A record boss dismissed her song as ‘women’s lib crap’ – but Reddy had the last laugh

“I want to thank God because she makes everything possible.”

Oct 01, 2020, updated Oct 01, 2020
PHOTO: Helen Reddy's biggest hit was initially disregarded by her label. (Facebook: Helen Reddy)

PHOTO: Helen Reddy's biggest hit was initially disregarded by her label. (Facebook: Helen Reddy)

That line, delivered on national TV while accepting a Grammy Award in 1973, sums up the feminist ethos of Helen Reddy, a sometimes-overlooked giant of 20th century Australian music who died on Tuesday aged 78.

It was fitting given the award she was accepting — the first Grammy for an Australian-penned song — was for ‘I Am Woman’, a track that would not only define her career but become synonymous with women’s liberation movements for decades.

The song was initially dismissed as ‘women’s lib crap’

The song, with its memorable opening line “I am woman, hear me roar”, was written by Reddy and a fellow Australian Ray Burton while Reddy was living in Los Angeles and working on her first album.

The way she later explained it, the lines of the chorus came out of nowhere while she was lying in bed.

It had been inspired by the women’s movement in the US.

Reddy was looking for songs to record that reflected her own sense of empowerment, but found much of what was around at the time had themes of subservience to or reliance on a male figure, or presented women as “dainty”.

“All the women in my family, they were strong women,” she told the Chicago Tribune in 2013.

“They worked. They lived through the Depression and a world war, and they were just strong women. I certainly didn’t see myself as being dainty.”

Helen Reddy wearing orange looking at the camera

PHOTO: A Helen Reddy poster from 1980. (Facebook: Helen Reddy)

As she told Fred Bronson, author of The Billboard Book of Number One Hits: “I realised that the song I was looking for didn’t exist, and I was going to have to write it myself.”

Her record label wasn’t keen on the track.

“Capitol Records said ‘that women’s lib crap is going to kill her, why are you letting your wife do this stuff?’” Jeff Wald, who was Reddy’s husband and manager at the time, told NPR in 2018.

And the song did initially bomb.

It wasn’t until it picked up steam within the movement, and at a particular station in Washington DC, that radio requests started flowing, eventually pushing the song back into the US charts and, finally, to the number one position.

A song embraced by a new generation of feminists

Reddy’s career got an enormous boost.

She later had more than a dozen songs chart in the US, where she lived for much of the next 30 years, and sold more than 20 million records.

In 2008, nearing her 70th birthday, she gave an interview to Channel Seven in which she talked of having abandoned the high life to live frugally, by herself, in a small, rented apartment in inner-city Sydney.

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“These are the best years for me,” she said.

“What do I like doing now? Whatever I please.”

She had retired from performing, relying on royalties and a pension. She went unnoticed in the street, and had given away her gold records and her Grammy.

She later said she sang nothing more than ‘Happy Birthday’ for a decade, and did not miss rolling out some of her old hits, namely ‘Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress)’, which repeats the titular phrase more than 40 times.

By the early 2010s, something had changed

The joy she found in performing proved too strong a draw.

In 2013, she relocated to California (she was a dual Australian-US citizen) and was back on stage.

In 2018, she was named the first inductee into the Australian Women in Music Awards honour roll, which acknowledges “outstanding women in the Australian music industry who have made significant and lasting contributions”.

Last year her life was the subject of a biopic, I Am Woman, directed by Unjoo Moon.

Most fitting in her final years was the way her most famous song had taken on new significance in this latest era of female empowerment, where debates about gender equality are once again common, particularly in her adopted homeland.

At the 2017 Women’s March in Los Angeles, following President Donald Trump’s inauguration, Reddy — by then already diagnosed with dementia — sung it for a new generation of feminists.

“You sing it,” the actress Jamie Lee Curtis told Reddy. “We’ve got your back.”

– ABC / Paul Donoughue

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