Gifts from Down Under
BY DAVID NOH | Helen Reddy was undoubtedly one of the major voices of the 1970s, with her rapid-succession top-selling hits constantly playing on the radio and seeping under our skin. She’s making a long overdue return to New York at B.B. King on March 23 and 24 and took time off from touring in Clearwater, Florida to speak to me.
“I’m excited!” she said. “I haven’t been in New York for a while. But this is not going to be a nostalgia show. I will do some of my hits but there will be mostly songs I’ve recorded over the years, some beautiful ballads.
“In the ‘70s, everything was about AM pop radio, but now, fortunately, I can sing some songs that were not the big hits. It’s a pretty interesting musical selection all around I will be doing with a four-piece band.
Reddy now calls America home, although she took a career break and went back to her native Australia for a decade to “care for my elderly sister. But my children are now grown and I have a grandchild –– all living here –– so it’s nice to be in the same country.”
A still roaring Reddy, precious Sapphires, SAB luxe
During that time away, Reddy pursued an interest she’d had since adolescence and got her degree in clinical hypnotherapy: “I grew up in an era when hypnotists were just vaudeville acts –– someone saying ‘Abracadabra’ –– and I was more interested in the healing aspects. There are three different degrees you can get and I practice on a spiritual basis, dealing with traumatic experiences and past life stuff. I don’t deal with addiction, like smoking. It’s a very valuable tool when I think of friends who’ve gone to psychiatrists for years without making any progress. It’s like a glass of beer –– psychiatrists deal with the foam, while we are able to go right down to the bottom of the glass.
“But now it’s time to go back to work, so here I am. As for my voice, I have my good nights and then there are times when I haven’t gotten enough sleep. I was onstage singing at age five, and in my teen years I took vocal courses with great teachers and picked up quite a few things that would improve my singing and eliminate things I was doing wrong. My mother, who was onstage at four, was my first teacher.
“When I was 17, it was very hard to get American music in Australia, but I had Peggy Lee’s ‘Black Coffee’ album, which I played to tatters. The problem arose when someone said, ‘You sound just like her,’ and I thought, ‘Uh-oh,’ and began to develop my own style.
“Today there are a lot of singers I admire. Adele –– what a voice she’s got and a very good songwriter. This is maybe the sound engineer’s problem, but I would like to hear a little more light and shade in her tonal quality. Celine Dion is so fabulous but I haven’t heard anything recently from her.”
Reddy’s most iconic song is, of course, “I Am Woman,” for which she wrote the lyrics. Its impetus, she explained, “absolutely came out of the women’s movement at the time. And then feminism got a bad rap. It really infuriates when some people talk about Women’s Lib, and then you hear things like, ‘I don’t need to be liberated. My husband lets me do whatever I want.’
“There’s a lot of that going on, but I think there’s been a tremendous change. Certainly there was a lot of backlash, but I think this younger generation is different. All those silly stories about us being bra burners –– maybe one or two women did it in New Jersey, but that story got so much press and it immediately became this big thing. Nonsense!
“I also wrote the song ‘Best Friend,’ which I will be singing, which is about self-esteem and the lack thereof. When I was recording my album, my producer brought ‘Delta Dawn’ to me and said, ‘You should sing this,’ and I never thought it would be a number one hit, but it was –– one of four that year.”
Reddy’s career has also experienced some lows, with a messy divorce from her manager husband Jeff Wald and rumors of her being blacklisted in the music industry due to his adverse influence.
“Well, I did leave the business for 10 years,” she told me. “There was certainly that backlash against the women’s movement in the 1980s, but I don’t recall being blacklisted. That’s very much past history, and I’m not going back 30 years and talking about that period. I am in a very good place now.”
Reddy has worked with many show biz giants, like when she did “The Carol Burnett Show,” which she recalled with affection: “I loved Carol. She was fabulous. I met Olivia Newton-John, who had just arrived from England on the day I recorded ‘Delta Dawn.’ She was in the control room and I said to her if you want an international career, this is where you have to come or else you’re only a star in England or Australia. She took that advice and is continuing to have a successful career. Our paths have not crossed in many years, but I am happy for her success, well deserved.
