Helen Reddy, Still Every ’Woman,’ Comes to Ptown
She made the history books with her #1 Grammy-winning hit "I Am Woman," then found it easy to withdraw from show business to practice hypnotherapy.
That’s what the "Queen of 70s Pop" Helen Reddy did 10 years ago moving back to her homeland Australia. The time spent away from the stage was not entirely a complete escape from her singing career. Reddy spent some of her retirement reflecting on her life which led to her 2006 autobiography "The Woman I Am."
And what a life it has been for the 70-year old. With a string of hits, 15 songs charting the Top 40 Pop charts, Reddy became the first Australian to garnish a #1 pop hit and Grammy award with "I Am Woman." The song not only marks her rise to super stardom in 1974, it also became the anthem for the feminist movement of that era.
But after countless performances of her multiple hits, Reddy grew tired of singing the hits that have placed her in the history books and retired in 2002. But a decade was as long as the singer could stay away from her first of singing on the stage.
Reddy comes to Provincetown to perform at the Crown and Anchor on October 13 and 14 as part of Women’s Week. (The October 13 show is sold out. For more on tickets for the October 14 show, visit the Crown and Anchor’s website.
After returning to performing last summer, I had an opportunity to speak with the woman who owned the 70s pop charts in which she reveals the reason for her retreat from singing, why she’s returned to performing, her thoughts on her history-making career and why her feminist anthem resonates with gay men.
Out of retirement
BeBe: After 10 years of being in retirement and moving back to your native Australia, what made you decide to come out of retirement and tour again?
Helen Reddy: The impetus came in March 2012. My older sister had a huge party for her 80th birthday, and she asked me to sing a duet with her at the party. I said okay, and enjoyed it. I could hear my voice over the speakers, and I hadn’t heard my own voice in many years. I thought, oh, maybe I should go back to doing this.
BeBe: And if others were hearing what you were hearing, you thought this might be quite good, huh? (draws laughter from Helen)
Helen Reddy: I realized I missed music. I missed having music in my life.
BeBe: It was interesting to me when I discovered that you come from a show business family of sorts. And not just one generation deep, but your parents and grandparents were in show business.
Helen Reddy: Sort of, not particularly in a professional capacity. My mother’s mother did big parts in plays, and she had a lovely singing voice. My grandfather (maternal), he sang. My father’s mother was a fantastic pianist. And,my mother had been in show business since like age 4. But, I waited until I was 5.
Biopic in the works?
BeBe: Was there a period of time that you didn’t see yourself in show business, or rather, had no interest in singing professionally?
Helen Reddy: Oh, you’ve read my book. Well, I do believe we choose the life we’re going into. So obviously, I chose my parents for the opportunity they would give me (in show business). Although, I did go through a rebellion period where I simply did not want to be in show business. But, I got over it.
BeBe: You mentioned you book "The Woman I Am", which is a wonderful autobiography, how you came to the United States on, what we would call, a hope and a prayer. You had little money in your pocket (and a three-year old) with hopes of starting a singing career. It’s quite the rags to riches story that we Americans love and would go see in a movie theater. Has there been any discussions around turning your book into a film? We love a story of triumph over adversity.
Helen Reddy: We actually have been looking into that. My son (Jordan Wald) is rather keen to do that. He’s a writer. We’ve been talking about maybe a movie of the week or something like that. I would be very interested to see who plays me.
BeBe: I’m sure you will have a hand in choosing the right actress to play you. Have you thought of anyone you would like to play you?
Helen Reddy: I don’t know. Sometimes I think I should have no involvement what-so-ever, but then other times, gee, it has to be someone who can do this or do that. We’ll see.
(I suggest she consider Australian singing diva Zoe Badwi. If she gets the role, does that mean I get a 20% referral fee?)
Re-inventing her most famous song
BeBe: Getting to your return to singing and performing, I happen to see one of your first return performances when you were a special guest performer at the Richmond/Ermet AIDS Foundation’s annual Help Is On The Way benefit concert in San Francisco. At the event, you performed your biggest in a string of hits, "I Am Woman." but you elected to recite the words in a poetic form rather than sing them. You could have heard a pin drop. Why did you decide to present the song in that way to the audience?
Helen Reddy: I thought if I spoke it, it gave it a lot more impact. Sometimes when you’ve heard a song over and over again, I don’t know, it’s kind of like reciting the Rosary. You know your mind drifts off and goes elsewhere. I needed to re-present it in a way to remind women of their own strength.
