Helen Reddy had left Melbourne to pursue success in the US market in 1966, after winning a Bandstand talent quest, she was a single-mother who had divorced her first husband Ken Weate in 1966, she did not have a green card entitling her to work in the US, nor did she have the promised recording contract with Mercury, that was supposed to be part of her prize.She gradually gained exposure on the grueling live club circuit and moved between New York and Chicago with occasional visits to Canada to renew her visitor’s visa which allowed her to work in the States. Helen met and quickly married Jeff Wald (above) who also became her manager, they relocated to Los Angeles and comedian Flip Wilson, who was a friend and would become an important influence on Reddy’s career, invited her to perform on the Tonight Show, which Wilson was hosting as a fill-in for Johnny Carson.Artie Mogull the A&R man at Capitol Records caught her performance and offered her a one record deal which she accepted with alacrity, this became her first US top 20 hit (#13) with the Mary Magdalene torch ballad from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar-I Don’t Know How to Love Him. (#2 Aust ’71), which outsold a concurrent version of the song by Yvonne Elliman.Capitol wanted a follow- up so she cut her debut album entitled I Don’t Know How to Love Him in 1971 which included several original songs among cover versions of others. One of those originals was a song written by Reddy and Ray Burton (below left), a guitarist with the Australian group the Executives (below right, Burton is second from the right), entitled I Am Woman, the pair also contributed another song entitled Best Friend, which would be sung by Reddy in the movie Airport 1975, and would ironically become a sad postscript to the soured relationship between Reddy and Burton some years in the future.
I Am Woman was a classic “sleeper” which remained a relatively undiscovered album track without any apparent potential to break out as a single release for over a year, at 2.15 minutes it was too short to interest radio, who demanded three-minute songs, and were averse to women singing about female empowerment anyway.But Capitol had decided to produce a feminist comedy about the nascent Women’s Liberation movement based on a book by Robin Morgan entitled Sisterhood Is Powerful, which became the movie Stand Up and Be Counted directed by Mike Frankovitch and starring Jacqueline Bisset. Capitol wanted to use I Am Woman over the credits in the movie, but the original album version of the song with two verses and two choruses was too short, so Reddy wrote another verse and chorus to pad it out and this was where the only reference to a man in the song appears “Until I make my brother understand”. The original version of the song which appeared on Reddy’s first album, I Don’t Know How to Love Him, was ultimately used in the movie which bombed at the box office, but it would be the revamped version of the song, at 3.24 minutes, that would become the million-seller.
The song was re-recorded at Sunwest Studio in Los Angeles in 1972 with producer/arranger Jay Senter who had gathered the cream of LA’s session musicians, former Wrecking Crew/Phil Spector/Beach Boys session man Mike Deasy’s (above right) 12-string guitar riff anchors the song melodically, legendary drummer Jim Gordon (above left) and bassist Leland Sklar delivered a solid rhythmic foundation, keyboard player Mike Melvoin, Don Menza on sax, Dick Hyde on trombone and an inspired string and horn arrangement by Jim Horn, delivered a classy mix, albeit within the framework of a light melodic pop song. The backing singers were the Blackberries which included Venetta Fields who would emigrate to Australia in 1982 and feature on many hit records here for John Farnham, Cold Chisel, Jimmy Barnes, Australia Crawl, Richard Clapton, and many others.
Reddy’s potent lyrics delivered in her trademark approachable, easy-listening vocal style, sent a timely message to an emerging female liberation movement, in 1970 Germaine Greer’s feminist manifesto The Female Eunuch had been published to divided opinion around the world, in 1972 such feminist publications as Cleo (Australia) and Ms (USA) were launched, in the US Gloria Steinem (above right with Helen), Betty Friedan and others were pursuing a bill for Equal Rights Amendment (for Women) through the Congress, and in 1973 the historic landmark case Roe vs Wade would effectively legalise abortion in the US. The time seemed right for this song to soar, a visibly pregnant Reddy (she was expecting her son Brandon) performed the song on daytime TV spots in the US and grassroots support among women grew, and they demanded that radio stations play the song.
But the record sputtered rather than soared, entering the US charts, and peaking at #97 in June ’72 and disappearing, re-entering the charts at #87 in September and three months later in December ’72 it finally hit #1 on the US Cashbox charts, it was a #2 hit in Australia in November of that year. It’s hard to appreciate the countercultural impact that the song had at the time, sexism, and the exploitation of woman, particularly in the entertainment industry, was rampant, and most women couldn’t get a credit card or mortgage a home in their own name.
