At the Narooma Blues Festival, New South Wales, Australia Photo: Denise O'Hara
|Birth name||Renée Rebecca Geyer|
11 September 1953 |
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
|Genres||Pop, R&B, jazz, soul|
|Labels||RCA, EMI, A&M, Mushroom/Festival, Polydor, Portrait, WEA, ABC, Larrikin|
|Associated acts||Dry Red, Sun, Mother Earth, Sanctuary, Easy Pieces, Bump Band|
Renée Rebecca Geyer (born 11 September 1953, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia) is an Australian singer who has long been regarded as one of the finest exponents of jazz, soul and R&B idioms. She had commercial success as a solo artist in Australia, with "It's a Man's Man's World", "Heading in the Right Direction" and "Stares and Whispers" in the 1970s and "Say I Love You" in the 1980s. Geyer has also been an internationally respected and sought-after backing vocalist, whose session credits include work with Sting, Chaka Khan, Toni Childs and Joe Cocker.
In 2000, her autobiography, Confessions of a Difficult Woman, co-written with music journalist Ed Nimmervoll, was published. In her candid book, Geyer detailed her drug addictions, sex life and career in music. She described herself as "a white Hungarian Jew from Australia sounding like a 65-year-old black man from Alabama". She spent more than ten years based in the United States but had little chart success there. Geyer returned to Australia in the mid-1990s and her career has continued into the 21st century with her 2003 album, Tenderland, which peaked at #11 on the ARIA albums charts.
Rock historian Ian McFarlane described her as having a "rich, soulful, passionate and husky vocal delivery". Geyer's iconic status in the Australian music industry was recognised when she was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame on 14 July 2005, alongside The Easybeats, Hunters & Collectors, Smoky Dawson, Split Enz and Normie Rowe. Geyer and fellow 1970s singer, Marcia Hines, are the subjects of Australian academic, Jon Stratton's 2008 Cultural Studies article, "A Jew Singing Like a Black Woman in Australia: Race, Renée Geyer, and Marcia Hines".
Renée Geyer was born in 1953 in Melbourne, Australia, to a Hungarian Jewish father, Edward Geyer, and a Slovak Holocaust survivor mother, as the youngest of three children. Geyer was named Renée for another Holocaust survivor who had helped her mother in Auschwitz after Josef Mengele had assigned the rest of her mother's family to death. At a young age, the Geyers moved to Sydney where her parents were managers of a migrant hostel. Geyer describes herself as a problem child, and her parents called her übermutig (German for reckless). She attended various schools and was expelled from a private school, Methodist Ladies College, for petty stealing. Her first job was as a receptionist for the Australian Law Society.
In 1970, at the age of 16, while she was still at Sydney High School,Geyer began her singing career as a vocalist with jazz-blues band Dry Red. This group also contained Eric McCusker of Mondo Rock fame For her audition she sang The Bee Gees' hit "To Love Somebody". She soon left Dry Red for other bands including the more accomplished jazz-rock group Sun. Sun consisted of Geyer, George Almanza (piano), Henry Correy (bass guitar), Garry Nowell (drums), Keith Shadwick (sax, flute, clarinet, vocals) and Chris Sonnenberg (guitar). The group released one album, Sun 1972 in August 1972, Geyer had already departed in mid-1972 and later joined Mother Earth whose R&B/soul music style was more in keeping with Geyer's idiom. Mother Earth consisted of Geyer, Jim Kelly (guitar), David Lindsay (bass guitar), John Proud (drums) and Mark Punch (guitar, vocals).
RCA, who had released Sun's album, then signed Geyer to a solo contract; however, when it came time to record her first solo album, Geyer, already showing signs of her self-proclaimed "Difficult Woman" tag, loyally insisted that Mother Earth back her on the album. Her first solo release in September 1973 was the eponymous Renée Geyer, which mostly consisted of R&B/Soul cover versions of overseas hits and was produced by Gus McNeil. Geyer left Mother Earth by the end of the year.
