened between the couple in the song isn’t exactly spelled out, but whatever went down, it left Dawn a broken-minded victim, hopelessly waiting for her man to return. This Dawn was the polar opposite of the self-sufficient character who sang I Am Woman. The same goes for the main characters of the songs Angie Baby and Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress).
Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress) is about a woman who was used and kicked to the curb by “some farm boy up from Tennessee.” Like Delta Dawn, Ruby Was troubled and disturbed. She “broke down to a fool,” and was left to wander the streets of her small town.
The lyrics, written by Brooklyn-born songwriter Linda Laurie, describe an unhinged woman being laughed at by the whole neighborhood. “Talking to herself now, sometimes sitting down / Don’t you get too close now, Ruby runs away…” As it turns out, Reddy later claimed to despise the song. Why? Because of the number of “leave me alone’s in the chorus.
Apparently (and you can count them if you want) she sang ”leave me alone” 42 times. She even included some oomph with her fist, adding grit to her delivery. But when it came to the third song, Angie Baby, there was no grit at all. Angie Baby was definitely the strangest of her sad sagas.
If any British know a Reddy song, it’s Angie Baby as it was her only UK top 40 hit. The song, with all due respect to Reddy, was considered creepy by fans, and rightfully so. It is a psychological thriller that ends with a question mark. Listeners want to know: did “crazy” Angie kill her peeping tom neighbor who watched her at night?
Or, was it all just a figment of her imagination? Angie Baby is the only one of the three songs in which the character’s illness gives her some degree of control. In the last verse, we hear: “It’s so nice to be insane / no one asks you to explain.”
For the Queen of ‘70s Pop, as The Chicago Tribune dubbed her, these were very provocative songs that gave young listeners the creeps. These were the type of lyrics that you would expect from rock or metal stars, definitely not from the “safe” feminist artist that Reddy was known to be. These three songs also made some people wonder…
Why would a woman who refused to be intimidated by men so bent on singing about women who were ruined by men? When you think about it, it may just have been her way of giving equal time to those who were misunderstood and hurt, showing that being female isn’t only about invincibility.
There’s also the theory that Reddy was just a singer with a good ear (and voice) who chose songs that didn’t necessarily speak to her personal truth. “I’m a very private person, and when I leave the stage, I leave the stage,” Reddy said not too long ago. “It’s like whatever character you want to ask for an autograph, she isn’t here right now.”
“She only exists on stage. The character that is off the stage is somebody else.” Back in 1972, Reddy spoke to CBC Radio’s The Scene, talking about the difficulties of succeeding in the entertainment business as a woman. Ross Perigoe asked her if a woman could succeed “as an equal.”
Reddy answered, “It’s one of the few fields that has been open to women, but only on a certain level. It’s only in the last three years that I could walk on stage like me.” There’s a film called I Am Woman which tells the story of Reddy’s struggle to launch her career in the US, starting with her arrival in New York in 1966.
With her three-year-old daughter and very little cash in her pocket, she was hoping to make it big in music. In New York City, Reddy met journalist Lillian Roxon, and through her she met Jeff Wald, the man whom she eventually married and who ended up managing her career.
Her life had its turns over the years. She went through three marriages and divorces and had two children (a decade apart). At 20, she met Australian Kenneth Claude Weate, who was an older musician and family friend. According to Reddy, she married him to defy her parents, who only wanted her to follow them into show business.
Her parents were both in the business – her mother, an actress, and her father, a writer and producer. Reddy and Weate separated not long after the birth of their daughter, Traci. She married for the second time in 1968, to Jeff Wald, a native of The Bronx. But before that, she converted to Judaism for him. They had a son, Jordan, in 1972.
In a 1975 interview with People magazine, Reddy admitted that her relationship with Wald was volatile and they had “huge, healthy fights.” But still, she said that she owed her success to Wald: “He runs it all. Naturally, when the moment of performance comes I have to deliver — but everything else is him. It’s not my career; it’s our career.”
By 1981, the couple separated when he moved to a treatment facility to overcome an eight-year cocaine addiction, a $100,000 a year habit. By 1983, they were officially divorced and agreed to share custody of Jordan, but later found themselves in a court battle after both filed for sole custody. Later on, her son changed his last name to Sommers and became her assistant. That same year, Reddy married Milton Ruth, the drummer of her band. By 1995, they were divorced.
