here are some moments in Grammy history that will never be forgotten, like Bette Midler accepting a Grammy from presenter Karen Carpenter, someone she took delight in poking fun at in her act. Like host Andy Williams asking Stevie Wonder, in a live hook-up from Africa, if he could see the telecast. And like Helen Reddy's acceptance speech after winning "Best Pop, Rock, and Folk Vocal Performance-Female" for "I Am Woman."
"I want to thank everyone concerned at Capitol Records," Helen told the audience in Nashville and the millions watching at home, "by husband and manager, Jeff Wald, because he makes my success possible, and God because She makes everything possible."
"I Am Woman" became an anthem for the women's liberation movement in the '70s. "I'd been involved in the women's movement for about 10 months," says Helen, who had emigrated to the United States from her have Australia in 1966. "At that point, I was looking for songs that reflected the positive sense of self that I felt I'd gained from the women's movement. I couldn't find any. All I could find were these awful songs like, 'I am woman and you are man, I am weak so you can be stronger than,' so I realized the song I was looking for didn't exist, and I was going to have to write it myself."
Helen wrote the lyrics for "I Am Woman" and Ray Burton, an Australian musician who has since returned to his homeland because of immigration problems, set her words to music. "What I now refer to as the first draft of the song was on my first album," Helen explains.
"I sang that album as if my life depended on it," she said in a 1974 Billboard interview. "I wasn't all that pleased with the way the whole album sounded....I was particularly displeased with the way 'I Am Woman' came out. My producer was against using it in the first place; he thought it sounded too 'butch.'"
But the song didn't die. Producer Mike Frankovich wanted to use it as a theme song in a "women's lib" comedy he was filming, Stand Up and Be Counted. Unhappy with the original arrangement, Helen made some changes, and she told Jacob Atlas in Melody Maker: "We re-recorded it and I added the last verse -- it was always a little short." Helen also altered some lyrics, changing "I can face anything" to "I can do anything." She told Frankovich he could use the song in the film if he donated $1,000 each to Women's Centers in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago.
"A lot of people said it would be the end of my career," Helen says. Undaunted, she was pleased when Capitol released it as a single. At this point her biggest hit had been her first release for the label, a cover of Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber's "I Don't Know How to Love Him" from Jesus Christ Superstar. It peaked at 13, but Helen's next two singles ("Crazy Love," "No Sad Song") failed to break the top 50.
At first, it looked like "I Am Woman" would do no better. It entered the Hot 100 on June 24, 1972, at number 99. Three weeks later it fell off the chart, not to return until September 16, when it re-entered at number 87. Airplay did not come easy for the song. Helen describes what she calls the "typical DJ reaction: 'I can't stand this record! I had this song! But you now, it's a funny thing, my wife loves it!'" Helen made frequent television appearances to sing the song. "Women started calling up radio stations and requesting it. Television forced radio to play it," she explains.
Helen and her husband Jeff refused offers to turn the song into a commercial for any product, despite the many requests from advertising agencies to the song's publisher, Almo Music. Helen did give the song to the United Nations for use during the International Women's Year, for a token fee of one dollar.
"The biggest thing about 'I Am Woman' is that I've had a chance to raise consciousness among American women en masse," Helen told Newsweek. "I get a special feeling when I sing it. It's a chest-beating song of pride. And it pleases me."
Helen went on to appear in several movies in the Seventies, including Airport 1975, Pete's Dragon, and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. She died in Los Angeles on Sept. 29, 2020, at age 78, one month after a biopic of her remarkable career named I Am Woman premiered.
- Fred Bronson, The Billboard Book of Number One Hits, Billboard, 1988.
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