Before there was a King of Pop, Helen Reddy was being called the Queen of '70s Pop thanks to her string of 15 Billboard top 40 songs and three chart toppers, starting with the anthemic "I Am Woman."
This rich-voiced, auburn-haired Australia native was ubiquitous that decade: on radio, on television (guest appearances on "The Carol Burnett Show," her own summer-replacement series "The Helen Reddy Show") and in the movies ("Airport '75," Disney's "Pete's Dragon"). But by the 1980s the hits had ended, and by the early 2000s she had grown tired of performing, noting Friday in a phone conversation from the Washington, D.C., area: "I remember the Vegas days when it was two shows a night, seven nights a week, and it became so rote that I'd be thinking about wallpaper while I was singing."
She'd especially had enough of her 1973 hit "Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress)."
" 'Leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me, oh, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me,'" she drone-quoted. "And that's only one chorus."
So Reddy retired from the stage and returned to Australia for 10 years, spending time with her older sister and living a quiet life. Yet after a Tuesday lunchtime program sponsored by the Oak Brook Women's Club at Ruth Lake Country Club in Clarendon Hills, the 71-year-old singer will be performing at the Arcada Theatre in St. Charles Wednesday night as she resumes her career on her own terms.
Reddy discussed living in Chicago in the late '60s, her decision to come back, the songs she will and won't sing and hypnotherapy in our conversation, which has been edited.
Q. Do you have any specific Chicago performing memories?
A. I remember living in Chicago. It was only for about 10 months. I was one of the first people to move into Lake Point Tower.
Q. What were you doing here?
A. I did a revue at the Happy Medium, and I did a run at (the Rush Street nightclub) Mister Kelly's.
Q. Anything you like doing in the city in particular?
A. Oddly enough, when I did live there, I missed out on summer, so it was pretty cold when I was there, but I would love to have a Chicago summer.
Q. Your decision to come back came after you performed at your sister's birthday?
A. Yes, that's right, because it was her 80th birthday, and she asked me if I would sing a duet with her. I hadn't heard my voice in 10 years, and when I heard it coming over the speaker, it was like: Oh, that's not bad. Maybe I should do that again.
Q. You literally did not sing for—
A. For 10 years, no.
Q. Not at all?
A. Nope. What I did find myself doing was humming harmonies. When I heard music, I would start humming a harmony, but other than that, no. I think I was burned out.
Q. On someone's birthday you just kind of hummed "Happy Birthday" when they lit the candles?
A. I would sing "Happy Birthday," but that was about as far as it went.
Q. What do you get most out of performing now?
A. Just the joy of singing, the appreciation of the audience and the fact that I have more leeway in the songs that I choose to sing. I'm not locked into what the record company wants.
Q. What kind of songs are you able to sing now that you couldn't before?
A. I do more of the ballads, not so much of the top 40 stuff, which is from another era.
Q. Are you still doing "Delta Dawn"?
A. Yes. I do sort of a medley of some of those hits.
Q. "Angie Baby"?
A. "Angie Baby" I do in its entirety because it is a story song, and the man who wrote it, Alan O'Day, is a good friend of mine, and I think he's just a brilliant songwriter.
Q. "Ain't No Way To Treat a Lady"?
A. "Ain't No Way To Treat a Lady," that's a Harriet Schock song. I do it as part of a medley.
Q. Are there any songs that you think fans would want you to sing, but you decided, "You know what? I just don't have to do this one anymore"?
A. (Laughing) There are some, believe me, that I won't sing again. Like for instance, "Leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone, leave me alone—"
Q. I read that you counted the number of "leave me alones" in that one.
A. Yes, I certainly did. In fact, they used to have a contest on the radio that you could get two free tickets to Helen Reddy's show if you could tell us how many times she sang "leave me alone." I think it was like 42 times.
Q. So you are leaving that song alone?
A. Oh, yes! I'm leaving it out. (laughs)
Q. I assume "I Am Woman" is still the big crowd-pleaser?
A. Well, yes, that's the one a lot of people come to hear, and it has become over the years an iconic song.
Q. When you recorded it, did you think it was a major statement song?
A. I had no idea the impact it would have. That was a big surprise.
Q. What is it about that song that made it iconic?
A. I think it came along at the right time. I'd gotten involved in the Women's Movement, and there were a lot of songs on the radio about being weak and being dainty and all those sort of things. All the women in my family, they were strong women. They worked. They lived through the Depression and a world war, and they were just strong women. I certainly didn't see myself as being dainty.
Q. You're living in Los Angeles now?
A. I've moved back, yes. I moved back in January.
Q. You've also been working as a hypnotherapist?
A. During that 10 years I took off, I went back to college and got a degree in clinical hypnotherapy and neuro-linguistic programming, and I haven't practiced it so much of late, but it was something that I got a great deal of satisfaction out of.
Q. What made you want to learn that at that point?
A. Well, I'd been hypnotizing people since I was 17, so there was nothing new in that. I wanted to get more involved into the healing aspects of it.
Q. How did you discover at 17 that you could hypnotize people?
A. I'd been in shows where they had hypnotists, but of course they were for the amusement for the audience. I would never have somebody come up on stage and be made a fool of. I'm much more interested in the healing aspect, as I said. We've come a long way from the days of the stage hypnotists.
Q. What does hypnotherapy do that regular therapy can't?
A. We go deeper. Our brain, there's only about 12 percent of it that we actively use, and the other 88 percent is sort of dormant. It's almost like if you think of a glass of beer: You can be fooling around in the froth, or you can take a straw and put it right down and go directly to where the problem is.
Q. Do people make appointments with you?
A. It's not anything I would do on a full-time basis. I do get clients from time to time, but it's always through a referral. I don't advertise or anything like that.
Q. Now that you're doing concerts again, is there anything you need to do with your voice now that you didn't before you'd retired?
A. No. No, it's the same voice. In fact, that's what everyone says: "Your voice sounds exactly the same."
Q. In terms of taking care of it, your routines are pretty much the same as what they always were?
A. Well, I never really had much in the way of routines. I think the best thing you can do for your voice is to rest it.
Q. Is there anything new you listen to now?
A. I don't really get a chance to listen to music too much. I don't even have a stereo system.
Q. People have their iPods and earbuds now.
A. I've always got music playing in my head. Sometimes that can get to be annoying.
Q. What's the music in your head?
A. Usually when I'm going to sleep at night, there'll be eight bars of something that keeps going over and over.
Q. Is it your own music or music that you like?
A. Just music that's sort of coming out of me.
Q. Are you writing new songs?
A. Not presently, no.
Q. Have you watched "American Idol" or "The Voice"?
A. No, thank you very much, no. In fact, I'm bothered by all these talent shows because it keeps people who are professional out of work, and these poor souls that are going on there are not getting paid, and people like Rupert Murdoch are making lots of money that they shouldn't be.
Q. Do you think you would have a hard time having your career if you were just coming up now?
A. I truly couldn't say. I mean, I was in show business at age 5. But I wish they had more professional type shows, things like "The Carol Burnett Show."
Q. I saw you on "The Carol Burnett Show."
A. Did you? Oh, well, then you're older than I thought.
Q. Do you sense as an audience grows with you that there's a different sort of appreciation, like "We've been through a lot together" so it's more of a kinship?
A. Well, I'd never thought of it that way, but that's a very, very good observation.