One of Australia’s greatest and most influential vocalists, Renée Geyer, sadly passed away on 17 January 2023, aged 69.
Renée was born in Melbourne in 1953. Her parents were both Jewish immigrants with her father from Hungary, and her mother being a Holocaust survivor from Slovakia. The family moved to Sydney when Renée was a toddler. Then, as a teenager, she fell in love with music, specifically rhythm and blues. In 2007 she said, 'This genre of music picked me. I didn't pick it. From a very early age I was listening to it on my transistor radio under my pillow. At 14 or 15 years of age I knew that this was the music I connected with.'
In this clip from her oral history interview with the NFSA in 2008, she talks about how she would meet musicians with similar musical tastes in record stores:
In the early 1970s, she joined the group Dry Red, followed by the jazz-rock group, Sun. The latter released one album, Sun 1972, which was Renée’s first appearance on record.
After leaving Sun, she joined Mother Earth. Renée started to get noticed around this time but her fellow band members were very important to her. She insisted that RCA Records sign the whole band rather than her as a solo artist:
After the lack of success of her self-titled Renée Geyer album (1973), she separated from Mother Earth and recruited a new band, Sanctuary, for her second album, It’s A Man’s Man’s World (1974). The title track, a cover of a James Brown song, was her first single to reach the Australian Top 50 and showcased her powerful bluesy voice.
In 1975, Sanctuary officially became the Renée Geyer Band and released her most successful album to date, Ready to Deal. This album included Renée’s first recording of one of her best-known songs, 'Heading in the Right Direction'. This recording was selected for the NFSA's Sounds of Australia in 2021.
They released one more album as the Renée Geyer Band, the live album Really Really Love You, recorded at Dallas Brooks Hall in Melbourne in 1976. This was billed as her 'farewell concert' before she focused her career on America.
Renée recorded the 1977 album Moving Along with former Motown producer Frank Wilson and it featured several notable American musicians. The album was known as Renée Geyer in America and included a re-recorded version of 'Heading in the Right Direction' as well as the Australian hit single, 'Stares And Whispers'.
Renée continued to have chart success, including her biggest hit, 'Say I Love You', which reached No. 5 in Australia and No. 1 in New Zealand in 1981. In the 1980s, she started to base herself in the United States where she continued to release albums as well as extensively record and tour as a backing vocalist. Some of the artists she appeared with included Joe Cocker, Sting, Neil Diamond and Bonnie Raitt.
In 1995, she returned to live in Australia. In this oral history clip, Renée talks about her 1994 album, Difficult Woman, which was produced by Paul Kelly and how this was one of the reasons why she decided to come back:
In 2000, she released her autobiography, Confessions of a Difficult Woman, written with Ed Nimmervoll, which covered several intimate and personal details of her life and career.
In this clip, she talks about writing the book and why there were certain topics that she felt had to be included:
Renée continued to release albums and regularly performed live to popular acclaim. She was also inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2005.
Renée Geyer had a remarkable career as one of Australia’s most powerful singers and will certainly be missed.
Main image: Renée Geyer performing on The Naked Vicar Show (1977–78). NFSA title: 1469106