Gary James' Interview With
Does Helen Reddy really need an introduction? Probably not, but we're going to give her one anyway. She came to this country from Australia, landed a record deal with Capitol Records, and had a hit with the first song she recorded "I Don't Know How To Love Him". The song that put Helen Reddy over the top, the song that made her a household name was "I Am Woman". That song went to Number One, and earned Helen a Grammy Award. Other hits followed, including "Angie Baby", "Delta Dawn", "Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress)" and "You And Me Against the World". In short, Helen Reddy ruled.
You might well ask what Helen Reddy is doing these days. Today, she's an environmental activist who served three years as Commissioner of Parks and Recreation for the State of California. She recently formed her own record company, Helen Reddy Inc. and released a new CD titled "Feel So Young". The CD sleeve uses ninety per cent less plastic, and seventy per cent less paper than traditional packaging.
We spoke with Helen Reddy about her career, her life today, the environment, and one of her earliest gigs, in Syracuse, New York.
Q - Helen, when did you first perform in Syracuse?
A - Way back when. I played at the Three Rivers Inn, and I think there was like 12 people in the audience.
Q - What year was that?
Q - 1966. When I first came from Australia nobody knew me. I think I was the opening act for several other people, or at least I should have been. (Laughs). Syracuse was one of the first places I played in the United States.
Q - Do you remember the show you did at Miller Court, at the New York Sate Fair in 1975, in the pouring rain?
A - I remember that night. I had to do the show standing on a rubber mat with strict instructions not to touch the microphone. Yeah, we had a problem of course with the guys playing electric guitars. I remember that night. When I got to the line in "Bluebird - We're out in the rain," there was a tremendous roar from the crowd on that one.
Q - Why did you decide to re-record some of your biggest hits on this latest CD of yours?
A - Several reasons. These songs undergo changes all the time. It's kind of like your basic little black dress. You may accessorize it differently as the years go by. I kind of feel that way about the hits. We change our approach to them from time to time, change the chord progressions, whatever. So, I wanted a record of how they sounded now. And, the fans want a record of how they sound now. And also, I wanted to own the masters to these songs.
Q - Why did you start your own record label?
A - I wanted to have a lot more control, not only on the creative, artistic level, but also on the legal, in terms of ownership of production, because no artist likes the endless re-packaging of oldies that goes on once they've left the label. I also wanted control over the merchandising, the actual packaging of the product. That was a big factor. So, the only way for me to exercise control on all those levels was to start my own label.
Q - You must have sat down and really studied the music business, and found out what it was you liked and disliked about the position you were in.
A - Well, you know, hindsight is wonderful. It's always very easy to second guess after the fact. Believe it or not, most people think of me as a recording artist, but actually the way I think of myself and the way I earn my living is as a performing artist. I work "live". I do about eight or nine shows a month, one nighters, here, there or wherever. That is how I earn my living. That is how I've always earned my living. So the recording aspect of it to me is a side line. I've never been dependent on it for a livelihood although heavens knows, people wouldn't be coming to see Helen Reddy if they didn't associate the name with certain songs that they like. What was the question?
Q - Did you really study the ins and outs of the business side of the music business?
A - I had my own production company now for about eight, nine years. We did virtually everything in house. I did my own music videos, my own TV commercials.
Q - Your production company exists only for you?
A - Yeah, this is only for me. H.R. Inc. is only for me, because it was set up to service my needs. However, as an existing apparatus, I am set up to service other people who are in my position, which means somebody who has an existing audience, for a record, but is not currently under contract to anyone. What I'm not geared to do is to break new talent. We're not geared towards Top 40 Radio or the hit singles market. We're geared towards album buyers.
Q - So you are interested in other artists coming on board?
A - Yeah, if it's the right person and I feel I can get a good return on my investment, absolutely.
Q - How are you distributing this CD of yours?
A - We have the toll-free number. The problem is, you understand, with the packaging. This is why we've run into a brick wall with the regular distributors. If we're to go with them we have to go along with their packaging, which is unacceptable to me. Now we did start out by selling the cassettes through the PX's and we are now selling the CD through the PX's. So, for anybody in the Armed Services they can buy the product, either the CD or the cassette that way. I am talking to a company about releasing cassettes only, through regular distribution channels. The CD is being released in England, just in a jewel case. That's the hard plastic case, but no other excess packaging. That was the compromise I worked out with the English company. We're talking about a deal in Japan as well. So, that's where it stands for now. In the meantime, I'm gathering material, and working on the next album.
Q - Helen, when did you become an environmental activist?
