It was March 2013 and I sat in on cabaret legend Marilyn Maye’s packed weekend master class at Don’t Tell Mama in NYC’s theatre district when a woman, who was an old friend of Maye walked in and sat down at my table. She looked familiar but I didn’t realize who she was until Maye stopped the class to greet and introduce her.
It was Helen Reddy, once known as the Queen of 70′s Pop in her heyday. She wanted us to forget that label.
Reddy invited Maye and me to her show that evening. After a ten year hiatus from the stage during which she practiced clinical hypnotherapy, the Australian songwriter/singer, then 71, a few pounds heavier and a couple inches shorter, heard her voice again after singing a duet with her older sister at the latter’s birthday celebration. “Not bad,” she thought. The red head with the dynamic voice played two shows at BB Kings Blues Club that weekend. But there, the third generation entertainer sings the songs she liked –some familiar and others not so – “Lost In The Night,” “Angel Baby,” “Ain’t No Way To Treat A Lady.” But all had meaning and revealed her personal struggles as a woman.
Her fan base of female baby boomers like myself were there cheering her on with standing ovation after standing ovation. It was bitter sweet because Reddy, who knows how to interpret a song, still had a voice although the key was a bit lower; she connected with the audience in the way she always did, but she didn’t have the stamina to move smoothly around the stage performing song after song. She suffered from Addison disease (the same ailment that struck JFK) and other health issues. As a result she got winded easily. She does sat for some of the numbers and paused with moving personal stories while catching her breath.
Reddy sang about emotions common to all of us. While sitting on a stool she did a beautiful job with Paul Williams’ “Loneliness.” Her eyes connect with the audience in the way they always did as she sings “You and Me Against The World.” The large video monitors revealing physical flaws didn’t do justice to this aging, but still talented and amazing performer. Lenny Coltun, a stalwart throughout her musical career, backed her on guitar along with Randy Landas on bass, and Robin Swenson on keyboard. The audience wanted more. Reddy said, “I never thought I’d be back on stage.” She gave herself a much deserved hug.
The highlight of the show was when she recited the lyrics to a poem she wrote 40 years previously, “I Am Woman.” The expressive words are even more relevant today especially with her interpretive wisdom born of pain. The audience listened carefully. Then she sang her much anticipated hit, the anthem of our generation, “I Am Woman,” as magnificently as ever.
The music industry lost an icon who empowered a generation. RIP Helen Reddy, who died this week of complications of dementia at 78 .
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