I Am Woman
|"I Am Woman"|
|Single by Helen Reddy|
|from the album I Am Woman|
|B-side||"More Than You Could Take"|
|Writer(s)||Ray Burton, Helen Reddy|
|Helen Reddy singles chronology|
"I Am Woman" is a song written by Helen Reddy and singer-songwriter Ray Burton and performed by Reddy. The song first appeared on Reddy's debut album I Don't Know How to Love Him, released in May 1971. A different version, recorded for the film Stand Up and Be Counted, was released as a single in May 1972 and became a number one hit later that year, selling over one million copies. A song celebrating female empowerment, it became an enduring anthem for the women’s liberation movement.
"I Am Woman" was released in May 1972, first entered the Hot 100 at #99 on 24 June 1972, peaked at #97 two weeks later, fell off the Hot 100, re-entered at #87 on 16 September 1972, and finally topped the Billboard charts on 9 December 1972. The song was the first #1 hit on the Billboard chart by an Australian-born artist and the first Australian-penned song to win a Grammy Award (in her acceptance speech for Best Female Performance, Reddy thanked "God, because She makes everything possible"). It sold more than a million copies, and has been played more than a million times on US radio, and helped propel Reddy to a successful pop career which made her more than $40 million in America. As an example of the endurance of the song, it was played at the 2010 Academy Awards as the exit music for Kathryn Bigelow after she won the Best Director Oscar for "The Hurt Locker," the first time a woman won the award.
Inspiration for the song
After securing a recording contract in 1971 with Capitol Records that yielded the hit "I Don't Know How to Love Him", Reddy – then living in Los Angeles – was asked for an album. She gave the label a set of 10 jazz-tinged pop songs. Nestled among the Leon Russell, Graham Nash and Van Morrison songs were two Reddy originals. "I Am Woman" was one of them. The composition was the result of Reddy’s search for a song that would express her growing passion for female empowerment. In a 2003 interview in Australia’s Sunday Magazine (published with the Sunday Herald Sun and Sunday Telegraph), she explained:
I couldn't find any songs that said what I thought being a woman was about. I thought about all these strong women in my family who had gotten through the Depression and world wars and drunken, abusive husbands. But there was nothing in music that reflected that.
The only songs were 'I Feel Pretty' or that dreadful song 'Born A Woman'. (The 1966 hit by Sandy Posey had observed that if you're born a woman "you're born to be stepped on, lied to, cheated on and treated like dirt. I'm glad it happened that way".) These are not exactly empowering lyrics. I certainly never thought of myself as a songwriter, but it came down to having to do it.
Reddy’s own long years on stage had also fueled her contempt for men who belittled women, she said. "Women have always been objectified in showbiz. I'd be the opening act for a comic and as I was leaving the stage he'd say, 'Yeah, take your clothes off and wait for me in the dressing room, I'll be right there'. It was demeaning and humiliating for any woman to have that happen publicly."
Reddy credits the song as having supernatural inspiration. She said: "I remember lying in bed one night and the words, 'I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman', kept going over and over in my head. That part I consider to be divinely inspired. I had been chosen to get a message across." Pressed on who had chosen her, she replied: "The universe." The next day she wrote the lyric and handed it to Australian guitarist Ray Burton to put it to music.
Collaboration with Ray Burton
Burton, 26 at the time and playing in Los Angeles with Australian rock band The Executives (and later a member of Ayer's Rock), was a friend who had often worked with Reddy in live venues across Australia. He has a different recollection of the song's beginning. He told Sunday Magazine he spoke to Reddy after she hosted a series of regular women's meetings at which he says they would "sit around and whine about their boyfriends".
I said to Helen, 'If you're so serious about the whole thing, why don't you jot down some lyrics and I'll make it a song?' And that's pretty much what happened. She gave me lyrics scribbled down on a piece of paper and I went home that Sunday night and wrote the whole song in about three hours. Her lyrics were more in prose or poetic form, so I rewrote a few bits of it. I had a bit of a melody in my head anyway, so I reconstructed it, then moulded the lyrics to fit that melody. I did a demo on x Revox reel-to-reel tape. She really liked it and she recorded it on an album for Capitol Records. I never thought of it as being one of my better songs. It had commercial potential and I knew the women's lib thing was bubbling and coming to the boil in the U.S.A.. The life of a songwriter from Australia in Los Angeles was not very lucrative, so I figured it was a way to make a few dollars and up the quality of my life. I had a hunch that it was bound to be a hit. Then it went on the Capitol album and just sat there as a "sleeper" and I thought, 'Well, maybe I was wrong'.