Misogynistic songs such as He Hit Me (It Felt Like A Kiss) in 1962 by the Crystals and Born A Woman by Sandy Posey in 1966, were recorded by females. The Crystals blatant endorsement of domestic abuse, written by Carole King, is obvious from the song title, and Sandy Posey delivered these memorable lyrics “you’re born to be stepped on, lied to, cheated on and treated like dirt… but when my man finally comes home, he makes me glad, it happened that way”. (#12 US in ’66). There had only been sporadic attempts by female recording artists to espouse women’s rights in popular music before I Am Woman, Lesley Gore’s stab at female empowerment with You Don’t Own Me in 1964, followed a string of disempowering teenage crush songs about girls losing their boyfriends and then wreaking revenge on other women, Janis Ian’s moving Society’s Child in 1966, and Aretha Franklin’s definitive version of Otis Redding’s Respect in 1967, were all substantial hits.
Dolly Parton had recorded the anti-slut- shaming song Just Because I’m A Woman in 1968, Jeannie C Riley had nailed the hypocrites in Harper Valley PTA in the same year, and even Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys had delivered their ode to female independence in 1967 with the Michael Nesmith composition Different Drum. But the feminist movement was still waiting for its anthem. I Am Woman would become the song with which Helen Reddy would be identified throughout her career, it was the first forthright declaration of feminist values that became an anthem for a generation of liberated upwardly – mobile women.Helen had been encouraged to become a songwriter by her mentor and friend, Australian journalist and writer Lillian Roxon (above), the author of the first ever Rock Encyclopedia in 1969, who was resident in the States as the Sydney Morning Herald’s US correspondent for ten years, and held court at Max’s Kansas City club in New York. Of Lillian’s influence, Helen said “I don’t think I’d ever have written a song if it weren’t for Lillian. I have to attribute to her my first awareness of the women’s movement, and the fact that it might be OK to write something and show it to someone without being laughed off the planet” (Lillian Roxon Mother of Rock – Robert Milliken).
Roxon wrote the liner notes for Reddy’s debut album and described her friend thus when she said “There is a certain sort of woman who is remarkably without artifice and remarkably without fear…”, and publicly Helen was prepared to nail her colours to the mast “ I am a feminist (she told CBC in 1972), … I would like get into the hearts and minds of women who, for example, wouldn’t have a copy of [Gloria Steinem’s] Ms. magazine in their house. But these women can be reached and … I’m trying to find a way to reach them, … to give them a confidence in themselves that they’ve never had.”Reddy wrote the lyrics which reflected her life experiences – “I am strong, I’m invincible, I am woman”, she has revealed that these lyrics came to her in the form of a supernatural or divine inspiration and after writing them down she asked Ray Burton, to provide the melody. Burton’s recollection of the song’s creative process is at odds with Reddy’s, he claims that Reddy and her gal pals used to get together at her house in L.A. and complain about their partners, so he suggested that she do something about it and write a song. He claims to have adapted the original lyrics provided by Reddy to better fit the melody he had written, which Reddy denies.
Although Reddy shared song-writing credits with Ray Burton, the latter has expressed his disappointment at the lack of recognition that she gave for his contribution to the success of the song in interviews over the years, claiming that Reddy felt that a man’s close association with such a revered feminist anthem would be detrimental to her image. The pair also had issues over the distribution of royalties from the song, and they did not collaborate on another record again.The song was inspirational and encouraged woman to empower themselves and campaign for equality, the fight goes on, given the sensational outing of many of Hollywood’s male stars and powerbrokers in 2017 as sexual abusers and harassers, the arrest and subsequent death of paedophile sex abuser and procurer Jeffrey Epstein, the rise of the #MeToo movement and the Time’s Up initiative have made it clear that lip service isn’t enough to redress the unequal balance of power between the sexes. In the words of Helen Reddy, a woman must still strive to eradicate such exploitation “until she makes her brother understand”, to achieve real and lasting equality in the future.
I Am Woman was the first #1 US hit by an Australian-born female solo artist to sell one million copies, the first Australian-penned song to win a Grammy – Best Female Vocal Performance –and at her Grammy acceptance speech in Nashville, in the heart of the American Bible belt, Helen Reddy thanked “God, because She makes everything possible” (see Helen’s Grammy acceptance speech in 1973 below)