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Renée Rebecca Geyer (1953–2023)

by Kerrie O'Brien

from Sydney Morning Herald

Acclaimed blues and soul singer Renee Geyer has died in hospital in Geelong following complications after hip surgery. She started singing as a teenager and her powerful, distinctive, husky voice saw her dubbed Australia’s queen of soul.

Geyer was performing as recently as last month and had intended to continue doing so.

A statement issued by her label, Mushroom, described Geyer as “irrepressible, cheeky and loyal”. It said that while she was in hospital, it was discovered that she also had inoperable lung cancer. “She was in no pain and died peacefully amongst family and friends,” the statement said.

Her hits included Heading in the Right Direction (1975), Stares and Whispers (1977) and Say I Love You (1981). She spent a decade in the United States and carved a name for herself as an impressive back-up vocalist, working with Neil Diamond, Sting, Toni Childs and Joe Cocker. She described herself as “a white Hungarian Jew from Australia sounding like a 65-year-old black man from Alabama”.

Geyer had a late career resurgence when her version of the James Brown song It’s A Man’s Man’s World was used in the credits for the Mad Men TV series in Australia. It was a coming-full-circle moment, as it was that track that brought her initial fame back in 1974.

Born in Melbourne in 1953 to a Hungarian-Jewish father and a Slovakian-Jewish mother who had survived the Holocaust, she was the youngest of three children. Geyer starting singing aged 16, while still at high school, and released her self-titled debut album in 1973.

Marcia Hines paid tribute to Geyer on Twitter, describing her as “A game changer. A soul diva. My sister in song.” Hines went on to say “Heartfelt condolences to her family and friends, and to the Australian music industry as a whole who have just lost a person who possessed one of the greatest voices I have ever heard.”

Also on Twitter, Paul Grabowsky dubbed her “Australia’s own Queen of Soul”, saying “a truly incredible singer has left us”.

Speaking to this masthead in 2016, Jackson Browne recalled the first time he saw Geyer step up to a microphone. “It was at a club called At My Place in Santa Monica, with Bonnie Raitt. She was … this incredible force of nature.”

He later saw her in a recording studio with the Native American poet and activist John Trudell. “Renee delivered this incredible, achingly beautiful … I mean, just the sound of her voice drawing breath and singing these words gave it this power.”

The nature of Geyer’s voice meant she was often mistaken for a black singer, something her record company in America advised her to capitalise on – but she refused, as she said in her autobiography. “A lot of people didn’t know that I was a white girl and I think Polydor wanted to savour that a lot longer than I cared to. I should’ve just shut the f--k up and got on with it.”

Matt Gudinski, chief executive of the Mushroom Group, also made note of her contribution to the Australian music industry in a statement. “In particular, she was a trailblazer for women. She was fierce, independent, strong and passionate. When my father [Michael] inducted Renee into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2005, he called her ‘the greatest female singer of my lifetime in Australia … yes, you’re a difficult woman, but you’re bloody fantastic’. Renee always did things her own way and we loved her for that.”

The federal Minister for the Arts Tony Burke also paid tribute to the late singer. “Renee was a legend, a pioneer, and as authentic as they come,” he said in a statement, adding that he last saw her play at the 2019 Australian Women in Musica Awards: “More than four decades after entering the charts, her voice was as powerful and captivating as ever. Australia and Australian music are so much richer for having heard it.”

Geyer participated in the 1975 federal election campaign for the Liberal Party, singing their theme song “Turn on the Lights”; she later distanced herself from the party, saying she did so simply to earn enough money to make a record in the US. She was also well-known to watchers of the Channel 10 soap The Restless Years, having sung its theme song.

Geyer’s autobiography Confessions of a Difficult Woman, released in 2000, detailed the challenges she faced with drugs and alcohol, as well as forging a career in a male dominated music industry not accustomed to dealing with strong, independent women.

In addition to the ARIA Hall of Fame recognition, she was the first woman to be inducted into the Music Victoria Hall of Fame in 2013, and she received the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award at the Australian Women in Music Awards in 2018. Geyer will long be remembered as one of our best.

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Citation details

Kerrie O'Brien, 'Geyer, Renée Rebecca (1953–2023)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/geyer-renee-rebecca-33058/text41208, accessed 28 February 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]

Birth

11 September, 1953
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Death

17 January, 2023 (aged 69)
Geelong, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

surgical complications

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