Reddy insists Burton didn't change a word of the lyrics.
She had no expectations for the track, but more than a year later, the song was picked to run behind the opening credits of Stand Up And Be Counted, a lightweight Hollywood women's lib comedy starring Jacqueline Bisset, Loretta Swit and Steve Lawrence. On the strength of this, Capitol decided to release the song as a single. In its initial form, I Am Woman ran to little more than two minutes, so Reddy was asked to write an additional verse and chorus. The extra verse inserted the song's only reference to men ("Until I make my brother understand").
The recording session
Reddy told Sunday Magazine she remembered nothing of the second recording session and did not know which musicians played on the song. In fact, she had some of the best LA session musicians backing her:
- Mike Deasy: guitar
- Jim Horn: woodwind; strings and horns arrangement
- Jim Gordon: drums
- Michael Melvoin: piano
- Leland Sklar: bass
- Dick "Slide" Hyde: trombone
- Don Menza: saxophone
- Kathy Deasy (whose credits included Johnny Rivers, Kenny Loggins and The Byrds): backup vocals
Producer Jay Senter assembled the rhythm section at SunWest Studios for a 7 p.m. downbeat (start) but since he had planned on tracking without Reddy, she was not told to arrive until 9 p.m. Reddy and Jeff Wald (her former husband) arrived thinking they were going to track, but Senter and the band had already recorded "I Am Woman" as well as "Don't Mess With A Woman". Wald and Reddy were furious in the control room. Senter was clearly not happy, either, and voices were raised, however, he did not quit the project. Reddy put her voice on the track that Senter produced, and she and Wald left the studio. That release triggered a five-figure payment to Reddy, which at the time was sorely needed, according to Wald.
Immediately after that, guitarist Deasy played the riff on his 12-string electric guitar that became the signature sound for the song. Senter then asked friend and noted sax man Jim Horn to write string and horn charts to be recorded the following week, while Senter went into the studio with Clydie King, Vanetta Fields and Shirley Matthews (the Blossoms) and layered the background vocals.
The song’s impact
As the single was released, Wald – who had worked the phones for 18 hours a day when her first single was released, urging radio stations to play it – once more put his formidable promotional skills to use. He won gigs for Reddy - by now heavily pregnant with son Jordan - to sing on 19 TV talk and variety shows, which in turn triggered phone calls from female viewers to radio stations begging them to play it. "It was through television that we forced them to play it," said Reddy. And as radio played it, women bought it, driving the song higher in the charts until it hit No.1 on December 9, 1972, the week Reddy gave birth. "It was my first No.1," said Reddy, "and it was the first No.1 Capitol Records had in five years. They were chuffed." "I am Woman" became the second Helen Reddy hit - after "I Don't Know How to Love Him" - to peak at #2 in her native Australia. Overlooked in its original UK release, "I am Woman" was given a 1975 reissue to serve as followup to Reddy's #5 UK hit "Angie Baby" but did not gain enough momentum to reach the UK Top 50.
In the year that Gloria Steinem's Ms. magazine was launched in the US and Cleo in Australia, the song quickly captured the imagination of the burgeoning women's movement. National Organization for Women founder Betty Friedan was later to write that in 1973, a gala entertainment night in Washington DC at the NOW annual convention closed with the playing of "I Am Woman". "Suddenly," she said, "women got out of their seats and started dancing around the hotel ballroom and joining hands in a circle that got larger and larger until maybe a thousand of us were dancing and singing, 'I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman.' It was a spontaneous, beautiful expression of the exhilaration we all felt in those years, women really moving as women."
To Reddy, the song's message reaches beyond feminism. "It's not just for women," she said. "It's a general empowerment song about feeling good about yourself, believing in yourself. When my former brother-in-law, a doctor, was going to medical school he played it every morning just to get him going."
The song brought greater exposure to Reddy, paving the way for a succession of hit singles. It also generated tremendous wealth, which the couple flaunted with a gaudy lifestyle of mansions, limousines, jewelry and speedboats. In her tell-all Hollywood book, You'll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, Julia Phillips claimed that by the time the couple completed their acrimonious divorce in 1982 they had blown most of the $40 million they had made.
