Helen Reddy, the Australian singer whose early Seventies song “I Am Woman” has served as an empowering feminist anthem for several generations, died Tuesday at age 78. Her children, Traci Donat and Jordan Sommers, confirmed the news via her official Facebook page.
“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,” they wrote in the statement. “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.”
Born in Melbourne, Australia, Reddy grew up in a showbiz family with actor parents. She performed as a child and later won a singing contest that brought her to New York to audition for a record contract. Though that situation did not materialize, she chose to remain in the U.S. and signed with Capitol Records. She recorded several singles, which climbed the charts.
In the Seventies, several of her songs made the Top 40, with three hitting Number One: a rendition of Alex Harvey’s “Delta Dawn,” Alan O’Day’s “Angie Baby,” and her signature song, “I Am Woman.” The latter earned a Grammy Award for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, and in 1974, she garnered a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
But before her hits and fame, Reddy struggled as a single mother in New York before moving to Chicago with her then-husband and manager Jeff Wald. She would later release the single “One Way Ticket” on Fontana, which modestly charted in her native Australia.
Their move to Los Angeles proved more fruitful. It was there that she signed with Capitol and released “I Am Woman,” which she cowrote with Ray Burton. Inspired by her involvement in the women’s movement, it didn’t initially make waves, but the song gained popularity and eventually climbed to the top of the charts. The song made Reddy the first Australian singer to hit Number One in the U.S. and earned her a Grammy for Female Pop Vocal Performance. During her Grammy acceptance speech, she thanked “God, because She makes everything possible.”
In the Eighties, she moved on to MCA, where she released two albums, 1981’s Play Me Out and 1983’s Imagination. Her subsequent music releases included Nineties albums Feel So Young on her own label, a show tune-focused Center Stage, and the 2000 holiday album The Best Christmas Ever.
Beyond her recording accolades, Reddy also acted in film and on television, appearing on such programs as The Carol Burnett Show, The Muppet Show, and her own Helen Reddy Show. In film, she starred in Pete’s Dragon, where her sung “Candle on the Water” earned an Oscar nomination for Best Song. Her role in Airport 1975 earned her a Golden Globe nomination. Her career also expanded into musical theater, including her stint as Mrs. Johnstone in the Blood Brothers productions that opened on Broadway and in the West End in the Nineties.
She announced her retirement from performing in 2002, but returned to the stage a decade later for a couple of one-off performances. In 2017, she performed for a new generation of women reared on her trademark tune when she sang it a cappella, alongside actress Jamie Lee Curtis and other celebrities, at the 2017 Women’s March.
In 2015, Reddy was diagnosed with dementia, per the Sydney Morning Herald. A Unjoo Moon-directed biopic of her life, aptly titled I Am Woman, which stars Tilda Cobham-Hervey, premiered at Toronto International Film Festival last fall. It is available via streaming services.