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Singer Helen Reddy, Known For 'I Am Woman,' Dies At 78

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The woman best known for the song "I Am Woman" has died. Helen Reddy was 78 years old. She co-wrote and performed the 1972 hit that endures even today as a feminist anthem. Reddy died last night in Los Angeles. NPR's Neda Ulaby has the remembrance.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: In 2014, the year before Helen Reddy was diagnosed with dementia, the singer explained in an interview with Houston Public Media where "I Am Woman" came from.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HELEN REDDY: I guess heaven, you know? It came to me. And it wouldn't leave me. It was simply a phrase that over and over - I am strong. I am invincible. I am woman. And I then - well, this has to be a song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM WOMAN")

REDDY: (Singing) I am woman, hear me roar - in numbers too big to ignore.

ULABY: Helen Reddy was born into a show business family in Australia. She came to the U.S. after winning a singing competition in 1966. Her career was just beginning to take off when she decided she had to record "I Am Woman" even though her label, Capitol Records, thought it was too strident, too feminist. Reddy and her manager husband were convinced the song would speak to a new generation of independent woman. Without any support from the label, they worked the phones trying to get radio stations to play it.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REDDY: It was so hard. It was so hard.

ULABY: Helen Reddy in that 2014 interview.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REDDY: You know, so many radio stations would say, well, we're already playing a female record.

ULABY: It took nearly a year for "I Am Woman" to work its way up the charts and become a No. 1 hit. When Reddy then won a Grammy for Best Female Performance, she thanked her manager husband.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REDDY: I would like to thank Jeff Wald because he makes my success possible. And I would like to thank God because She makes everything possible.

(APPLAUSE)

ULABY: Calling God She on national television was audacious. But remember, this was 1972, the same year the Equal Rights Amendment passed the Senate and Shirley Chisholm ran for president. The Supreme Court made its decision in Roe v. Wade just a month after "I Am Woman" reached No. 1.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SEX AND THE CITY 2")

SARAH JESSICA PARKER: (As Carrie) Everyone.

ULABY: And "I Am Woman" has legs - over the years has been covered over and over, with a cultural impact illustrated in part by the gleeful karaoke version sung by the main characters in the 2010 movie "Sex And The City 2."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SEX AND THE CITY 2")

SARAH JESSICA PARKER, KRISTIN DAVIS, CYNTHIA NIXON, KIM CATTRALL: (As Carrie, Charlotte, Miranda and Samantha, singing) With a long, long way to go.

ULABY: More recently, Helen Reddy herself performed the song at the 2017 Women's March in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM WOMAN")

REDDY: (Singing) Oh, yes, I am wise, but it's wisdom born of pain. Yes, I've paid the price. But look how much I gained. If I have to, I can do anything.

ULABY: Helen Reddy's life was memorialized in a movie that came out just this year, a biopic called, of course, "I Am Woman." Her signature song reflected optimism and joy in a time of challenge, change and difficulty. She leaves us her joy and optimism in her music. It is strong. It is invincible.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM WOMAN")

REDDY: (Singing) I am strong. I am invincible. I am woman. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.