Australian soul supremo Renée Geyer, who led the tumultuous life of a true rock star, has died at the age of 69 from surgical complications and inoperable lung cancer.
In a career spanning five decades, Geyer released 15 studio albums. She was the first woman to co-write and co-produce an album in Australia and worked tirelessly, performing to packed houses just weeks before her death.
Although she never achieved the massive chart success of fellow Australians Olivia Newton-John and Helen Reddy, Geyer was widely revered within the music industry. She was inducted into the Aria Hall of Fame in 2005 as a mark of respect.
She was born Renée Rebecca Geyer on 11 September 1953 in Melbourne to immigrant parents from Slovakia and Hungary. Her mother was a Holocaust survivor who chose the name Renée after another Holocaust survivor who helped her after Joseph Mengele sent the rest of her family to their deaths.
A difficult child, Geyer was nicknamed “übermütig” – the German word for high-spirited – by her parents. She attended various schools and was expelled from one for stealing.
Geyer started her musical career at 16, singing with jazz-blues band Dry Red in Sydney. She went on to perform with other jazz, rock and R&B bands before being signed to RCA Australia Records in 1973.
Her second studio album, It’s a Man’s Man's World, peaked at 28 on the Australian charts. The title track is a cover of the 1965 James Brown classic and became Geyer’s first top 50 single.
In 1975, Geyer participated in the Federal Election campaign and sang the Liberal Party’s theme song 'Turn on The Lights'. She later distanced herself from politics in general and the Liberal Party in particular, claiming that she only recorded the song to earn enough money to move to the United States and produce an album there.
She spent more than ten years in the United States and while she failed to achieve chart success in her own right, Geyer contributed to successful offerings from Neil Diamond, Men At Work and Sting.
Geyer once reportedly described herself as:
“... a white Hungarian Jew from Australia sounding like a 65-year-old black man from Alabama.”
In fact, her record label in America, Polydor, encouraged Geyer to keep a low profile and not put her photograph on album sleeves. This was because Geyer’s vocal style indicated that she was African-American and she had the potential to become very successful in that niche market if the deception continued.
Geyer, of course, refused and insisted on marketing her first U.S. album Renee Geyer with a cover photograph of what she gleefully described as “my big pink huge face”.
Said Geyer in her 2000 memoir 'Confessions of a Difficult Woman: the Renée Geyer story':
'My sound caused a lot of confusion... Black people were hailing it, but being white got in the way. And white people simply didn’t know what to do with me because I sounded too black.'
Throughout her career, Geyer was unapologetic and often profane, as demonstrated when her single '(I Give You) Sweet Love', released in 1975, was banned from airplay and hurriedly withdrawn over the controversy that the saucy lyrics provoked. The song began with the bold declaration “I just want to copulate”.
Geyer famously slapped interviewer Ian “Molly” Meldrum in the face while live on the popular Australian music show Countdown and was very frank about her battle with heroin addiction in the 1970s and 1980s.
Close friend Paul Kelly neatly encapsulated Geyer’s personality in the song 'Difficult Woman', which was released in 1994 and relaunched her career in Australia after nearly a decade of living in Los Angeles.
The song became Geyer’s trademark and the title of her memoir, in which she confessed to three clinical deaths from drug overdoses and several abortions.
'At the times I got pregnant, I was not responsible enough to have a child. I regretted it every time I’ve had to do it, but I have no qualms about doing it.'
A free spirit, Geyer never married or had children.
Although most of her songs were tough and gritty, Geyer was versatile enough to do pop convincingly.
Her biggest hit was 'Say I Love You'. Released in 1981, the glorious cover of Eddy Grant’s calypso classic was described as 'fresh and joyous as a Caribbean breeze'. It was a top five hit in Australia.
In addition to her solo work, Geyer was very much in demand as a session vocalist and produced albums with a diverse range of musical greats including Chaka Kahn, Toni Childs and Joe Cocker.
Geyer’s record label Mushroom announced that Geyer passed away peacefully following complications from hip surgery and after being diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.
The statement said:
Just last month, Renée sang to a full house and was looking forward to another busy year ahead doing what she loved most – performing for her loyal fans around the country. Renee lived her life as she performed – on her own terms and to the fullest. Beloved and respected, she was a force of nature and a national treasure, and her passing leaves a giant void in the Australian music industry.
Singer and actor Carmen Lo Carmen said:
”She was always a total pro, but she can also be cantankerous, messy, imperious, coquettish, hilarious, stately and wickedly fun. Sometimes in one song. Definitely in one show.”
Kate Ceberano called Geyer:
'The diva, the brutal, the shapeshifter, the irreplaceable Renée!'
'I was on the receiving end of her abundance of personality plenty of times. The first time we met, she tried to punch me out. She missed; she never apologised! Renée literally never held back, didn’t know the meaning of it. She made me laugh, she pissed me off, but she was never, ever boring and she made my life the richer for knowing her.'
Peter Garrett of Midnight Oil recalled performing with Geyer at a charity show.
'... of course, she blew the roof off. One of the very best voices we ever had the privilege to hear.'
Music critic Andrew P Street described Geyer’s gritty voice as 'like cigarettes rolled in honey'.
'If there is a music journalist in Australia not currently reflecting on the time Renée Geyer told them something gloriously unprintable in an interview, can they really call themselves a music journalist? An incredible artist. An unbelievable voice. And goddam was she a magnificent interviewee.'
The late Michael Gudinski, who ran the Australian music label Mushroom Records, called Geyer the greatest singer of his lifetime in Australia"
“... yes, you’re a difficult woman, but you’re bloody fantastic."
Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.
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