Reddy explained that, with time, the trappings that added to the stereotypes of “what a girl singer looks like” drifted away, “thank God.” She said that made it possible for someone like her “to make it because I’m not glamorous, I’m not a sex symbol.” Reddy also admitted to only rarely performing her own songs.
She described her method of writing songs, particularly I Am Woman. “It’s harder, I guess, to sing my own stuff, because it’s more personal,” Reddy admitted. She explained how she would tend to write and then put it away. At some point later, she took her work out again and tried to approach it more objectively.
“The singer in me edits the writer,” Reddy said. “I am strong, I am invincible. I am woman,” she quoted her lyrics. “That was the beginning of the song, and everything else went from there.” When Perifoe asked her if she was invincible, Reddy answered: “Damn right.” In a Toronto Star interview in 1974, Reddy talked about the song’s origins, which she said came out of a realization that she was able to overcome difficult times on her own.
“I am a feminist,” she told CBC’s The Scene. “I avoid the term women’s liberation like the plague. I would like to get into the hearts and minds of women who, for example, wouldn’t have a copy of Ms. Magazine in their house.” She added: “But these women can be reached, and I’m trying to find a way to reach them… to give them a confidence in themselves that they’ve never had.”
Reddy was outraged by the music of the day when she was writing I Am Woman. She spoke about the song Born a Woman which goes: “When you’re born a woman, you’re born to be lied to, cheated on and treated like dirt.” According to her, these songs were “indoctrinating young girls into accepting domestic violence!”
She took one look at that and thought to herself, “I’ve got a job to do here.” The rearranged version of her song finally reached number one in December 1972 –in the same week as the birth of her son Jordan. In her 2005 memoir, The Woman I Am, Reddy wrote that Capitol Records asked her to do that third album…
At the time of their request, Reddy wanted her songs to reflect her evolving consciousness about equal rights. She was reacting to and learning from the protest songs of the 1960s. She was looking for lyrics that reflected the pride she was feeling in being a woman.
Reddy said that she became aware of gender inequality early in her life. She recalled one incident on stage at Perth’s Tivoli when she was just four years old. Coming from a showbiz family in theater, Reddy saw a stage-sketch by a male comic. He was painting at an easel facing away from the audience. The woman in the painting was nude and he “was a dirty old man, and I found that so offensive,” Reddy recalled.
In 2002, Reddy made it clear the jig was up. No more live performing and no more greatest hits tours. She didn’t want to be another has-been. The 61-year-old wanted to relax, be a grandmother, and develop her new career in hypnotherapy in LA. She explained that part of the hypnotherapy is enabling ”past regression” so one can potentially investigate previous lives.
After a song-making career, the singer started describing herself as a psychic. According to her, she can see her future. But, if that were the case, then shouldn’t she have seen that it was a little premature to announce that her stage-singing days were over? She did, in the end, come back.
10 years later, at the age of 72, Reddy made a comeback. But I guess it would have been difficult for even the most gifted psychic to predict this. After all, while she does have a star sunk into the Hollywood Walk of Fame, it’s been more than a little while since her last hit. In 2012, Reddy started performing again, after being lifted up by the warm reception she got when she sang at her sister’s 80th birthday party.
She stated how she hadn’t heard her voice in 10 years, “and when I heard it coming over the speaker, it was like: ‘Oh, that’s not bad. Maybe I should do that again.'” On July 12 that year, Reddy returned to the stage at Croce’s Jazz Bar in San Diego. She also played at a benefit concert for the arts at St. Genevieve High School in Panorama City, LA.
Performing in her golden years served her well… for a while. She sang sophisticated, interesting material – the songs she loves to perform. She accepted that being on stage is in her blood, attributing it to her addiction. “I love every minute I’m on stage.” But there are some songs she refused to ever sing again, such as Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress). As mentioned before, she hates the monotony of the repeated chorus.
In 2015, Reddy was diagnosed with dementia and moved into the Motion Picture and Television Fund’s Samuel Goldwyn Center. The now 78-year-old lives in the nursing facility where she is cared for by her family and friends. A source stated that while the illness is in its early stages, Reddy is already “asking the same question every few minutes.” Another source told Lead Stories that she often forgets where she puts things (but then again, who doesn’t?).
Helen Reddy was definitely a woman of her time. Another female singer who took the world by storm was Dusty Springfield. Here’s her story…