Renee Geyer, a well-known blues and soul singer, died in a Melbourne hospital after complications from hip surgery. She began singing as a youngster, and her powerful, unique, husky voice earned her the title “Queen of Soul” in Australia.
Mushroom, her label, hailed Geyer as “irrepressible, cheeky, and loyal,” and added that when she was in the hospital, it was determined that she also had incurable lung cancer. “She was in no pain and died peacefully amongst family and friends,” according to the statement.
Heading in the right path (1975), Stares and whispers (1977), and Say I love you (1980) were among her hits (1981). She spent a decade in the United States, where she made a name for herself as an outstanding backup vocalist, performing with Neil Diamond, Sting, Toni Childs, and Joe Cocker. “I’m a white Hungarian Jew from Australia who sounds like a 65-year-old black man from Alabama,” she said.
Geyer experienced a late-career renaissance when her version of James Brown’s It’s A Man’s Man’s World was used in the credits for the Mad Men TV series in Australia. It was a full-circle occasion because it was the song that launched her career in 1974.
She was the youngest of three children born in Melbourne in 1953 to a Hungarian-Jewish father and a Slovakian-Jewish mother who had survived the Holocaust. Geyer began singing when she was 16 years old, while still in high school, and released her self-titled debut album in 1973.
Marcia Hines paid homage to Geyer on Twitter, characterizing her as “A game changer. A diva of the soul. In music, my sister.” “Heartfelt sympathies to her family and friends, as well as the Australian music business as a whole, who have just lost a lady who possessed one of the best voices I have ever heard,” Hines continued.
Also on Twitter, Paul Grabowsky named her “Australia’s own Queen of Soul”, stating “a genuinely amazing vocalist has left us”.
In an interview with this publication in 2016, Jackson Browne recounted the first time he saw Geyer approach a microphone. “It was at a club in Santa Monica called At My Place with Bonnie Raitt. She was… this great natural energy.”
He subsequently spotted her with Native American poet and activist John Trudell in a recording studio. “Renee gave us this wonderful, achingly beautiful performance… I mean, simply the sound of her voice gathering breath and singing these lyrics was enough to give it force.”
Because of the quality of her voice, Geyer was sometimes mistaken for a black singer, which her record label in America recommended her to capitalize on – but she rejected it, as she stated in her memoirs. “A lot of people didn’t realize I was a white girl, and I think Polydor wanted to savor it for a lot longer than I did. I should’ve simply shut up and gotten on with it.”
In a statement, Matt Gudinski, chief CEO of the Mushroom Group, acknowledged her commitment to the Australian music business.
“In particular, she was a female trailblazer. She was fearless, self-sufficient, powerful, and enthusiastic. My father [Michael] described Renee as “the best female vocalist of my lifetime in Australia… yeah, you’re a tough lady, but you’re bloody magnificent” when he inducted her into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2005. Renee always did things her own way, which we admired.”
Geyer sang the Liberal Party’s theme song “Turn on the Lights” during the 1975 federal election campaign; she later distanced herself from the party, claiming she did it solely to earn enough money to produce a record in the United States. She was also well-known to fans of the Channel 10 soap The Restless Years, having performed the show’s theme song.
Confessions of a Difficult Woman, Geyer’s autobiography published in 2000, described her struggles with drugs and alcohol, as well as making a career in a music business unaccustomed to dealing with strong, independent women.
She was the first woman to be inducted into the Music Victoria Hall of Fame in 2013, and she earned the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award at the Australian Women in Music Awards in 2018. Geyer will be recognized as one of our best for a long time.
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