Delta Dawn L Collins/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, and Diana Trask had experienced early success when she inked a 26 week contract with NBC to appear as a regular singer on the debut series of Sing Along With Mitch in 1961 ( Below Di Trask performing on US TV). But it would be Helen Reddy who would really kick down the doors for those who followed, and particularly Olivia Newton-John, who was tracking closely behind Helen into the US market in the 1970’s.
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. So for Helen, there was a fear of being typecast as a purveyor of songs about dis-empowered females, a position diametrically opposed to that of her anthem I Am Women.
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 written by former child rockabilly star Larry Collins and Nashville tunesmith Alex Harvey, and was originally recorded by a thirteen-year-old Tanya Tucker, for a top ten C&W hit in the US in 1972. It’s interesting to note that a child-like Tucker was allowed to sing about such discomforting mature themes as mental derangement and dementia. Reddy’s version, released only a year after Tucker’s, was more piano-based and less country-influenced, whereas Tucker used harmonica and steel guitar, Reddy’s version was typically easy-listening and exhibited greater light and shade and intonation in her vocals. Helen released her version in June 1973 only 2 days before Bette Midler, who had recorded a version for inclusion on her Divine Miss M album, had planned to release Delta Dawn as a single as well. Once she was preempted by Reddy’s version, she released Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy instead, and still had a top ten hit.
Delta Dawn depicted a faded southern belle who has been jilted, but continues to live in a fantasy old, 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, with her crumbling wedding cake, cobwebbed bridal table, and haunted persona, was now Delta Dawn, who had replaced the assertive, liberated woman of Helen’s earlier anthem. An inspirational gospel choir backing imparted the appropriate Deep South resonance and Reddy’s usual easy-listening vocal style was eerily anodyne and restrained, which underscored the pathos of the lyrics, while 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, and rising to #13 on the South African charts for Helen’s first hit there. The song was famously offered to Barbra Streisand who rejected it because of the fragile mental condition of the main protagonist in the song, it has also been covered by Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings, and the Statler Brothers.