A Big Thumbs up for Women

Yesterday was International Women’s Day, and I found myself looking back at a couple of my first gigs when I arrived in Los Angeles, both of them with remarkable women. 

The first was at a club called the Ruddy Duck, quite near where we now live, playing Hammond B3 organ with the Mary Kaye Trio. Mary came from a royal musical family in Hawaii and Las Vegas, where she was a giant star in the early days. 

I wasn’t really an organist, but I managed to cover it, and it was great to have a steady gig. Serious players sometimes came by to sit in. I remember guitarist Mundell Lowe joining us one evening, and Herb Jeffries came by to sing with us on occasion. 

My other memory for Women's Day is my first LA touring gig, as pianist and musical director for Helen Reddy. “Musical director,” meant that I was the only musician on the premises. Helen, her husband Jeff Wald, and I would fly to a city, rent a car and drive to the venue. The first gig was for an auto race in Charlotte, and Jeff was upset when he found that Helen was expected to kiss the winner of the race.

In those days. Helen envisioned her career as somewhat like Joni Mitchell’s: an introspective singer/songwriter. Jeff had other ideas, and he prevailed, to her financial benefit. One crossroads I remember is when he persuaded her to shave her armpits in order to secure her first TV deal with NBC. 

I eventually put together her first band, and it was a pretty good one. Mike Warren on guitar (he later played with Donna Summer at the peak of her career); Michael Berkowitz on drums (he later moved to NY and became the king of Broadway, playing for Liza Minelli, Marvin Hamlisch, and an entire zoo of others); the late Jack Conrad on bass (he later wrote hit songs for the Babys and others); and assorted saxophonists (I remember Ronnie Starr and Richie Kamuca, to name two). Jack Conrad was pleased when Helen offered to write lyrics for one of his songs, which she eventually recorded as "Summer of '71." Jack was less pleased when he discovered that her lyric for the chorus began "We're out of our mescaline minds," insuring, in those days, that there would be no big payday for radio performances of the song.

This photo shows Helen with my my wife Sarah and myself. It was taken in Amsterdam on a tour back in the early 1970s. A couple of decades later, Alan Lindgren and I were scoring a film called "Thanksgiving Day," and found that the script included a scene in which the star, Mary Tyler Moore, was driving her car while its radio played "I Am Woman," which advanced the plot. Helen's people's price to license the record was too high for the film's budget, so we redid it with Sarah doing the vocal, beautifully and convincingly. It was a natural choice, since Sarah sat through many performances of it in the early days, and we did “I Am Woman” at every show. I actually produced an early version of the song for Helen, but producer Joe Wissert was later brought in and he did a faster, rockier version of it, which deservedly became the hit everyone knows. (I actually preferred another song we cut at the time, “Don’t you Mess With a Woman,” which illustrates my commercial judgment.) 

I eventually had an inevitable falling-out with Jeff and moved on, but by then I had established my studio career and was happy to stay in town for a while. 

Some years later, I joined up with Helen and Jeff to do a show which was recorded as a 2-disk set at the London Palladium. Afterwards, I was asked to send a quote for a plaque honoring Helen at the Palladium. My contribution included this: 

“When we began to rehearse, I went to her house, and she served me delicious peanut butter sandwiches. I’ll always be thankful to Helen for introducing me to the wonders of Laura Scudder crunchy peanut butter.” 

Helen is in poor health these days, but she is not languishing. An “I Am Woman” movie is lurking, made in Australia and soon to appear here. Her life is a great yarn, and hopefully the movie will be heaps of fun, although it would be far better if it had bonus narration by her band, since our tales would liven it up. 

Full disclosure: My main memory of my time with Helen is the night of our first show at the Bitter End in New York. On the opening tune, a splinter from the piano’s black keys went under my thumbnail, causing so much pain that I had to play the rest of the show with my thumb elevated in hitchhiking position. I was really happy for that show to end. Punch line: afterwards, a couple of the club’s beautiful waitresses extracted the splinter and nursed my hand back to health in time for the second show.

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