I Am Woman (H Reddy/R Burton)- Helen Reddy 1972.
Following Helen’s success with the torch ballad I Don’t How To Love Him, from the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, 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 these originals was a song written by Reddy and Ray Burton, a fellow Australian who had been a guitarist with the Sydney group The Executives, 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, that ultimately developed between Reddy and Burton some years later. Below The Executives, Ray Burton is second from the right.
I Am Woman was a classic “sleeper’ track, which remained a relatively undiscovered album track without any apparent potential to break out as a single release for over a year , and at 2.15 minutes it was too short to interest radio, who demanded three minute songs, and were averse to 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 as the theme song over the credits to 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 appears in the song “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 rerecorded at Sunwest Studios in Los Angeles in 1972 with producer 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) 12-string guitar riff anchored the song melodically, legendary drummer Jim Gordon (below) 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 brass arrangement by Jim Horn, delivered a classy mix, albeit within the framework of a light melodic pop song, perfect for Reddy’s easy-listening style of vocals.
The backing singers were the Blackberries (below, Venetta Fields centre) 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 yet steely-eyed manner, sent a timely reminder to an emerging female liberation movement, Helen had read Betty Friedan’s 1963 feminist opinion-shaper The Feminine Mystique, and in 1970 Germaine Greer’s feminist manifesto The Female Eunuch had been published to divided opinion around the world.
I 1972 such feminist publications as Cleo (Aust), and Ms USA) were launched; in the USA Gloria Steinem, 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 legalize abortion in the US.
The time seemed right for the song to soar, a visibly pregnant Reddy (she was expecting her son Jordon, pictured below) 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 again at #87 in September and three months later in December ’72 it finally hit #1 on the US Cashbox Charts, and in a supreme display of multi-tasking, Helen duly delivered her second child Jordan at the same time, the song was also a #2 hit in Australia in November 1972.
Its hard to appreciate the counter-cultural impact that the song had at the time, sexism and the exploitation of woman, particularly in the entertainment industry was rampant, the “glass ceiling’ regularly thwarted the professional aspirations of women, and most 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, Run For Your Life was recorded by the Beatles. The Crystals blatant endorsement of domestic abuse, in a song written by Carole King, equated true love with the violent control of women by their partners, 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). John Lennon’s Run For Your Life (Rubber Soul ’66) was a classic jealous man song, threatening to kill his partner if she was seen with another man.
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, was a step in the right direction, but had been preceded by a string of dis-empowering teenage crush songs about girl’s losing their boyfriends to predatory females, Judy in particular in Lesley Gore’s songs, and then wreaking revenge on them. Janis Ian’s moving Society’s Child in 1966 slammed racism but ultimately denied the girl the right to make her choice of partner, while Aretha Franklin’s definitive version of Otis Redding’s Respect in 1967, righteously demanded R-E-S-P-E-C-T.
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 the Stone Poneys with Linda Ronstadt had delivered their ode to female independence in 1967 with the Michael Nesmith song 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 pictured above with Gloria Steinem.
Helen had been encouraged to become a songwriter by her friend and mentor, Australian journalist and writer Lillian Roxon, 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 regularly held court at Max’s Kansas City club in New York City. Of Lillian’s influence, Helen said “ I don’t think I’d have ever 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 colors 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, but after writing them down, she struggled to come up with a melody that didn’t sound like a John Philip Sousa marching song, so she asked Ray Burton (below) to provide the melody.
Burton’s recollection of the events that lead to the song’s creative process is at odds with Reddy’s, he claims that Reddy and her “galpals” used to get together at her house in LA, and complain about their partners, he suggested that Helen should 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 has denied. Helen and her “galpals” in LA – left to right Olivia Newton-John, Helen Reddy, Minne Riperton, and Linda Ronstadt.
Although Reddy shared song-writing credits and royalties with Ray Burton, the latter has expressed his disappointment at the lack of recognition that she has given 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, even after Reddy had paid Burton a lump sum amount to buy out his share in the song, they have never collaborated together on another record.
The song was inspirational and encouraged woman to empower themselves and campaign for equality, and the fight goes on, the glass ceiling still exists, despite some cracks appearing in it. The sensational outing of many of Hollywood’s male stars and power-brokers in 2017, and the 2018 sacking of abusive males within the Fox Television network, branded as sexual abusers and harassers, followed by the arrest and subsequent death of serial pedophile sex abuser and procurer Jeffrey Epstein, are all indicative of changing attitudes in society.
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, women 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, it was also the first Australian-penned song to win a Grammy Award – Best Female Vocal Performance 1973- and at her Grammy acceptance speech, televised from the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, in the heart of the American Bible belt, Helen said “I want to thank God, because She makes everything possible.
4TR featured 10 Helen Reddy songs in the period August 25-Sept 1, 2020, they’re all worth a look.