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Helen Reddy, chart-topping singer and feminist icon, dead at 78

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Gary Null / Walt Disney Television via Getty Images

Helen Reddy, the Grammy-winning Australian singer who became a feminist icon thanks to her hit “I Am Woman,” has died, according to a message posted on her official Facebook fan page, and provided to ABC Audio. She was 78.

“It is with deep sadness that we announce the passing of our beloved mother, Helen Reddy, on the afternoon of September 29th 2020 in Los Angeles,” read the message from Reddy’s daughter Traci and son Jordan. “She was a wonderful Mother, Grandmother and a truly formidable woman. Our hearts are broken. But we take comfort in the knowledge that her voice will live on forever.”

In the ’60s, Reddy, divorced with a young child, moved to New York City after winning a competition in her native Australia.  After landing a record deal in 1971, she first reached the U.S. top 20 with her take on “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar. 

Her debut album, also called I Don’t Know How to Love Him, featured a song she’d co-written, “I Am Woman,” which reflected Reddy’s interest in the feminist movement and female empowerment in general.  Re-released in 1972, it became a number one hit and an anthem for the movement.

Reddy was the first Australian-born artist to have a U.S. number-one hit and the first to win a Grammy.  In 1973, while accepting her trophy for Best Female Pop, Rock or Folk Vocal Performance for “I Am Woman,” Reddy famously thanked her record company, her husband and God — because, as Reddy said pointedly, “She makes everything possible.”

A string of hits followed “I Am Woman,” including “Angie Baby,” “You and Me Against the World,” “Delta Dawn,” “Ain’t No Way to Treat a Lady” and “Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress).” 

Reddy also had a TV and movie career, hosting her own variety show, serving as the semi-regular host of NBC’s The Midnight Special, and starring in the Disney film Pete’s Dragon.  She also appeared in Airport 75, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band and Disorderlies, and guest starred on numerous TV shows, including The Love Boat, The Jeffersons, Diagnosis: Murder and even Family Guy.

Reddy’s last major public appearance came at the Women’s March in January of 2017 in Los Angeles.  At that event, she was introduced by Jamie Lee Curtis and sang an a cappella version of “I Am Woman.”

I Am Woman, a biopic telling the story of the Australian singer’s rise to fame, was released in theaters and on demand on September 11.  It stars Tilda Cobham-Hervey as Reddy, Evan Peters as her second husband and manager, Jeff Wald; and Danielle MacDonald as her friend, Australian rock journalist Lillian Roxon.

In a statement to ABC Audio, I Am Woman director Unjoo Moon said, “I will forever be grateful to Helen for teaching me so much about being an artist, a woman and a mother. She paved the way for so many and the lyrics that she wrote for I am Woman changed my life forever like they have done for so many other people and will continue to do for generations to come. She will always be a part of me and I will miss her enormously.”

By Andrea Dresdale
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