1974–1976: It's a Man's Man's World
Geyer's next album, It's a Man's Man's World, produced by Tweed Harris (ex-The Groove), was released in August 1974. It became her first charting album when it peaked at #28 in October on the Australian albums charts. The studio band were, Harris (keyboards), Geoff Cox (drums; Bootleg Family Band), Tim Gaze (guitar; Kahvas Jute, Tamam Shud), Phil Manning (guitar; Chain), Steve Murphy (guitar; Blackfeather), Tony Naylor (guitar; Bootleg Family Band/Avalanche) and Barry "Big Goose" Sullivan (bass guitar; Chain). The title track, "It's a Man's Man's Man's World", was a cover of James Brown's hit from 1965, and became her first top 50 single.
Geyer then formed Sanctuary, to promote the album with the original line-up of, Billy Green (guitar; ex-Doug Parkinson In Focus), Barry Harvey (drums; ex-Chain), Mal Logan (keyboards; ex-Healing Force, Chain) and Sullivan. At the time Geyer had become disenchanted with RCA and their refusal to let her record more original material, she was prepared to wait out her contract if necessary. Former Chain members convinced Geyer to contact their label, Mushroom Records boss Michael Gudinski and band manager Ray Evans to strike a deal where they would record her and RCA would release the albums and singles with a Mushroom logo stamped on the label.
The arrangement led to Geyer's next album, Ready to Deal, which was recorded in August–September 1975, and by this stage Sanctuary line-up was, Logan, Sullivan, Mark Punch (guitar; ex-Mother Earth) and Greg Tell (drums). They co-wrote most of the material for the album with Geyer and Sanctuary was renamed as Renée Geyer Band; the album was produced by Renée Geyer Band and Ernie Rose, and released in November to reach #21. It spawned one of Geyer's signature songs "Heading in the Right Direction", written by guitarist Punch and Garry Paige (both ex-The Johnny Rocco Band), which reached the top 40 in 1976.
During this time, Geyer participated in the 1975 federal election campaign for the Liberal Party, singing their theme song "Turn on the Lights", the second most known Australian political song behind the 1972 Labor campaign theme song, "It's Time". In recent years, Geyer has distanced herself from the Liberal Party and politics in general, stating she had only done their theme song to earn enough money to record an album in the United States, where she had signed a contract with Polydor Records.
Before departing for the US, Mick Rogers (guitar; Manfred Mann's Earth Band) replaced Punch and Renée Geyer Band recorded a live album, Really Really Love You, at their farewell concert in Melbourne's Dallas Brooks Hall on 11 April 1976. Really Really Love You was released in August and reach the top 50; "Shaky Ground", the related single, appeared in September but Geyer was already in the US.
1976–1979: "Stares and Whispers"
Geyer relocated to Los Angeles in mid-1976 and her first US-based album, Moving Along, was released in May 1977 on RCA/Mushroom Records and peaked at #11 in Australia. It used Motown Records producer Frank Wilson, with the album's Polydor Records release for the US market titled Renée Geyer. Her backing musicians, Mal Logan (keyboards) and Barry Sullivan (bass guitar) were supplemented by members of Stevie Wonder's band, as well as Ray Parker Jr. and other US session musicians. It provided Geyer biggest Australian hit single, at the time, with "Stares and Whispers" peaking at #17. In the US, radio stations began playing several of the album's tracks, in particular a re-recorded version of "Heading in the Right Direction" which was issued as her first US & UK single.
Polydor were aware her vocal style led listeners to incorrectly assume she was black and urged her to keep a low profile until her popularity had grown, thus they suggested her US album release should not include her photograph. Known for her uncompromising and direct personal manner, Geyer refused to allow this deception and insisted on marketing the album complete with a cover photograph of what she referred to as "my big pink huge face". After the album's release, interest in Geyer subsided in the US, which Geyer later blamed on her headstrong decision regarding her marketing. Geyer earned respect in the US recording industry and for several years worked in Los Angeles as a session vocalist although she returned to Australia periodically. While in Australia in late 1977, Geyer released the single "Restless Years", the theme song for the Ten Network TV soapie The Restless Years, with its writer Mike Perjanik; "Restless Years" reached the top 40 in early 1978.
