February 3, 2015

Helen Reddy, Who Gave Modern Feminism the Anthem "I Am Woman", On Her Own Legacy

Around 1972 or so, a pop song turned feminist anthem propelled a singer/songwriter, who already had a string of hits behind her, into super star category. That person was Helen Reddy, an Australian singer who hit it big in the U.S. and elsewhere with her song "I Am Woman" as well as other songs like "Leave Me Alone", "Delta Dawn" and "I Don't Know How to Love Him" from the musical "Jesus Christ Superstar". Ms. Reddy was the first Australian to win a Grammy Award, paving the way for others such as Olivia Newton John, Kylie Minogue and others to do the same. She also performed on Broadway and in London's West End.  Here is her classic performance of "I Am Woman" (see http://youtu.be/Gpu_PV3BTfI for the video):

During the height of her celebrity, Ms. Reddy appeared on TV as a guest star on the then-popular "Carol Burnett Show", and she also guest starred on another popular show of the day known as "The Muppet Show" where she arguably co-starred with a feminist of another sort named Miss Piggy. Both guest appearances are available on DVD for each of those respective TV shows, although the Carol Burnett episodes were sold by Guthy-Renker and are sometimes harder to come by. She also starred in movies, including roles in Disney's 1977 movie "Pete's Dragon", the Beatles' movie "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", and "Airport 1975".

However, like many musical stars, Ms. Reddy grew tired of singing the same few songs over-and-over-and-over, ad nauseum. She told CBS News:

"I have very wide-ranging interests," she said. "So, singing 'Leave Me Alone' 43 times per song lost its charm a long time ago."

In fact, it was her biggest song "I Am Woman" that ultimately inspired her to retire. Its not that Ms. Reddy disappeared - exactly. But she only decided to return to performing after being buoyed by the warm reception she got when she sang at her sister's birthday party. Ms. Reddy, who had cataract surgery in 2012, said she was in a "very good place" at the time.

She basically returned to her native Australia and retired, living relatively modestly compared to others who lived extravagantly, only to lose everything when their fifteen minutes of fame was over. In 2002, the singer-songwriter gave up on show business and started her new life in Australia. She got her degree in clinical hypnotherapy, and for the last decade, she's lived modestly in Sydney. Ms. Reddy is now approaching age 73, and she only recently ventured back into public singing again, but she did so on her own terms.

For example, in 2012, she returned to the U.S. do some singing before a live audience again in San Diego and another performance in Los Angeles. But unlike during her heyday, Ms. Reddy didn't want her performances to be yet another a greatest hits collection singing a handful of songs repeatedly, rather she chose to perform some some of the songs that she originally recorded and loved but just never managed to get much airplay back in the 1970s. She did an interview with an Australian TV show a number of years ago that talked to her about her life in retirement. That interview is now gone, but there was a 2014 video with Australia's "Daily Edition" which followed, and among the topics of that conversation was a question about why she elected to exit retirement and start singing again. That can be seen below, or by visiting https://youtu.be/dOusVlpG4Ns

One of the reasons that I'm coming back to singing is because I'm not doing the greatest hits," Reddy explained. "I'm doing the songs that I always loved. So many are album cuts that never got any airplay, and they're gorgeous songs." In the end, while her song "I Am Woman" endures as a feminist anthem, Ms. Reddy prefers to let a new generation do covers of her old song. She's content to look back at her life in the spotlight and her own unique role in the history of feminism. "That was one of the reasons that I stopped singing, was when I was shown a modern American history high-school textbook, and a whole chapter on feminism -- and my name and my lyrics (were) in the book," she recalled. "And I thought, 'Well, I'm part of history now. And how do I top that? I can't top that.' So, it was an easy withdrawal."

Don't expect Ms. Reddy to want to doing any big tours or performances or even do any recordings again, rather she's been very selective about how much she is willing to do or even wants to do. She says:

"I'm still very active, physically. I walk four miles a day. And I love the fact that I don't care so much about things -- things that were so terribly important when you're younger, they don't matter when you get older," she said. "And it's such a sense of freedom."

In 2006, she published the autobiography, "The Woman I Am." Still, for a brief window of what the United States (and a good part of the developed world) looked like some 34 years ago, have a look at Ms. Reddy's original and most widely-played performance of her song "I Am Woman" (see above).

In the end, Ms. Reddy says "I don't care if I'm remembered or not.  The important thing is that any good that I've done lives on."

Author P.S., September 29, 2020: Associated Press and other medial outlets reported that Helen Reddy, who shot to stardom in the 1970's with her feminist anthem "I Am Woman" and recorded a string of other hits, has died. She was 78. Reddy's children Traci and Jordan announced that the actress-singer died in Los Angeles. Reddy's death comes less than three weeks after the release of a biopic about her life called "I Am Woman." The Los Angeles Times featured an obituary for the singer at https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/music/story/2020-09-29/i-am-woman-singer-helen-reddy-dies-at-78-in-los-angeles.

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