An interview with Helen Reddy.
by Gregg Shapiro
When you think about the great pop divas of the 1970s, Helen Reddy’s name is probably at the top of the list. In fact, her radio reign began at the start of the decade with her 1971 cover of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar. Then, just a year later, Reddy would record the song that would ultimately define her, as well as an entire generation. The infectious pop anthem “I Am Woman,” which she co-wrote, arrived at precisely the right time and has retained its classic status more than 40 years later. Reddy would go on to be a regular on the charts and radio (as well as on TV and in movies) throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, later retiring at the early part of the 21st century. Fortunately for her fans, old and new, Reddy has returned to the stage and has embarked on a U.S. concert tour. In November 2013, I spoke with Reddy about her career.
Gregg Shapiro: Helen, you have a history of having hits with songs written by some of the most renowned songwriters, beginning with your first stateside hit, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” What does it mean to you to be among the first to have had a hit with a Webber song?
Helen Reddy: There was actually quite a race going on. Yvonne Elliman sang the original one on the [Jesus Christ Superstar] album. There was someone else who also covered the tune. But that was the first one for me that I got on the charts.
You also covered songs by Paul Williams…
I did a lot of Paul Williams’s songs. I would say there’s at least one Paul Williams song on just about every one of my albums. I think he’s brilliant.
Yes, and you also sang songs by Kenny Rankin, Will Jennings, Harriet Schock, and Alex Harvey, to mention a few. If you were to go into the recording studio today, are there songwriters you admire, new or established, whose songs you would like to record?
I don’t listen too much to music in the car, because I have to concentrate when I’m driving. I can get very distracted. But I do love music. [As for recording,] I haven’t really given it that much thought. My son is pushing me to do an album. But I need a holiday first. [Laughs]
Last year was the 40th anniversary of the release of your hit single “I Am Woman,” a song you co-wrote. As much progress as we’ve made as a culture, there are issues such as women’s reproductive rights that are still at risk. Does it surprise you that we’re still fighting for those kinds of rights?
It’s been one step forward, three steps back. It’s been a very tough row to hoe. The younger generation doesn’t get it. Someone told me about this bunch of young girls having a seminar, and the subject matter was “Why Can’t We Binge Drink and Have Sex Like the Men?”
Oh, my God!
Exactly! That’s what I said. That has nothing to do with feminism. It’s the opposite. Everything seems to skip a generation, doesn’t it, Gregg?
Especially since you put in the work and this is the thanks you get.
Well, nobody has to thank me. The younger ones just don’t get it, but I guess they’re going to have to one day, I suppose.
You had a string of hits, beginning with “Delta Dawn” and continuing with “Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress)” and “Angie Baby” that were story songs with female characters.
I love story songs.
Was this something planned or coincidental?
All of the above. My mother was a singer, and she always said to me, “The lyrics are the most important thing. If you don’t clearly enunciate every word, nobody knows what the song is about.” So I’ve always made it my job to be very clear on the lyrics.
Plus the fact that it’s a story—that’s a good way to keep the listener’s attention, so they can find out what happens in the end.
You’re so right. Virtually everyone says, “What really happened at the end of ‘Angie Baby’?” I always say, “Well, what do you think?” I’ve gotten some really weird answers.
I was a kid when that song was popular, and it scared me a little.
Really? Gregg, do you want me to come over there and look under the bed?
No, I’m okay now, thank you. What was it about those songs that spoke to you?
I liked them all. Sometimes when there’s an idea in the air, people will grab it and go with it. There were a lot of similarities to “Delta Dawn” and “Ruby Red Dress.” I would put “Angie Baby” separate.
You also had a TV and film-acting career, including appearing in Disney’s Pete’s Dragon and singing the Oscar-nominated theme song “Candle on the Water.” What did you like the best about acting, as opposed to singing?
I would much rather be a nightclub singer than anything else, quite honestly. I’ve got the freedom of the stage. I’ve got a four-piece band that I travel with and I’m singing the songs that I enjoy, focusing on some really good songs. I’m always going to have to do a few bars of the greatest hits. But there are some wonderful songs—album cuts that I’ve got on so many of my albums. Beautiful songs, but they’re never going to get airplay because only pop radio was playing anything at the time.
One of my favorite deep cuts was “What Would They Say?”
[Sings] “…if we up and ran away?”
Oh, thank you for doing that. That was lovely.
And in the right key, too.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to ask you about your friend, the late Peter Allen. You toured with Peter and you also co-wrote songs with him.
When I did my [first] world tour, he was my opening act. Every night, I used to leave the dressing room and go down to the wings to hear him sing “Tenterfield Saddler.” It’s a song in three parts. The first verse is about his grandfather who was a saddler. The middle part is about his father who killed himself. And then the third part is about Peter leaving Australia and going to London, New York, doing all the things he did. It’s a three-generational song.
Would it be fair to say you are aware of your following within the LGBT community?
[Big laugh] Are you kidding? I grew up in show business. I was on stage at age five. I have a gay nephew! Tony Sheldon—he did Priscilla, Queen of the Desert on Broadway and in London in the West End. [As for being aware of a gay following,] where would we be without them?
In recent days, same-sex marriage has been signed into law in Illinois and Hawaii, making them the 15th and 16th states, respectively, where same-sex marriage will be legal. Have you attended any same-sex weddings?
Over the years? Quite a few!
Finally, what can fans expect from your concert?
I do a mixture of stuff, Gregg. I don’t do every single one of the hits. I particularly don’t do “Leave me alone leave me alone leave me alone leave me alone leave me.” We’ve let that one go. I still do “Delta Dawn,” “Angie Baby,” “You and Me against the World”—quite a lot of the oldies. But I also do some other songs as well. I think it will be like Peter [Allen] wrote, “Everything old is new again.” [Laughs]
What: Helen Reddy in concert
When: 8 p.m., Thursday, January 23
Where: The Hobby Center, 800 Bagby
Tickets: thehobbycenter.org or 713/315-2400.
Gregg Shapiro also writes the GrooveOut column in this issue of OutSmart magazine.