In 1978, Geyer played the role of Christine on Walter Murphy's concept album Phantom of the Opera. Geyer's second album with Wilson producing, Winner, was released in December 1978. The backing band were Punch, Tell and Tim Partridge (bass guitar; Kevin Borich Express), together with session musicians. Geyer was unhappy with the mix and lack of support from Polydor, so she negotiated a release from her contract, brought the album tapes to Australia where it was remixed and released. Geyer herself, referred to the album as "a bit of a loser" as much of the material was not up to her usual standard. She toured Australia promoting it but neither the album nor its two singles achieved top 50 chart success.
Geyer's June 1979 release, Blues License, is unique in her catalogue as she combined with Australian guitarist Kevin Borich and his band Express to record an album of straight blues material. The added fire in her vocals was sparked by the harder edged backing from Kevin Borich Express, Logan, Punch, Tim Piper (guitar; ex-Chain, Blackfeather), and Kerrie Biddell (backing vocals; Brian Cadd band), it reached the top 50, became a favourite of fans and remained in print.
1980–1984: "Say I Love You"
In 1980, Geyer was free of her original RCA contract, she returned to Australia and signed directly with Mushroom Records. They released her next album So Lucky in December 1981, with international release by Portrait Records as Renée Geyer by Renée Geyer and the Bump Band in 1982. Mushroom subsequently re-issued her previous albums. Helmed by Rob Fraboni (The Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, The Band) and Ricky Fataar (Beach Boys), the new album was recorded in the US with musical backing from Ian McLaglan and the Bump Band, who also supported Bonnie Raitt on her albums. With a mutual love of black blues and R&B performers, Geyer and Raitt formed a friendship that continues to this day. The album moved Geyer from the soul style she had been identified with and added a tougher, rootsy rock/R&B style, while incorporating salsa and reggae. The single "Say I Love You" became her biggest hit when it reached #5 on the Australian charts. So Lucky spawned two further singles, "Do You Know What I Mean", released in December 1981 attained the top 30 in February 1982, and "I Can Feel the Fire" released in February 1982, which had no top 50 chart success.
Geyer was at the peak of her Australian popularity with "Say I Love You" and performed in Mushroom's 10th anniversary celebration, the Mushroom Evolution Concert on Australia Day (26 January) long week-end in 1982 at the Myer Music Bowl. The following year she released a second live album Renée Live in May, which showcased her dynamic performance and provided a duet with Glenn Shorrock (singer; Little River Band) on a cover version of Dusty Springfield's 1966 single "Goin' Back". Geyer followed with a compilation album, Faves in January 1984, after which she returned to the US to live.
1984–1993: Living in the USA
Having enjoyed a career peak at home in Australia, Geyer returned to live in Los Angeles in 1984 to concentrate on breaking into the musical scene there. She continued to record and perform as a solo artist over the next decade though with less chart success in her own country due to lack of profile. Her only album for WEA, Sing to Me was released in June 1985, which peaked in the top 40; its accompanying first single "All My Love" reached #28 in Australia, but was not given a US release. None of the follow-up singles reached the top 50, so Geyer and WEA parted company thereafter.
Geyer visited Australia and performed three songs on 13 March 1985 for the Oz for Africa concert (part of the global Live Aid program) - "Put a Little Love in Your Heart", "All My Love", "Telling it Like it Is" . It was broadcast in Australia (on both Seven Network and Nine Network) and on MTV in the US.
