The death was announced today of Grammy award-winning performer Helen Reddy. Tributes praise her many achievements, including 16 albums and 18 singles that kept Reddy in the pop and easy listening charts as well as having regular TV appearances over several decades. Her most recent notable appearance was in 2017, at the march for women’s rights and unity in Los Angeles. Despite already living with dementia and being cared for at Motion Picture and Television Fund’s Samuel Goldwyn Center for Behavioral Health in Woodland Hills, Helen Reddy sang an acapella version of her 1972 feminist anthem’ I am Woman’ to the 750,000 gathered.
Whilst the song suggests Helen Reddy was indeed a ‘strong, invincible woman’, there’s also something about that generation of 1940s women that makes them constantly hard-working, determined and looking for the next project to complete and move on. Whilst many musicians and singers are able to sit back and enjoy their lives following a period of success, Helen seemed to be constantly striving for repeated success and new achievements – in Broadway shows, through academic study, by becoming a hypnotherapist, having her own TV show, taking on political and civic affairs such as sitting on the California Parks Commission and voicing a number of characters on Family Guy television show.
Sadly, at the heart of this may have been a constant power struggle with others. Aged 4, Helen’s Australian showbiz parents made her perform and told her that she must become a famous singer/dancer. “You will be a star” was the mantra until, aged 12, she left the vaudeville circuit and her parents’ sniping to live with an aunt. Following removal of a kidney aged 17, she was no longer able to pursue dancing. As an act of rebellion, Helen chose domesticity and marriage to a much older man, seemingly to escape the demand for stardom. That didn’t last long; the guy was regularly drunk and abusive and, as a single mother with a young daughter to support, Helen Reddy turned once more to singing, winning a flight to New York as part of a TV singing competition. Settling there with her daughter, Reddy started to play shows with little initial impact.
There are two notable things that Helen Reddy has done in a rush. One was to record and release the single ‘Angie Baby’ within 8 days of initially hearing it from songwriter Alan O’Day. This was a punk-like musical and manufacturing feat that was seldom seen in 1974. That record was a siren call to kids who who had just started listening to Radio 1, who liked Mud, Slade and Wizzard, but, like me were drawn in with an unresolved dark narrative. ‘Angie Baby’ sowed the seeds of weird girl identity in our heads and three years later punk girl Poly Styrene was there to guide us on. Many people who were young in 1974 say that ‘Angie Baby’ had a big impact on their young ears and brains.
Helen Reddy’s other impulsive act was to meet her to-be second husband Jeff Wald and marry him after three days in 1968, also converting to Judaism as part of the process. Whilst it did give her American citizenship, with our 2020 eyes on, we now recognise the too-good-to-be-true danger signs. Wald turned out to be a long term cocaine addict, with a volatile temper. In time, he became influential in show business but in the early days went from one record company job to another band management job as soon as he got fired. In one case, Wald was fired the day he started, but this didn’t stop him harassing Artie Mogull at Capitol Records with five months of phone calls until Capitol agreed to put out a record by Wald’s wife Helen Reddy. This was done on condition that he didn’t call for a month. It’s maybe not the best way of getting a deal, but it worked….
When Helen Reddy’s marriage finished in 1983, her ex-husband fought for custody of their son and threatened that Helen would not be able to perform again. Indeed, many of her contracts were cancelled – promoters were afraid that Wald would come after them ‘with a shotgun’, so Helen Reddy sidestepped into the different world of musical theatre where her ex-husband had no influence. But the experience of being married to a cocaine addict for 15 years forced Helen to recognise a pattern:
“I found a vial of cocaine in one of his coat pockets. As I angrily poured the contents into the toilet bowl, I had flashbacks of myself-emptying Mum’s hidden brandy bottles down the kitchen sink as a young girl; pouring out my first husband’s cheap whiskey the same way; dumping Number Two’s diet pills down the toilet; and here I was now with the cocaine doing it again.”Helen Reddy
By the 1980s, well-established as the musical star of her parents’ dreams, Helen Reddy is estimated to have sold at least 10 million singles and 25 million albums. In 1983 she remarried for a third time, divorcing in 1995. In tributes, her daughter and son call her ‘a truly formidable woman’ as well as being a ‘wonderful mother and grandmother’. Helen Reddy’s life was full of challenges both exciting and difficult; her experience of marriage as the women’s liberation movement unfolded seems typical. Chains of events in wealthier countries, starting in the early 1970s have now improved the lives and rights of their women to the point that many of the previous legal, moral and social struggles are no longer recognised. Helen was a campaigner and a spokeswoman over many years, trying to make the world a better place. We remember her music and her place in cultural history with great fondness. RIP Helen Reddy x