Delta Dawn (A Harvey) – Helen Reddy 1973
Following the international success of I Am Woman, Helen Reddy released her fourth album, Long Hard Climb, which was inspired by the arduous and sometimes rocky road that Helen had to navigate from her debut as a four-year old performer in her parent’s vaudeville act on the Tivoli circuit back in Australia, to crack the notoriously difficult US market, at the age of thirty, a single-mother, and often close to resigning herself to the fact that success would elude her.
Australian women had come to the USA before Helen, seeking stardom, Lana Cantrell, Diana Trask, Patsy Ann Noble, Janice Slater and others, but it would be Helen Reddy who would really kick down the doors for those who followed, and particularly Olivia Newton-John.
In the northern hemisphere summer of 1973 Helen’s friend comedian Flip Wilson turned his weekly network television slot over to her for the eight-week summer hiatus period, the Helen Reddy Show on NBC-TV was the first time an Australian had hosted their own network show in the US, and new acts got their break on Helen’s show – the Pointer Sisters, the Eagles, Jim Croce and Cheech and Chong. Helen’s public profile was now substantial, her next record release would continue this momentum, and lead to her being dubbed the “Queen of Housewife Rock” by Alice Cooper.
Delta Dawn was the first song lifted of the Long Hard Climb album, and chronologically the first of Helen’s trio of “crazy lady songs”, soon followed by Ruby Red Dress and Angie Baby.
These three songs would make Helen Reddy the biggest-selling female artist in the world in the period 1973-74, but following on from her feminist anthem, which proclaimed the strength, invincibility, and resilience of women, these songs focused on women who were marginalized, exploited, stigmatized, and deranged victims of men.
Helen was also less than protective of I Am Women over the years, performing it at the 1981 Miss World contest, and bizarrely allowing it to be used to advertise Burger King and re-named I Am Man to promote their Double Whopper! Reddy always responded to such criticism by saying it paid her bills and she had a family to support, particularly after her second marriage to Jeff Wald was acrimoniously dissolved in the early eighties, and as she claimed, he tried to blackball her in the industry.
Delta Dawn was originally recorded by a thirteen- year-old Tanya Tucker for a top 10 hit in the US in 1972, and one must reflect on a child-like Tucker being allowed to sing about such discomforting mature themes as mental derangement and dementia. Helen Reddy’s version depicted a faded southern belle who had been jilted, but continued to live in a fantasy world, dreaming of what might have been – “She’s 41 and her 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.”
Reddy’s version of Charles Dickens unhinged Miss Havisham from Great Expectations had replaced the liberated woman of her earlier anthem, a backing gospel choir imparted the appropriate Deep South resonance and Reddy’s usual easy-listening vocal style was eerily anodyne and quiescent, musically the song owed a debt to the traditional Scottish folk song The Banks of Loch Lomond.
Delta Dawn continued the remarkable success for Reddy internationally charting at #1 in the USA, Canada, and Australia, it was famously originally offered to Barbra Streisand who rejected it and has also been recorded by Bette Midler and the Statler Brothers.
Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress) (L Laurie) – Helen Reddy 1973
In the period 1971 – 77 Helen Reddy hit the US Billboard charts no less than 14 times with three #1 hits (I Am Woman, Delta Dawn, and Angie Baby),and three other top ten songs –You and Me Against the World # 9 in ’74, Ain’t No Way To Treat a Lady #8 in ’75 and this song, Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress) #3 in ’73, which was also a #1 for her in Aust, and #5 in Canada.
This song was the second single lifted off her million-selling album Long Hard Climb to follow up Reddy’s #1 hit Delta Dawn, this was the first time that a Helen Reddy album featured two songs that made the US top ten. When Linda Laurie offered the song to her she was doubtful about following up with another song about a woman from the American South, alliteratively – named (Delta Dawn/Ruby Red Dress), clearly deluded and suffering from some mental illness or the fallout from a failed relationship.
Ruby had apparently been used and dumped by “some farm boy up from Tennessee”, she was distraught, “broke down to a fool”, and wandered the streets of her small town. Unhinged, delusional and a suitable case for treatment, Laurie described a woman who was laughed at by her neighbors “Talking to herself now, sometimes sitting down/Don’t get too close now, Ruby runs away…”
The repetitive use of the expression “leave me alone” (repeated 43 times in the song) was also a concern for the singer, but despite her misgivings, producer Tom Catalano convinced her of the hit potential of the song, Al Capps provided an engaging orchestral arrangement and it was released in October 1973.
It was a huge international hit for Helen, vocally she threw everything at it in a gritty, dogged effort to imbue the banal lyrics with some chutzpah and credibility, but this song was not one of Helen’s favorites, and she dropped it from her live performances.
Angie Baby (A O’Day) – Helen Reddy 1974
The composer of Angie Baby was Alan O’Day, a pop singer/songwriter, who had solo hits with slick, vacuous, radio-friendly songs such as Skinny Girls and Undercover Angel in the US and Australia in the 1970’s. He claims that the inspiration for Angie Baby was variously the Beatles song Lady Madonna, the Stones hit Angie Baby, and the strange behavior of a mentally disturbed young girl who used to lived next door to him.
The lyrics of the song portray Angie as a social misfit, unable to attend school and confined to her bedroom where she fantasizes about her life via the songs on the radio. A neighborhood boy is smitten with Angie and despite her mysterious ways, manages to enter the inner sanctum that is her bedroom, where he discovers that he is not in control and he mysteriously disappears.
Angie was the third of Reddy’s “crazy lady songs” and easily the creepiest, did Angie kill the peeping Tom neighbor or is he just a figment of her imagination?
The songs and the radio and the disappearing boy are all metaphors depicting the fantasy life that Angie leads, there is no real boy, nor does he disappear “into the radio” although O’Day and Reddy were complicit in spinning a story around the song that blurred the lines between fantasy and reality. The song encouraged listeners to draw their own conclusions, and many did, conjuring up bizarre and surreal images which helped to promote the record. The final verse suggests that crazy Angie may have been more in control than we imagined “It’s nice to be insane/ no one asks you to explain.”
The song was a huge #1 USA hit for Helen Reddy, #13 in Aust and her only UK hit at # 9 – the album Free and Easy, from which Angie Baby was lifted was also a hit, and famously the song was initially offered to Cher, who passed on it. Cher may have already felt that she had used up her quota of songs about marginalized females anyway with her trio of hits in the same period – Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves, Half-Breed, and Dark Lady. Either way, they proved to be astute choices by Reddy, who turned them all into million-sellers in the US.
Helen was one of the first Australian performers to blaze a trail in the US, with her own network television show, Las Vegas appearances, films (Airport 1975 and Pete’s Dragon), and regular international hits, she wrote the playbook for Olivia Newton-John to enjoy similar success in the competitive American market.
In the process, she took three songs to the top of the US charts, won a Grammy Award, had eleven top twenty US hits in the period 1971-77, and personally racked up global record sales of 80 million.
Helen pursued a career in musical theatre throughout the 1980’s appearing in Blood Brothers and Shirley Valentine, her autobiography, The Woman I Am, was published in 2005, she was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2006 and is currently a resident of the Motion Picture Home, a care facility, in Los Angeles.