Friday, November 16, 2012

Helen Reddy: Pop Star of the 1970s

Helen Reddy in concert in 1974

I am woman, hear me roar
In numbers too big to ignore
And I know too much to go back an' pretend
'Cause I've heard it all before
And I've been down there on the floor
No one's ever gonna keep me down again

Oh yes, I am wise
But it's wisdom born of pain
Yes, I've paid the price
But look how much I've gained
If I have to
I can do anything
I am strong
I am invincible
I am woman

From the song "I Am Woman"
:Lyrics by Helen Reddy

Recently I heard Helen Reddy's feminist anthem, "I Am Woman" on the radio.  I hadn't listened to the song in a very long time and I began to wonder about what happened to Helen, a woman who was at the forefront of the 1970s pop scene.  Reddy certainly cannot be discounted as a one-hit wonder.  She recorded  a number of popular songs such as "Delta Dawn," "Angie Baby," "Somewhere in the Night,"  "You're My World," "I Don't Know How To Love Him," and  "You and Me Against the World"  Yet, although she had 11 Top 20 Billboard hits, she will always be remembered for "I Am Woman."  It's the one that struck a chord.  It will always be her signature song.

During the '70s, Helen Reddy dominated the pop charts like no other female artist of that era. She was the first Australian to have three Number One hits in the United States during the same year and the first Aussie to win a Grammy Award.  On March 3, 1973, Helen received a Grammy in the category of "Best PopVocal Perormance, Female" for "I Am Woman,"  She raised eyebrows when she ended her acceptance speech by thanking God because "She makes everything  possible."

To watch a clip of Helen's Grammy acceptance speech, click on the link below.

Reddy also has the distinction of being the first Australian to host her own weekly one-hour prime time variety show on an American network.  The Helen Reddy Show aired as a 1973 summer series.on NBC.  The show included comedy skits and musical numbers and it always ended with a question and answer session with the questions coming from the people in the studio audience.  In 1973, Helen also became a semi-regular host of the NBC late night variety series, The Midnight Special, a position she held until 1975.

During Helen's heyday, according to her website, she "dined on her birthday with the Prince of Wales, danced in the White House with the President of the United States, and had a (reddish-violet) tulip named after her in Holland."  She was also the first western female performer invited to sing in the People's Republic of China.   It was quite a whirlwind ride for the woman from Down Under.

Helen Reddy was born on October 25, 1941 in Melbourne, Australia and recently celebrated her 71st birthday.  She was born into a prominent Australian show business family.  Her mother, Stella (nee Lamond), was an actress and her father, Max Reddy, was a writer, producer and actor.  As a child, Helen performed with her parents on the Australian vaudeville circuit.  She sang and danced on stage with them until 1948 when at the age of six, she began attending the Tintern Church of England Girls' Grammar Hawthorn.(a suburb of Melbourne).

As a teenager, Helen  joined a travelling theatrical company and later became a vocalist with a band in Melbourne.  She appeared regularly on a late-night variety program called Melbourne Tonight and had a guest role on a television series called Sunnyside Up.  She eventually hosted her own 15-minute television show, Helen Reddy Sings.

In 1961, when she was 20 years old, Helen wed Kenneth Claude Weate, a much-older musician and family friend..  The marriage was short-lived and Helen was left to raise their daughter, Traci (born  in 1963), on her own..  The singer continued to pursue a career in radio and television.  In 1966, she won a talent contest on an Australian pop music TV show called Bandstand and was awarded a trip to the United States and a recording contract with Mercury Records.

At the age of 25, Helen Reddy, along with Traci,, set off for New York City with big dreams and a determination to break into the American market.  Mercury Records, however, reneged on its offer, and Helen was forced to support herself with any singing job she could find.  By 1968, she was in such dire financial straits that her friends threw a fund-raising party for Greenwich Village.  It was at that party that the  struggling singer met her second husband, the man who was to accompany her on her journey to fame and fortune.  His name was Jeffrey Wald and he was a hot-blooded American from the Bronx.

