When Linda Ronstadt turned down a suggestion from Capitol Records that she record I Don’t Know How To Love Him from Jesus Christ Superstar, label vice-president Artie Mogull knew just what to do. He called Helen Reddy’s husband Jeff Wald and told him “That song you wanted for Helen . . . we got it”.
Ironically, Helen wasn’t too thrilled about the song either, but the way things were she would have recorded anything. It turned out to be a great hit and Capitol decided to do an album. That was the start of the Helen Reddy success story.
Helen was born in Melbourne in 1942 to Australian entertainers Max Reddy and Stella Lamond (her sister is singer Toni Lamond). At 15, she went on the road with her parents, playing one-night stands.
She progressed to band singing, local TV shows and the cutting of a few discs – all the while her main aim was to get to the United States and the scope it would provide. Her dreams came true when in 1965 – from a group of 1,358 hopefuls – Helen won a talent contest on the Nine Network’s Bandstand show in which the prize was a trip to New York and a recording contract.
Unfortunately, her hopes from the win were to be badly dashed. Firstly, it took four months of calling the TV station every day before her New York ticket arrived. Arriving in the big apple, Helen was taken to lunch from the record company and told politely but firmly that there would be no recording session since they had already heard a tape of her from Australia. (Helen later found out there had been no tape).
The music scene in New York at that time did not show great promise for the homesick Australian, who survived on odd jobs and by singing in strip joints, spaghetti houses and veterans’ hospitals.
After the shows, Helen would go to her hotel room and put her three-year-old daughter, Traci (from a failed marriage) to bed, and would often then just sit there until morning wondering if she would ever make it.
On the night before her 25th birthday, down to her last $12, Helen decided she would use her return ticket to Australia on the next available flight. The next day her friends told her they had organised a birthday party for her with people paying $5 a head – with all the money going to her.
In true fairy tale style, a gate crasher at the party turned out to be the aforementioned Jeff Wald, who worked at the powerful William Morris Agency. He told Helen “I am going to make you a star within five years”. Helen met Jeff on a Tuesday. He proposed to her the following Friday and they were soon married.
The newlyweds moved firstly to Chicago and then to Los Angeles, but despite Jeff’s contacts and mercurial approach, Helen was still finding her career stalled and going nowhere fast.
Her biggest hit came in 1973 with I Am Woman. Not only did the song become her signature tune, but it also became a well-timed anthem for the Women’s Liberation movement. Also in 1973, Reddy became the semi-regular host of the NBC late-night variety show The Midnight Special, a position she retained until 1975.
Helen’s 1982 divorce from Wald erupted into a front-page battle over his cocaine use and custody of their son, Jordan. She married again in 1983 (husband number three, drummer Milton Ruth) but they divorced amicably in 1995.
In the mid-1980s, Reddy embarked on a new career in the theatre, mostly working in musicals including Anything Goes, Call Me Madam, and Blood Brothers. She also appeared in four productions of the one-woman show Shirley Valentine.
In 2002, she retired from performing and moved from her longtime residence in Santa Monica, California back to her native Australia, where she became a practising clinical hypnotherapist. She returned to the US in 2013.