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 recently 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. Now the 71-year-old is resuming her career on her own terms. Reddy performs in concert at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Riviera Theatre, 67 Webster St., North Tonawanda. Tickets are $35-$40 (box office, 692-2413).
Reddy discussed her decision to come back and the songs she will and won’t sing in our conversation, which has been edited.
Your decision to come back came after you performed at your sister’s birthday?
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.
You literally did not sing for –
For 10 years, no.
Not at all?
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.
What do you get most out of performing now?
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.
What kind of songs are you able to sing now that you couldn’t before?
I do more of the ballads, not so much of the top 40 stuff, which is from another era.
Are you still doing “Delta Dawn”?
Yes. I do sort of a medley of some of those hits.
“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.
“Ain’t No Way To Treat a Lady”?
“Ain’t No Way to treat a Lady,” that’s a Harriet Schock song. I do it as part of a medley.
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”?
(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 —”
I assume “I Am Woman” is still the big crowd-pleaser?
Well, yes, that’s the one a lot of people come to hear, and it has become over the years an iconic song.
When you recorded it, did you think it was a major statement song?
I had no idea the impact it would have. That was a big surprise.
What is it about that song that made it iconic?
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.
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?
No. No, it’s the same voice. In fact, that’s what everyone says: “Your voice sounds exactly the same.”
In terms of taking care of it, your routines are pretty much the same as what they always were?
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.
Is there anything new you listen to now?
I don’t really get a chance to listen to music too much. I don’t even have a stereo system.
People have their iPods and earbuds now.
I’ve always got music playing in my head. Sometimes that can get to be annoying.
What’s the music in your head?
Usually when I’m going to sleep at night, there’ll be eight bars of something that keeps going over and over.
Is it your own music or music that you like?
Just music that’s sort of coming out of me.
Are you writing new songs?
Not presently, no.
Have you watched “American Idol” or “The Voice”?
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.