BeBe: I don’t think the song is limited to women. The event in San Francisco was an AIDS charity event and had a large number of gay men in the audience. I think the message in the song of strength and resolve for who we are applies everyone, nonexclusive to gender.
Helen Reddy: Absolutely! Gay men seem to really relate to it, and I think that’s great.
BeBe: Being that the song "I Am Woman" was inspired by the feminist movement, can you tell me how the whole women’s movement became a part of your life?
Helen Reddy: I was in the United States living for about 5 years before I wrote the song. And, it was only because the women’s movement was starting (that I wrote "I Am Woman"). I’d always held feminist ideals, but it wasn’t something one talked about. The times weren’t right. But then, all of a sudden, okay... now! I certainly think that a lot of the civil rights movements in the 60s were an impetus. And, there were no songs that said good things about women.
As I put it in my book, there was the dreadful song that came out in the 1960s called "Born A Woman" (Sandy Posey) with the lyrics, ’if you’re born a woman, you’re born to be lied to, cheated on, and treated like dirt. But, when your man comes home you’re glad it happens that way because to be his woman, no price is too great to pay’.
I looked at that and thought young girls are being indoctrinated to accepting domestic violence as a way of life. (I) having come from a family and a country (Australia) that were rather violent, that had to be addressed.
BeBe: We know the impact "I Am Woman" had and continues to have. It isn’t a song that came and went. It continues to stay relevant. That may be a sad bit of commentary becaue one would have hoped that we as a society would have progressed enough over the past 40 years where the song’s message wouldn’t be needed. But, apparently we still need to hear the message.
Helen Reddy: Well, I was very upset when Hillary Clinton got tossed overboard (for the Presidential nomination) by the Democratic Party. I thought we were ready for a female President. In Australia, where I live in Sydney, we have a female mayor, a female governor, a female governor general, and a female prime minister. There are so many women taking over these roles now throughout the world, but it seems to me America is lagging behind in this respect. We’ve still yet to have a female Vice President. Well, I’m not nominating Sarah Palin (we both roar with laughter)!
BeBe: I’m glad you put that out there!
Helen Reddy: Yeah.
BeBe: "I Am Woman" was not an instant hit despite the times of the feminist movement. It took several months for it to climb up the charts to #1.
Helen Reddy: It took 9 months climbing the charts to #1. It was women who drove it. The DJs didn’t want to play it. The program directors (of radio) hated it. It was only the fact that I went on TV 19 times and sang "I Am Woman" that women started calling radio stations and requesting the song. It’s become an iconic song.
String of hits
BeBe: Though "I Am Woman" was perhaps the catalyst to your fame, you definitely had a wealth of hits that followed. I mean, during the 70s, you charted some 15 songs on the Pop Top 40 charts. Your music remained relevant throughout the 70s. There was more to Helen Reddy than "I Am Woman."
Helen Reddy: Well, I had a 5 year period where I was never off the radio. But, there was also other things I wanted to do. I love acting. I did four productions of "Shirley Valentine." I like doing that as well (as singing), but singing is my first love.
BeBe: Well, Helen, now you’re back from retirement enjoying your first love. But, what’s next? Where does one go when they have toured the world already, topped the music charts multiple times, and sold millions upon millions of records?
Helen Reddy: That’s all true, but I love being on the stage because that’s where I grew up. I am so comfortable when I’m on a stage. I step out there, and I am home.
BeBe: Yes, your feet are planted in the soil where they belong when you’re on stage.
Helen Reddy: That’s it! That’s very well put.
BeBe: Millions of people have seen you perform over he years in concerts and on television. So, this go around what will they see that’s different? And, what will be different for you?
Helen Reddy: The pressure’s off, I think. That’s probably the main thing for me. I would not have come out of retirement if it meant singing those old hits. That would have had no meaning for me what-so-ever. The fact that I could come back after 10 years and sing the songs that I love in a relaxed way is what interested me.
BeBe: So, you are coming back on your own terms, would you say?
Helen Reddy: Yes, yes! I was a little concerned that maybe the fans thought I was neglecting them, but there was no way I was gonna go out there and sing all those old hits. And the thing is the fans love the change. Most of the songs I’m doing are from my albums. They are just songs that didn’t get much in the way of airplay. There are some beautiful ballads I’ve recorded over the years, and the fans have really responded well to me singing those tracks.
BeBe: Are you planning any new recordings with your return?
Helen Reddy: No plans that way. Live performing is my first love!
Helen Reddy is performing at the Crown and Anchor in Provincetown on October 13 & 14, 2013. For more information, visit the Crown’s website.
For more on Helen Reddy visit her website.