“I think I was at the right time with the right message, and I will be continuing to push for change. Things are a lot different, but it’s encouraging to see how far we have come. I loved Peter Allen, who was my opening act on my world tour. He was also born and raised in Australia, and he was coming back to his home country with the expectation that he’d be warmly embraced. The press were so horrible to him that on the flight back from Australia, he was in tears from all the homophobia in the press. Those days are gone, but he had a real problem with that.
“I’m so grateful for my gay fans! My brothers –– and we are all just citizens of the world. I love it that so many have at one time or another come to me and said how one of my songs helped them through a difficult time.”
“My nephew is Tony Sheldon [a lead actor Tony nominee for ‘Priscilla Queen of the Desert’], and I’m so proud of him. My sister has footage of him performing at seven, and I looked after this sweetest little boy you could possibly imagine when his parents were rehearsing their show during the day. Now he’s so tall I have to stretch my neck to look up at him, but he’s so very classy, humble, and sincere, without a scintilla of jealousy in him. He’s a very generous, giving actor and whatever show he’s in, everybody loves him.”
Reddy is also a legit stage star herself now: “I did three productions of ‘Anything Goes’ and four of ‘Shirley Valentine.’ I love acting as well as singing –– and the contrast between them. It’s great not to be locked into one thing and with acting, like singing, as my mother taught me, you have to put the words first and believe in every one of them. Otherwise, you just do “la la la.”
Asked if she has a partner these days, Reddy laughed: “Oh, no. No, no, no, no! I am single. These are the best years of my life! I love being in my 70s, don’t need to be with anyone, and I love the confidence I have now. It took me along time to build it up to this degree, but I’m very comfortable in my shoes now.”
We have another treat from Oz heading our way in the form of the film “The Sapphires” (Landmark Sunshine Cinema, 143 E. Houston St., btwn. First & Second Aves.; landmarktheatres.com). Based on a true story, it’s about four Aboriginal sisters who, in 1968, formed a girl group and went to Vietnam to entertain US soldiers — but only after one of them had been reunited with her siblings. At an early age, she was snatched from them because of her light skin and made to live with a white family, a heinous practice shockingly prevalent up until the 1970s in Australia, which had previously denied its Aboriginal people basic human rights and dignity.
As a tale of entertainers in war, this truly heartwarming, spiritedly infectious movie is everything “For the Boys” was disappointingly not and, as a girl group flick, I enjoyed it far more than the ultra-slick “Dreamgirls.”
Harvey Weinstein gave it a splashy premiere at the Paris Theater on March 13, with an afterparty at the Hudson Hotel that was the most fun I’ve had in years. All the stars, including the glorious Chris O’Dowd, who gives a performance every bit as star-making and charismatic as Richard Pryor in “Lady Sings the Blues” — a compliment he loved — danced up a storm. O’Dowd and his four lovely co-stars, most of whom were thrilled to be in New York for the first time, performed a live set of R&B standards that had the place jumping, after which the evening’s fabulous DJ played what amounted to a history of pop in the last 30 years. The four girls not only knew every word but every video movement, as well.
Gorgeous star Jessica Mauboy (of “Australian Idol”) dominated the show with her killer pipes, and producer Rosemary Blight told me she found her and the other three unknown girls through a nationwide casting call. O’Dowd joined the cast after Blight used her frequent flyer miles to send director Wayne Blair to LA to haunt every agent he could find. When Blair saw “Bridesmaids,” he yelled, “That’s our guy!” (An ebullient O’Dowd told me he is now developing his own show for HBO.)
Weinstein himself was there, beaming with joy at yet another of his canny cinematic discoveries — though when a woman had the temerity to ask about the movie’s China releasing rights, he turned all Harvey on her and said, “You’d better get out of here!”
If there’s a Depression going on, you’d never have known it at the School of American Ballet’s Winter Ball at Lincoln Center’s Koch Theater on March 11. With the theme “A Night in the Far East,” the place was transformed into a sultan’s palace, although most of the ladies eschewed saris and cheongsams for the usual Big Gowns that the Times’ Bill Cunningham kept happily snapping away at.
More luxe was added to the proceedings with displays that honored the friendship between SAB’s founder George Balanchine and jeweler Claude Arpels (of Van Cleef & …). The chicest person there, however, had to be designer Carolina Herrera in her trademark simple tailored white man’s shirt over a tight, trained black taffeta skirt.
The best part of these evenings is always the performance by the kids themselves, and it was gorgeously choreographed indeed and followed by the traditional raucous disco dancing where ballet tights mixed with tuxedos.