When Reddy’s performance of the song at the 1981 Miss World contest infuriated feminists, she responded: "Let them step forward and pay my rent and I'll stay home. What I'm doing is advertising a product I wouldn't use."
For some years Reddy tired of talking about the song, frustrated that out of her 35-year music career it was all the media remembered her for. In recent years a hint of revisionism has crept in, prompted by the discovery that her lyrics had been included in history textbooks in US schools.
Reddy, who says her singing career is over, last performed the song in October 2002, using it to conclude a world farewell concert in Edmonton, Canada. It was an emotional night. "I had no idea what the song was destined to become," she said. "If I'd known, I would have been far too intimidated to have written it."
The song's opening line, "I am woman, hear me roar" has become widely referenced in media.
Fallout with Burton
Expelled from the US in 1971 because of work-permit problems, Ray Burton was forced to watch the song's stellar rise in the US from a distance. Things became so bad he was forced to live on unemployment benefits. "It could have been the launching pad for a writing and singing career," he said. "They took advantage of the fact I wasn't there."
He claimed he was forced to take legal action against the singer in 1998 to recover a portion of songwriter royalties that had been withheld from him since 1972. He said: "I got some money out of it, but nothing like it would have been in the '70s when it was riding high."
Reddy disputes Burton's claims. "There was a buyout 25 or 30 years ago," she told Sunday Magazine. "Neither of us had any idea the song would become what it became. About 10 years ago he got in touch with me because he was in financial difficulties. I felt sorry for him and reinstated his songwriter royalties. His passport problems ended any hope he had of a career in the States and somehow that bitterness got transferred to me. I wish him well. I bear him no animosity."
Today he performs again in venues on the Queensland Gold Coast, where he lives. Sometimes he includes it in his set, raising a laugh from audiences by saying, "Here's a song I wrote in the '70s, with a twist." He sings it as, "She is woman, hear her roar".
"I Am Woman" has been used in TV commercials for a sports footwear chain and a female-oriented cable TV network, but a pitch about 2003 by Coors beer ("with a gigantic amount of money", Reddy says) was rebuffed. "I'm not in the drug-dealing business," she says. "I don't care how much money they offer me." In 2006 Burger King featured a lyrically adjusted version of "I Am Woman" for a commercial titled "Manthem" extolling the virtues of large burgers over small "chick food" plates.
"I Am Woman" was a minor C&W hit for Bobbie Roy who like Reddy was on the Capitol Records roster; Roy's version of "I Am Woman" reached #51 on the C&W chart in February 1973. Also in 1973 "I Am Woman" was covered by R&B singer Betty Wright on her Hard to Stop album and also by Easy Listening veteran Eydie Gorme as a solo track on Feelin' an album which was overall a duets project with Gorme's husband Steve Lawrence who had starred in Stand Up & Be Counted.
In 1979 pianist Paul Weston and vocalist Jo Stafford recorded "I Am Woman" in the guise of the untalented lounge act Jonathan & Darlene Edwards: this version was released as a single which also featured a cover of the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" with both songs delivered in classic "Jonathan & Darlene" mode with off notes, shifting tempo and style, and mismatched percussion.
"I Am Woman" was also remade by Jessica Williams as a dance track featured in the 1999 film, Trick and was covered by The Dan Band on their CD The Dan Band Live inspiring a one-hour music special by the group, Dan Finnerty & The Dan Band: I Am Woman.
- Perrone, James E. (2004). Music of the Counterculture Era. Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 85. ISBN 0-313326-89-4.
- "'I am Woman' on australianscreen online". Retrieved 2011-03-03.
- "The Anthem and the Angst", Sunday Magazine, Melbourne Sunday Herald Sun/Sydney Sunday Telegraph, June 15, 2003, Page 16.
- Betty Friedan, "It Changed My Life" (1976), pp. 257
- "Reddy to sing for the rent", Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), November 13, 1981
- "Helen still believes, it's just that she has to pay the rent too", by John Burns of the Daily Express, reprinted in Melbourne Herald, December 16, 1981
-  Burger King commercial
- Wilkening, Matthew (September 11, 2010). "100 Worst Songs Ever – Part Five of Five". AOL Radio. Retrieved December 25, 2010.
- Ray Burton website
- Poems by Flying Lemming
- Listen to an excerpt of 'I am Woman' on australianscreen online
- 'I am Woman' was added to the National Film and Sound Archive's Sounds of Australia registry in 2009
- Full lyrics of this song at MetroLyrics
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