Back in the US, Renee as lead vocalist, joined Easy Pieces, with Hamish Stuart (guitar, and vocals) and Steve Ferrone (drummer), both ex-The Average White Band and Anthony Jackson (bass guitar). They signed to A&M Records and the band's self-titled album, Easy Pieces was released in 1988 to excellent reviews, but the label changed distributors just as it was released and music stores couldn't order copies, so the album sank without a trace.
Geyer continued as an in-demand session vocalist, which she had also done in Australia. Geyer was on Sting's 1987 double-album, …Nothing Like the Sun (although misspelled as René Gayer on the album credits) including the single, "We'll Be Together". Geyer performed a duet with Joe Cocker on his 1987 album, Unchain My Heart and, following the album's release, toured Europe with him as a backing vocalist. She was audible on Toni Childs hit "Don't Walk Away" from the 1988 album, Union, among a trio of big-voiced backing singers - Geyer features as the lower-pitched ad-libber. Other sessions included working with Neil Diamond, Julio Iglesias, Buddy Guy and her old mate Bonnie Raitt. Geyer also recorded "Is it Hot in Here" for the soundtrack of the 1988 film Mystic Pizza. Geyer described her backing vocals as supplying, "The old Alabama black man wailing on the end of a record so they hire the white Jewish girl from Australia to do it."
1994–2000: "Foggy Highway" to Difficult Woman
Geyer's version of Paul Kelly's "Foggy Highway" for the various artists soundtrack, Seven Deadly Sins: Music from the ABC TV Series in 1993. Kelly provided guitar for this recording. He wrote "Difficult Woman" specifically for Geyer and produced her 1994 album, Difficult Woman.
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Geyer visited Australia in 1993 to record songs, including "Foggy Highway", for the ABC-TV mini series The Seven Deadly Sins, Geyer sang alongside Vika Bull, Deborah Conway and Paul Kelly for the 13 tracks. She then teamed with Kelly, one of Australia's most respected singer-songwriters, who offered to produce and help write some tracks for her 1994 album, Difficult Woman which was released on Larrikin Records. It was her first solo studio album in 9 years, and although not a hit, the renewed respect and exposure it brought Geyer encouraged her to move back home where the album has become a cult favourite. In 2000, Geyer named her autobiography, Confessions of a Difficult Woman, after the album. The album contained "Foggy Highway" (later recorded by its writer Kelly on his 2005 bluegrass album, Foggy Highway), a stripped-back piano version of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows", Rodgers and Hart's "He Was Too Good to Me", Kelly's "Difficult Woman", written about Geyer herself, and "Sweet Guy" which alludes to male violence in romantic relationships - a theme which re-emerges in Geyer's recent albums - tangentially in "Killer Lover", and more directly in "Nasty Streak" (written by Kelly's nephew Dan Kelly).
Following the release of Difficult Woman, Geyer spent time re-establishing herself on the live circuit. These performances showed her more relaxed on stage than at her peak when her innate shyness was often cleverly disguised. Now a confident, mature woman she showed off a hitherto hidden wicked sense of humour, often at her own expense, but nobody was safe. She then re-signed with Mushroom Records for a new single, "I'm the Woman Who Loves You", which was included on the retrospective The Best of Renee Geyer 1973–1998. The album introduced Geyer to a new, younger audience due to a bonus disc included with initial copies, which featured earlier tracks, remixed by up and coming DJs. The compilation led to the recording of a full-length album, Sweet Life released in 1999, which appeared in the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) top 50 album charts. Geyer was surrounded by the cream of Australian musicians, who reportedly queued up to offer songs and record with the diva. Production was by Kelly and Joe Camilleri (Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons, The Black Sorrows), the album demonstrated her extensive vocal range (certain songs like "You Broke a Beautiful Thing", "Cake and Candle" and "Killer Lover" showcase her rarely used upper range). The album contained original Geyer-cowrites. However it was to be her last for Mushroom as label owner Michael Gudinski sold the company soon after.
