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Australian Music Icon Renée Geyer Passes Away, Aged 69

17 January 2023 | 2:09 pm | Jeff Jenkins

“The greatest female singer of my lifetime in Australia.”

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Australian music icon Renée Geyer has passed away at the age of 69.

It was announced this afternoon that the singer died peacefully surrounded by family and friends from complications following hip surgery. While in the hospital, it was discovered that she also had inoperable lung cancer.

Asked in 2008 to describe herself, Renée Geyer replied: “Triple F: foolish, feisty, fun-loving and frightful. I’m too big a personality to keep it to three.”

The trailblazing singer always did things her own way. 

Renée Rebecca Geyer was born in Melbourne in 1953, the youngest of three children to Edward and Ella, who met in Palestine after World War II. Ella, a Holocaust survivor, was from Slovakia; Edward was from Hungary.

Mr Geyer preferred Mahler to pop music. He would often say, “All the pop music is shit. But of all the shit, my daughter’s shit is the best.” Renée dedicated her final album, Swing, to her dad, who died in 2013.

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“I was an annoying cocky child,” Renée admitted. “I knew I was good, but I didn’t actually think that a Jewish girl from Dover Heights would actually get into the music industry. I didn’t think that was pulloffable. But when it happened, there was no looking back.”

Renée’s first serious band, Dry Red, featured Mondo Rock’s Eric McCusker. She then joined a jazz-rock band, Sun, who released an album, Sun 1972. Roger Davies, Sherbet’s manager, wrote Renée’s first review, comparing her to a Greek goddess.

Daddy Cool’s Eagle Rock was Renée’s local inspiration. “All this ear candy was serious enough for me to get the hell out of Dodge (Sydney) and move to where the action was, Daddy Cool’s hometown – Melbourne. Eagle Rock and its creators played a huge role in my choice to endure the rigors of life as a musician.”

Renée released her self-titled debut in 1973, the first of 15 studio albums.

She blazed a trail for women in Australian music, but on her own terms. She covered James Brown’s It’s A Man’s Man’s World as a response to Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem, declaring: “I hated I Am Woman.” 

Radio banned Renée’s 1975 single Sweet Love, believing its first line was “I just want to copulate”; Renée claimed she was singing populate.

Ridiculously, Renée never had a Top 10 album. Two albums – 1977’s Moving Along and 2003’s Tenderland – peaked at #11. But she did have a smash hit single in 1981 when her version of Say I Love You (written by Eddy Electric Avenue Grant) soared into the Top 5 and went to number one in New Zealand.

And Renée’s 1975 album Ready To Deal was featured in The 100 Best Australian Albums. “It’s worth noting,” the authors pointed out, “that this was the first time a woman in Australia had co-written and co-produced an entire album. In terms of gender roles and sheer chutzpah, the album was ground-breaking.”

As stated by critic and friend Ed Nimmervoll (with whom Renée wrote her autobiography), “Finally, Australian rock music had a female icon.”

Molly Meldrum wrote the liner notes for Renée’s 1976 live album, Really Really Love You. “In her voice,” he said, “there is a perfectly tuned instrument that is superbly controlled.”

Renée described herself as “a white Hungarian Jew from Australia sounding like a 65-year-old black man from Alabama”.

“I’m lucky I was born with an old voice,” she said.

Aretha Franklin was her idol. She even had an “Aretha” tattoo on her left elbow. Renée could sing anything, but she never tackled a song by her idol, explaining: “You just don’t go there, you know. Aretha – she’s untouchable.”

At the end of the ’70s, Renée shared management with Marvin Gaye. US radio programmers thought Renée was black when they heard her first American single, Heading In The Right Direction.

Renée lived in the US from 1986 to 1994. Chart success eluded her, but she had many memorable moments, including seeing her song Is It Hot In Here featured in the Julia Roberts movie Mystic Pizza.

Renée also sang on records by countless artists, including Jackson Browne, Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy, Neil Diamond, Joe Cocker, Julio Iglesias, Chaka Khan, Sting, Men At Work, Ian McLagan, Cold Chisel, Jimmy Barnes, Paul Kelly, Stephen Cummings, Dragon, Sérgio Mendes, Even, Toni Childs, Hoodoo Gurus, TZU and Russell Morris.

And she co-produced Vika and Linda Bull’s 1999 album, Two Wings.

Renée loved singers – and singers loved her. Jackson Browne would regularly send her cookies for Christmas.

Renée also did some acting in the ’80s, playing a waitress in the ABC’s Sweet and Sour, and a waitress in Paul Cox’s My First Wife. And in 2007, she made her theatrical debut, as the stepmother in the Malthouse Theatre production of Sleeping Beauty

Paul Kelly got to know Renée – “I admired her deep soul singing, ferocious and vulnerable” – when she recorded his song Foggy Highway for the Seven Deadly Sins soundtrack.

Kelly ended up writing Difficult Woman for Renée. 

“Women usually are considered to be difficult,” Renée observed. “They never say ‘difficult man’. But the song was beautiful.” 

Renée titled her 2000 autobiography Confessions Of A Difficult Woman. And she called Kelly “my most trusted friend”.

When Kelly wrote You Broke A Beautiful Thing, he knew Renée was the person to sing it. But as he explained in his memoir, How To Make Gravy, she wasn’t keen, saying: “It’s a country song. I don’t sing country songs.” But Kelly told her it was a “country/soul song”, noting that “I knew from experience that Renée can sometimes be persuaded”.

“She took it out of my hands and Renée-ified it. It sounds like a soul song now.”

When Renée was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2005, Michael Gudinski called her “the greatest female singer of my lifetime in Australia … yes, you’re a difficult woman, but you’re bloody fantastic”.

The Hall of Fame accolade was long overdue, and Renée relished the moment. When a member of the audience yelled, “We love you, Renée”, she replied, “I know.”

She took the opportunity to praise her musicians – “they just make me look beautiful” – apologise to her road crews and thank her manager – “Imagine managing me!”

She finished by thanking Aretha Franklin, “still the greatest singer who ever lived”.

In 2009, Renée was diagnosed with breast cancer, but said: “Death doesn’t scare me.” She didn’t cancel any shows during her treatment.

The flip side of her 1983 single, Trouble In Paradise, was called Life Begins At 30. She very nearly made it to 70.

Way back in 1977, Renée said, “I’ve got a very deep voice now, and when I’m 60, if I make it, I’ll probably sound like an old crow.”

A 1986 interview in The Australian concluded: “Ask Renée Geyer if she’d swap her life for anything and she answers: ‘For what? I can’t do anything else. I don’t enjoy anything else. That’s two big reasons to stick with it.’”

She stuck with it until the very end. And she never sounded like an old crow. Renée Geyer was one of the greats.