Jeff Wald was a talent agent with the William Morris Agency.  The two moved in together and eventually married on May 25, 1968.  Prior to their marriage, Reddy converted to Judaism (Wald's religion).  Jeff adopted Traci and he also became his wife's business manager and producer.  The family lived in Chicago for a time but later moved to Los Angeles where Helen endeavoured to establish herself as a recording artist.  27 In 1970, she finally signed a contract with Capitol Records.  In 1971, she had her first Top 40 hit, a cover of "I Don't Know How To Love Him," am Andrew Lloyd Webber - Tim Rice composition from the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar.  

On December 12, 1972, Helen and Jeff welcomed a son, Jordan, just days after "I Am Women" topped the U.S. charts.  Helen's career really took off, as did Jeff's. They made millions of dollars as Reddy recorded a string of hits and Wald represented celebrities such as Sylvester Stallone, Donna Summer and Tiny Tim.  They lived in a $3.5 million home in the exclusive Brentwood area of Los Angeles.

All was not well, though.  Jeff Wald was addicted to cocaine and his addiction was instrumental in the breakup of their marriage.  Reddy  filed for divorce in 1981 but withdrew her petition a day later on the understanding that her husband would discontinue his use of cocaine.  According to a May 16, 1983 article by Jeff Jarvis in People magazine, Wald had "confessed to - and sworn off - his decade-long, $100,000-a-year snowfall."

Although Jeff Wald underwent treatment at a  rehab facility in Los Angeles, he failed to kick the habit.  The couple separated in 1982 when Helen found evidence of his continued substance abuse.  In June of 1982, she initiated divorce proceedings again and fired Wald as her manager. The two then became embroiled in a bitter, tug-of-war custody battle over their son.  The dispute made the cover of People magazine and Wald was accused of punching Helen's boyfriend at the time, Milton Ruth, a drummer in her band.  He was also accused of attempting to run Ruth over with a Silver Maserati.  Helen and Jeff's divorce became final in January of 1983 and they agreed to joint custody of 10-year-old Jordan.  In June of 1983, Helen married Milon Ruth.  She and Ruth divorced in 1995.

In 1986, Jeff Wald was rushed to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles after a drug overdose.  He ended up at the Betty Ford Clinic in Rancho Mirage, California and has apparently stayed clean ever since.  In 1990, he married photographer and photo editor Deborah Wald and they have a daughter named Sarah.  Jeff Wald is currently CEO of Aria Multimedia Entertainment which produces lush coffee table books on the artistic lifestyle such as Hip Hop: A Cultural Odyssey (photo edited by Deborah Wald) and The Official Michael Jackson OPUS.  Son Jordan, who goes by the name Jordan Sommers, is President and Editor-in-Chief of the company.

In the mid-1980s, Helen Reddy returned to her theatrical roots.  She appeared mainly  in musicals such as Anything Goes, and Call Me Madam, both in London's West End and on Broadway.  She also starred in four productions of the one-woman show, Shirley Valentine.

Helen Reddy retired from live performance in 2002.  She left her long-time residence in Santa Monica, California and returned to her native Australia where she has lived a frugal life in a high-rise apartment in Sydney.  During the past ten years, Helen has also become a qualified clinical hypnotherapist. and a motivational speaker.  Last July, however, she decided to come out of retirement after performing a duet with her sister at her sister's 80th birthday party.  Accordingly, she has scheduled a concert tour in March of 2013 that includes Palm Springs California, Newberry, South Carolina, Palm Coast, Florida and New York City.

Click the link below to watch a  November 24, 2011 interview with Helen on Australia's


* In 2006, Helen Reddy published her autobiography, The Woman I Am: A Memoir.

* For three years, Helen served as Commissioner of Parks and Recreation for the State of California.

* Alice Cooper once called Helen "the queen of housewife rock 'n' roll."

* Helen Reddy had a kidney removed when she was only 17 years old, so she turned to singing rather than dancing;.  In the 1970s, at the height of her singing career, Helen was diagnosed with Addison's Disease, a failure of the adrenal glands.  It is a rare disease for which she must receive constant treatment.  Note: John F. Kennedy and English novelist Jane Austen also had Addison's Disease.

* Helen has a feature role in the 2011 crime film, The Perfect Host. which stars David Hayde-Pierce.

- Joanne

EDITOR'S UPDATE (October 1, 2020):  Helen Reddy died on September 29, 2020 in Los Angeles, California.  She suffered from Addison's Disease and dementia.  At the time of her passing, she was 78 years old.