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'I Am Woman' Singer Helen Reddy Is Dead, Aged 78

Helen Reddy, performing in London in 1974.
Ian Dickson/Redferns
Getty Images
Helen Reddy, performing in London in 1974.

Australian-born singer Helen Reddy, whose hit "I Am Woman" became a feminist anthem in the 1970's, died in Los Angeles on Tuesday afternoon. She was 78 years old.

Her death was announced on Facebook by her children, Traci Donat and Jordan Sommers. Reddy had dementia for several years before her death.

"I Am Woman" was by far Reddy's most famous song. But in the wake of its success, she released several more hits, including "Delta Dawn," "Angie Baby," "Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress)" and "Ain't No Way to Treat a Lady."

Reddy was born into a show business family in Melbourne, Australia in 1941, and began performing while she was still a child. When she was 24 and a single mother, she won a talent contest on Australian TV; the prize was a trip to New York and the chance to audition for a recording contract with Mercury Records. She didn't get it, but she stayed in the U.S. and set out to make a pop career.

In 1968, she met her future husband and manager, Jeff Wald, who was handling such acts as Tiny Tim, Deep Purple and The Turtles. They eventually persuaded Capitol Records to let her record one single. The intended A-side flopped, but the B-side — a cover of "I Don't Know How to Love Him" from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar— made it to No. 13 on the Billboard charts in June 1971.

Her biggest success came a year later: the anthemic "I Am Woman," which resonated with audiences worldwide in the midst of the women's liberation movement in the U.S. It became a smash the same year that the Equal Rights Amendment passed the Senate and when Shirley Chisholm ran for president. The Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wadejust a month after "I Am Woman" reached No. 1.

In a 2014 interview with Houston Public Media, Reddy explained that the phrase "I am woman" came to her and just wouldn't leave. "Over and over," she recalled, "'I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman.' And I thought, well, this has to be a song."

She wrote the lyrics, songwriter Ray Burton penned the music, and Jeff Wald talked Capitol into letting her release it. In an NPR interview about "I Am Woman," Wald said that a label executive dismissed the whole enterprise.

"'That women's lib crap is gonna kill her,' " Wald recalled the label as saying. "'Why are you letting your wife do this stuff?'"

Still, they persevered. Wald himself took the song to a small radio station on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., knowing that the area was filled with women working pink-collar jobs. And "I Am Woman" struck a chord with those listeners. The station was soon inundated with requests to hear it again.

Slowly — with Wald promoting the song market by market — the song became a hit. By Dec. 1972, it was No. 1 on the Billboard charts, and Reddy took home a Grammy. At the awards ceremony, Reddy thanked God, saying: "Because She makes everything possible."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a reporter on NPR's Arts desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards and the myriad accusations of sexual misconduct against singer R. Kelly.