NFSA Curatorial Officer Crispian Winsor pays tribute to a pioneer of the Australian music scene.
Helen Reddy (1941–2020) had a unique and remarkable career.
After being born into a vaudeville family in Melbourne, she won a talent contest on the TV show Bandstand at age 25, which sent her to America before obtaining a recording contract.
Eventually she signed with Capitol Records and released her first album, I Don’t Know How to Love Him.
In this clip, the famed Australian rock critic Lillian Roxon reviews this album with her typical blend of love and directness:
Although the title track made the top 20 in several countries including Australia, Canada and America, it was another song on the album that would eventually become Helen’s signature tune.
The original version of 'I Am Woman', referred to by Roxon in the clip above, was much shorter and had a different musical arrangement.
However Roxon, along with many others, felt that 'I Am Woman' lyrically was an important song for the burgeoning Women’s Liberation movement. Co-written by Helen with fellow Australian ex-pat Ray Burton, the song speaks of how empowering being a woman is and should be, which was groundbreaking at the time.
After the song was featured in the film Stand Up and Be Counted (directed by Jackie Cooper, 1972), Capitol wanted to re-record the song with an extra verse and chorus to be released as a single.
Although the film was a flop, the single eventually became a massive success, hit No. 1 on the American charts in December 1972 and won Helen a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance (besting fellow nominees Roberta Flack, Aretha Franklin, Carly Simon and Barbra Streisand).
In 2009, the NFSA added 'I Am Woman' to the Sounds of Australia collection as a sound recording with cultural, historical and aesthetic significance.
Watch Helen Reddy perform it as the closing number of her Australian TV special, The Helen Reddy Special, in October 1975. At the start, Helen notes how proud she was that the United Nations chose 'I Am Woman' as the theme song for International Women's Year in 1975:
Following 'I Am Woman', Helen continued to have international success with hit singles such as 'Delta Dawn' (1973), 'Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress)' (1973), 'Angie Baby' (1974) and 'Ain’t No Way to Treat A Lady' (1975).
During this time, she turned to acting and received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance in the film Airport 1975 (directed by Jack Smight, 1974).
She also featured extensively on American television with stars such as Carol Burnett and Glen Campbell.
Helen recorded an oral history interview with the NFSA in 2008 which covers her life and career. In this clip she tells interviewer Nick Weare about the impact of 'I Am Woman':
In this excerpt from her 2008 oral history, Helen talks about the lasting legacy of the 1970s women's liberation movement:
In 2020, Helen was also the subject of an Australian biographical film, I Am Woman. Directed by Unjoo Moon, it starred Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Helen and Danielle Macdonald as Lillian Roxon.
Helen Reddy will always be remembered as one of Australia’s greatest international stars and a role model for generations of women. Vale Helen Reddy.