The music world lost two important songwriters today with the passing of country legend Mac Davis and ’70s icon Helen Reddy. Both artists made a lasting impact and left an indelible mark with two powerful socio-political songs: Davis for his haunting “In The Ghetto,” famously recorded by Elvis Presley, and Reddy for writing and singing the anthemic “I Am Woman.” Both Reddy and Davis were 78 years old.
Reddy’s passing was announced by her children: “It is with deep sadness that we announce the passing of our beloved mother, Helen Reddy, on the afternoon of September 29th 2020 in Los Angeles. She was a wonderful Mother, Grandmother and a truly formidable woman. Our hearts are broken. But we take comfort in the knowledge that her voice will live on forever.”
Born in Australia, Reddy first gained notoriety in America with her recording of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice song “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” taken from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar and originally performed by Yvonne Elliman. Interestingly, Reddy was not a fan of the song and agreed to record it as long as she could also record a song that meant more to her. That song? “I Believe In Music,” written by Mac Davis.
Reddy skyrocketed to stardom with “I Am Woman,” a song she co-wrote with Ray Burton and released in 1971, before re-recording the now-familiar version one year later. Written primarily because she could not find a suitable song that reflected how she felt being a woman in a changing world, “I Am Woman” became an anthem for the bourgeoning woman’s movement. “I realized that the song I was looking for didn’t exist, and I was going to have to write it myself,” she told Billboard writer Fred Bronson.
The performance earned her Best Female Vocalist at the 1973 Grammy Awards, where she famously remarked to loud applause, “I would like to thank God because she makes everything possible.”
Though Reddy never repeated the songwriting level of “I Am Woman,” she had tremendous success on the charts with other writers’ material, including “Delta Dawn,” “Angie Baby,” and “Leave Me Alone (Ruby Red Dress).” She also dabbled in acting and was a host of her own TV series “The Helen Reddy Show.”
Mac Davis had heart surgery in Nashville earlier this week, became “critically ill” and passed away earlier tonight (September 29). The humble singer from Lubbock, Texas had a string of songs recorded by Elvis Presley, including “A Little Less Conversation,” “Memories,” “Don’t Cry Daddy” and the blockbuster “In The Ghetto.” He struck out with his own recording career and had hits with “Baby, Don’t Get Hooked On Me,” “I Believe In Music,” and more.
His longtime manager Jim Morey confirmed Davis’ passing in a statement:
“It’s with a heavy heart that I announce the passing of Mac Davis. He was surrounded by the love of his life and wife of 38 years, Lise, and his sons Scott, Noah and Cody. Mac has been my client for over 40 years, and more importantly…my best friend. He was a music legend but his most important work was that as a loving husband, father, grandfather and friend.”
Davis received numerous accolades in his career, and also had a brief acting career. He won the Academy of Country Music entertainer of the year in 1974, was an inductee into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2000, was named as the 2015 BMI Icon at the organization’s 63rd annual Country Awards
“In The Ghetto” was originally written with the working title “Vicious Circle.” Davis wanted to take the ‘vicious circle’ idea of a child being born into a rough situation and dying, followed by another child being born into the same circumstances. When he couldn’t find enough suitable rhymes for the word ‘circle,’ he abandoned the title but not the theme. “I had always wanted to write a song called “The Vicious Circle.” There’s nothing that rhymes with circle…if you wanna know the truth about it.”
Davis recounted writing “In The Ghetto” with American Songwriter in 2009, telling writer Ken Sharp:
“My daddy was a small building contractor. There was a guy named Alan Smith that had worked for him for years and years. He was just like…part of the family. He was a black man and his little boy, Smitty Junior, was my age, and he and I used to play together. Our daddies would be working, and in the summertime, Smitty would hang out with me. They lived in a really funky dirt street ghetto. Today’s term would be a ghetto. The term “ghetto” had started to become popular to describe the urban slums. The word was used during the Holocaust to describe those situations, but they hadn’t used it in an American context until the late ‘60s. Smitty Junior lived in a part of Lubbock called Queen City. They had dirt streets and broken glass everywhere. I couldn’t understand how these kids could run around barefoot on all that broken glass; I was wondering why they had to live that way and I lived another way. Even though we weren’t wealthy or anything, it was a whole big step up from the way that Smitty Junior had to live.”
One night, one of Davis’ friends, Freddy Weller, played a guitar riff that session guitarist Joe South had shown him on the guitar. “He came by my little office that I had there on Sunset Boulevard and was showing me a guitar lick. For some reason or another I had to learn it [imitates guitar lick]. I was messing around with it after he left, and I just went [sings] “In the ghetto.” I thought, man, that just fits.
“A child is born in a situation, his father leaves and he ends up acting out and becoming his father. Being born and dying and being replaced by another child in the same situation is basically what I was talking about. Dying is a metaphor for being born into failure. Being born into a situation where you have no hope. If you listen to the song, it’s more poignant now than it was then. Instead of getting better it’s gotten worse. Back then we had gangs and violence in a few cities, now we have it in almost every American city.”
“When I had finished the last line, I knew that I had written a hit. I didn’t know that it was important, but I just knew that it was a hit if the right person cut it.”
“I heard that The Colonel didn’t want Elvis to record it because it was controversial. They believed it was a story of a protest song. I just thought it was drawing attention to a problem that’s been around for a millennium. The more we can draw attention to it, the more likelihood that somebody can find a solution.”
As writer Jim Beviglia noted in his 2012 Behind The Song story, “The song has the devastating feel of inevitability to it, as if the fate that befalls the young man in the song cannot be altered. When Presley sings in the bridge directly to his audience, however, it is a direct address to all those listening that reacting to such realities with a shrug of the shoulder is tantamount to helping them to persist.”
You can also read the story behind “Baby Don’t Get Hooked On Me” here.