In 2003 Geyer released the album Tenderland on ABC Records produced by Geyer, which peaked at #11 on the ARIA albums charts. This was followed by another live album, Live at the Athenaeum in 2004, then two more studio albums Tonight in 2005 and Dedicated in 2007.
Geyer's iconic status in the Australian music industry was recognised when she was inducted by Gudinski into the ARIA Hall of Fame on 14 July 2005, alongside The Easybeats, Hunters & Collectors, Smoky Dawson, Split Enz and Normie Rowe. At the ceremony, contemporary R&B singer Jade MacRae performed a Geyer medley, then Geyer sang "It's a Man's Man's World".
Geyer and fellow 1970s singer, Marcia Hines, are the subjects of Australian academic, Jon Stratton's 2008 Cultural Studies article, "A Jew Singing Like a Black Woman in Australia: Race, Renée Geyer, and Marcia Hines". Geyer delivered a two-hour master class on 3 December 2008 to illustrate her annoyance of vocal gymnastics used by singers such as, Mariah Carey, Christina Aguilera and contestants on Australian Idol. Geyer was approached to be a judge on Australian Idol and The X Factor but declined, she criticised Hines for being "so neutral, I don't hear an opinion" and Kyle Sandilands for his comments that are hurtful. After having signed with Liberation Blue Records which teams her with former Mushroom boss, Gudinski, Geyer released the compilation, Renéesance in May 2009.
Geyer has ventured into further areas of the performing arts, with a lead role in Sleeping Beauty in July 2007. In 2008/9 she also provided a voice in the award winning claymation Mary & Max by Adam Elliot.
In August 2011 she was fined for careless driving over two incidents one in Elwood, Victoria in 2010 and St Kilda, Victoria in 2011, when she crashed into parked cars, a tree and a shop front.
Her lawyer had blamed the crashes on a drug she was taking to treat breast cancer which he said led to a loss of concentration.
She was fined $500 that was ordered to be paid to the Cancer Council.
- Geyer, Renée; Ed Nimmervoll (2000). Confessions of a Difficult Woman: The Renée Geyer Story. Pymble, NSW: Harper Collins. ISBN 0-7322-6563-0.
- Sun 1972 (1972, RCA) (as a member of Sun)
- Renée Geyer (1973, RCA)
- It's a Man's Man's World (1974, RCA Australia)
- Ready to Deal (1975, RCA/Mushroom Records)
- Really Really Love You: Live at the Dallas Brooks Hall (1976, RCA/Mushroom)
- Moving Along aka Renee Geyer (1977, RCA/Mushroom/Polydor) (US/UK)
- Renée Geyer at Her Very Best (1977, RCA/Mushroom)
- Winner (1978, RCA/Mushroom)
- Blues License (1979) (RCA/Mushroom)
- So Lucky aka Renee Geyer (1981) (Mushroom) / (Portrait) (US/UK)
- Renée Live (1983) (Mushroom)
- Faves (1984) (Mushroom)
- Sing to Me (1985) (WEA)
- Renée Live at the Basement (1986) (ABC Records)
- Easy Pieces (1988) (A&M Records)
- Seven Deadly Sins (1993) (soundtrack, ABC Records) shared with Paul Kelly, Deborah Conway & Vika Bull of Vika and Linda
- Difficult Woman (1994) (Larrikin Records)
- The Best of Renée Geyer - 1973-1998 (1998) (Mushroom)
- Sweet Life (1999) (Mushroom) #50 AUS
- Classic Collection (3-CD Box Set) (2001) (Rajon)
- Tenderland (2003) (ABC Records/First Edition) #11 AUS
- Live at the Athenaeum (2004) (ABC Records/First Edition)
- Tonight (2005) (ABC Records/First Edition)
- Dedicated (2007) (EMI)
- Renéesance (2009) (Liberation Blue Records)
- The Ultimate Collection (2010) (Warner Music Australia)
- Swing (2013) (Fanfare Records (Australia))
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