Cult heroes: Helen Reddy, the 'queen of housewife pop' with a secret dark side

Though she had only one UK hit, Reddy was a huge star in the US and Australia. Her approachable easy listening style concealed the strangeness of her songs

She was, in Alice Cooper’s not unsympathetic words, “the Queen of Housewife Rock” – a term Helen Reddy herself thought apt. In the first half of the 70s, the Australian-American vocalist topped the Billboard easy listening chart eight times and had nine other Top 20 singles, all of them as cushiony and emollient as she herself was unalarming and approachable. Her safeness was ribbed in the Frank Zappa song Honey Don’t You Want a Man Like Me?, which runs: “She was an office girl / ‘My name is Betty’ / Her favourite group was / Helen Reddy” – and he hit the nail on the head. Reddy’s instinct for a relatable song made her the “favourite group” of women (and men, even) who valued classicism over coolness. Though Britain never took to her, Reddy’s understated voice was a radio mainstay in North America and Australia: she was the world’s top-selling female vocalist in 1973 and 1974, and during her career sold 25m albums.

Seeing footage of her playing Vegas in 1976, or clowning around on Carol Burnett’s variety show, makes it hard to believe that, midway through her purple patch, Reddy released a trio of singles so odd that the rest of her output seems even more vanilla by contrast. Songs about marginalised women were popular in the early 70s – Cher released her own cluster with Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves, Half-Breed and Dark Lady – but Reddy’s trilogy of Delta Dawn, Angie Baby and Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress) is among the darkest in pop.

Stranger still, perhaps, just before she began singing about the stigmatised and evidently mentally ill Ruby, Angie and Dawn, Reddy had a huge 1972 hit with I Am Woman, the first avowedly feminist anthem to reach No 1. Infuriated by being objectified by men in the entertainment business – she’d been in showbiz since the age of four – she’d involved herself in Hollywood’s embryonic feminist movement, and perceived a need for an empowering song. Starting with the lines “I am woman, hear me roar / In numbers too big to ignore”, I Am Woman was a masterly achievement. Coming from girl-next-door Reddy, who delivered it with characteristic elegant restraint, it resounded across America. (Collecting the award for best female pop vocal performance at the 1973 Grammys, she quipped: “I would like to thank God, because she makes everything possible.”)

To go from I Am Woman’s invincibility to the brokenness of Delta Dawn (the first of her crepuscular trio, released in June 1973) was to throw us a curveball. None of Reddy’s preceding work had intimated that she could tackle such discomfiting material: apart from I Am Woman, her output had mainly comprised sunny-day canters such as Summer of 71 and covers of edifices such as Van Morrison’s Crazy Love. Then came Delta Dawn, and its unforgettable first verse: “She’s 41, and Daddy still calls her Baby / All the folks round Brownsville say she’s crazy / ’Cos she walks downtown with a suitcase in her hand / Looking for a mysterious dark-haired man.”

Even 43 years later, it’s a strange song, the kind of thing that would be more at home on a country-gothic playlist than Top 40 radio. Before Reddy got to it, in fact, it had been a hit for country singer Tanya Tucker (an A&R decision that might raise eyebrows now – the subject matter was arguably way too mature for the 13-year-old Tucker). While her version was earthy, Reddy’s was eerily calm. A backing gospel choir imparted the southern flavouring you’d expect of a story set in Brownsville, Tennessee, but Reddy’s delivery was cool and stateless.

It made the titular Dawn’s situation even darker: she’d been the town belle – “prettiest woman you ever laid eyes on” – until “a man of low degree stood by her side, promised her he’d take her for his bride”. What happened between them isn’t spelled out, but whatever it was left her a broken-minded victim, hopelessly awaiting her man’s return.

Dawn was the opposite of the self-sufficient archetype of I Am Woman, as were the main characters of Angie Baby and Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress). The latter, about a woman who’d been used and dumped by “some farm boy up from Tennessee”, covered the same ground as Delta Dawn. Distraught, Ruby “broke down to a fool”, and now wanders the streets of her small town. The lyric, by the Brooklyn-born songwriter Linda Laurie, strikingly describes an unhinged woman being laughed at by the neighbourhood: “Talking to herself now, sometimes sitting down / Don’t you get too close now, Ruby runs away …”

Though Reddy later professed to despise the song because of the number of “leave me alone”s in the chorus – 42, apparently – she made an ooomphy fist of it, adding empathetic grit to her delivery. But there was no grit at all in Angie Baby, the third and strangest of her strange trio. (If Brits know a Reddy song, it’s this one, her only UK top 40 hit.) Rightly considered creepy by fans, it’s a psychological thriller that ends with a question mark: did “crazy” Angie kill the peeping tom neighbour who watched her at night, or was he a figment of her imagination? It’s the only one of the three songs in which the heroine’s illness gives her a degree of control. As the last verse triumphantly notes: “It’s so nice to be insane / no one asks you to explain.”

For the Queen of Housewife Rock, these were provocative songs that gave young kids (well, this kid, anyway) the creeps. They also made me wonder why someone who’d refused to be cowed by men in I Am Woman was so bent on singing about girls who’d been ruined by men. Eventually, I understood that by giving equal time to girls who were misunderstood and hurt, she was showing that being female wasn’t just about invincibility.

At least, that’s the interpretation I prefer. There’s also a suspicion, which I firmly quash, that Reddy – who later became an environmental activist, and now lives at the Motion Picture Home in Los Angeles – was just a professional with an ear for a good tune. “I’m a very private person, and when I leave the stage, I leave the stage,” she said a few years ago. “It’s like whatever character you want to ask for an autograph, she isn’t here right now. She only exists on stage. The character that is off the stage is somebody else.”


Caroline Sullivan

The GuardianTramp

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