A - Ever since Earth Day 1970 basically, which is not to say that I couldn't be doing a lot more than I am. And, we are constantly looking for ways we can improve things. We live in Santa Monica, which is a separate city and a very progressive city. We've been separating and recycling garbage for more than ten years here. We've gone from four garbage cans down to one with all the recycling we're doing. We've re-routed our laundry water so that it goes directly to the garden now. We've gone from 600 gallons down to 220. I've turned the sprinklers off permanently. There's a lot of things you can do. You think that just two people in your family is not gonna make so much of a difference, but when you consider you're cutting down the amount of garbage you're putting out by two thirds to three quarters, and you're just one family, the potential is enormous.
Q - To get back on the subject of music, how big of a band do you take on the road with you?
A - Well, when I do a self-contained date, I have four people in my band, keyboards, she also sings back-up, a bass player, he also sings back-up, and the guitarist, she also sings back-up, plus my husband who's on drums. I also carry a Tech person, for the lights.
Q - You like the fact that you don't get recognized as much anymore, but, go back to the days when you were recognized. What happened to you?
A - I would like to preface this by saying ninety-nine percent of all people are polite and respectful. If they see you're out there with your family or whatever, they'll leave you alone. But you get that one percent, that person who... I've been in deep, with a serious conversation with one of my children, and a fan has come up. I've been in a public bathroom and had the hand come under the stall with a paper and pen — Can I have your autograph? That sort of thing I think anybody can live without. I'm a very private person, and when I leave the stage, I leave the stage. It's like whatever character you want to ask for an autograph, she isn't here right now. (Laughs). She only exists on stage. The character that is off the stage is somebody else.
Q - When you first arrived in the U.S. did you think you could be successful in the music business here?
A - Well, that was my purpose in coming. I always believed that I could make it or I would never have spent so many years trying to get here. There were periods of doubt, no question about it. I remember the time, four months before I left for the United States, when I was mentally and emotionally dealing with what was going to be going on. I bought a copy of weekly Variety, bringing it home and sitting on my bed and trying to read it, and not being able to understand much past every third word. You know, that whole show-biz jargon. And I thought, what am I getting into? It took me a year to really learn the American lingo. I really feel for people who are coming here and don't speak English at all. It must be Hell.
Q - Every performer who has been successful, has had someone in the background, pushing them forward, fighting for them.
A - Not necessarily. I wouldn't say that. In fact most of the people I know in show business don't need anybody pushing them at all. They're extremely aggressive.
Q - I was going to use as an example Col. Parker (Elvis), or Brian Epstein (The Beatles).
A - Yeah, in the beginning. But they were all very ambitious boys. So was Elvis. I can't think of anybody who's a figure who's being maneuvered around by a Svengali figure at all.
Q - What I'm trying to get at is, was Jeff Wald (ex-husband, manager of Helen Reddy) the guy who was at there pushing and fighting for you in the beginning?
A - In the beginning, you're talking about Australia. I had a career that had been going on for 25 years in Australia, before I ever came to the United States. I did share my life with the person in question for a period of years during which time he acted as my manager. That was his job. But, what you're getting at is, I think hypothetical.
Q - Would you have been as successful as you were/are if Jeff Wald had not entered your life?
A - When I met him, he was 22 years old. He was working as a secretary at the William Morris office. He was a secretary for one of the agents there. He wasn't an agent himself. He was living with his mother in the Bronx. To infer that he made me, when I already had so much success, is, I think, misleading. I think we were able to help each other for awhile there. I would say that the association professionally was mutually beneficial for a time. But, I think ultimately it became destructive.
Q - When you would host The Midnight Special, did you enjoy all of the acts you would introduce?
A - I very rarely saw them. (Laughs). The way The Midnight Special was taped, is, I would go in and tape whatever songs I was singing that week. And then, I would tape the intros. I would tape half a dozen intros, one after another, working to different cameras. Then, later on, they'd bring the bands in and the audience in, and film the bands. It was all put together. I never saw most of those people.
Q - Where do you think your music fits in today's format? I'm speaking about your new songs.
A - Well, I find my audience are the same people who bought my albums years ago. These people are now married, with their own homes, their own families. If I'm in concert, I get people now who bring their kids. They know my music, because they were courting to my songs, to use an old-fashion expression. So, my audience is the baby-boomers and I think this is the bulk of the population. This is also a group that is being ignored by most of the record companies because they're not the Top 40 hit singles market. They forget these people still listen to music. Their taste has matured somewhat. Perhaps they listen to a wider range of music now. I know my husband and I, we're going back and listening to stuff that I listened to when I was a teenager, big band stuff and Frank Sinatra, and a lot of old standards. There is a wealth of twentieth century music that is being re-discovered by a generation that hasn't heard it.
Q - Did you like Tanya Tucker's version of "Delta Dawn?"
A - Yeah. I think Tanya's a great singer. I don't think there's any conflict. She has a country audience, and they're extremely loyal to her. I have more of a pop audience, and I'm happy that we were both able to have a hit with the song.
© Gary James. All rights reserved.
Helen Reddy placed 15 songs on the Billboard Top 40 between 1971 and 1977