On this date in 1972, a timely tune reached No. 1 on the pop music charts. Its vocalist, Helen Reddy, was also its lyricist. "I was looking for songs that reflected the positive sense of self that I felt I'd gained from the women's movement," she explained to Billboard magazine. But Reddy was having trouble finding such songs, so she simply wrote one herself. The result, "I Am Woman," did nothing less than give voice to half the human beings on the planet.
Helen Reddy, who died earlier this autumn at age 78, was born in Melbourne in 1941, a year before Joe Biden came into the world. Hers was a prominent, if mercurial, Australian show business family. Helen came to America at age 25 after winning a local talent contest. The promised prize, a recording deal with Mercury Records, proved to be a mirage, but while in New York City she had some auditions, made some contacts, and decided to stay in the United States to seek her fame and fortune -- with her 3-year-old daughter, Traci, in tow.
It was a big step for a single mother in a new land, but one of the contacts she made in New York was handsome, hard-living Bronx native Jeff Wald, who was on his way to stardom himself as a music producer.
Two years later, by then married to Wald, Reddy and family moved to Los Angeles, where Helen got a deal with Capitol Records and made a breakthrough by covering the soulful solo from the musical "Jesus Christ Superstar." The song was "I Don't Know How to Love Him," a poignant Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice number written from the perspective of Mary Magdalene. Reddy was ambivalent about this choice of songs, but Wald thought she could do it justice and that it would jump-start her career. He was right on both counts, but "I Don't Know How to Love Him" had a much different vibe than the song that would solidify her place in music history.
"In that musical context, anyway, ‘I Am Woman' seemed to emerge from nowhere," wrote respected music critic David Browne. Where it came from, of course, was Helen Reddy's own heart, and judging by its reception, it could have been written by, oh, about a billion women.
Reddy herself recalled in a 2014 interview that the phrase "I am woman" came to her and she couldn't get it out of her head. "Over and over," she related, "'I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman.' And I thought, ‘Well, this has to be a song.'"
Guitarist Ray Burton, a frequent collaborator, wrote the music and in 1971, they produced what Browne described as a shorter and perkier version of it. In Jeff Wald's telling, the suits at Capitol Records didn't see the potential at first. "That women's lib crap is going to kill her career," Wald said he was told. "Why are you letting your wife do this stuff?"
This resistance apparently only stiffened Reddy's and Wald's resolve. They revived the song in 1972, with a bit slower tempo and more brass. This time they got it just right. The song was subversive, defiant, and upbeat all at the same time. Audiences loved it, and in 1975 the United Nations chose "I am Woman" as its theme song for the International Women's Year.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.