Bold, defiant, nobody’s fool, Renée blazed a trail for others to follow, although few could do so as soulfully and powerfully as she.
Adios, Renée, and thanks…
Gareth Jones is a music connoisseur and the author of the book “French Pop: from Music Hall to Yé-Yé”
The Australian music industry was left a poorer place this week with the unexpected and devastating news of the passing of Renée Geyer at the terribly young age of 69. For fifty years, Renée was the yardstick against which other singers could measure themselves and would usually come up wanting. Bold, defiant, nobody’s fool, Renée blazed a trail for others to follow, although few could do so as soulfully and powerfully as she.
It isn’t easy to explain exactly where Renée fits in the pantheon of Australian rock ‘n’ roll, so expertly did she cross boundaries and avoid being pigeon-holed into a niche from which she might not escape. What is easier to understand is how much she represented a break with the past, and a brave leap into the future, refusing the traditional “sit there, sing and look pretty” role reserved for girl singers since time immemorial. Indeed, for much of Australia’s short rock history to that point, this is exactly what was expected – and without knocking them, that’s what stars like Judy Stone and Noeline Batley did to perfection. Sure, things were shaken up a bit in the mid-sixties by New Zealand import Dinah Lee, and then by “Miss Mod” Lynne Randell, but that didn’t last long. So when Renée arrived in the early seventies, there was a whole series of assumptions to be challenged, walls to be broken down, glass ceilings to be shattered. Together with a handful of other big-voiced, big-hearted women (Alison MacCallum, Bobbi Marchini, Wendy Saddington), Renée did the job with style. As she put it herself, she was “like a white, Hungarian Jew from Australia sounding like 65-year-old black man from Alabama”. Nobody ever described her better.
Like other great rock and blues singers, Renée could be soft and tender, although she’s generally best remembered belting it out with heart and soul, and on occasion with fire and brimstone as well, in a husky, dusky voice that conjured up cigarette smoke and half-drunk bottles of whiskey. If the test of a true singer is that they always own their songs, even if somebody else sang them first, then Renée passed the test with flying colours. Just as Juliette Gréco famously took Léo Ferré’s misogynist song “Jolie môme” and transformed it “so that it wasn’t one”, so Renée took on James Brown’s classic “It’s A Man’s, Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” and turned it into a feminist statement, upending the machismo of Soul Brother No. 1 and serving it back with an emotive top spin that has rarely been bettered. But there was more to her than that.
Emerging into public view in 1972 with short-lived jazz-rock combo Sun, whose only LP offered only glimpses of the singer she would become, Renée soon went solo and spread her wings far and wide, mixing up soul (“If Loving You Is Wrong”“), rock (“Space Captain”, “Do You Know What I Mean”), funk (“Shakey Ground”, “Moving Along”), polished yacht-rock (“Stars And Whispers), pop (“Going Back”), reggae (“Say I Love You”), blues (the Blues License LP, with Kevin Borich), big-band jazz (the Swing LP) and much else besides, always delivered with a voice that demanded your attention and a passion that transcended her weaker material and somehow made it all work. She took on Dylan (“Just Like A Woman”), she took on Motown (“Money”), hell, she even took on the Beatles (“And I Love Him”) and inevitably came up trumps. The singles and albums rolled out like the seasons, some selling better than others, but never letting her standards fall. For years, she was always there, always dependable, always on the money.
Watch Renée Geyer performing Heading In The Right Direction in 1975
Despite, or perhaps because of her talent, she gained – and even rejoiced in – a reputation for being difficult; who else would title her autobiography “Confessions Of A Difficult Woman”? Famously (if good naturedly) punching TV pundit “Molly” Meldrum on Countdown, pouring a drink over journalist David “Dr. Pepper” Pepperell’s head after a bad review, Renée did not suffer fools gladly, or even at all (and to be fair, both Meldrum and Pepperell were big supporters). As a singer, a band leader and as a performer, she knew what she wanted and never, ever settled for second best. For all that though, she never ever seemed comfortable playing the pop star game. While she should have been a shoo-in for international success and came close to achieving it with the exquisite “Heading In The Right Direction”, perhaps that unwillingness to play the game let her down. Industry insiders knew what she was worth though – her list of session credits, from Sting to Chaka Khan, from Toni Childs to Joe Cocker, tells its own story.
I lost touch with Renée’s career when I left Australia at the end of the eighties, but then, so did most people. For years, she had always been there, on the radio and on television, with her record sleeves ever present in the stores and then, as time went its own merry way, her star faded as radio and the media – ever fickle – moved on to next year’s model. Yet Renée was still there, turning it on for her loyal fans – the Renéegades – and kept on keeping on, waiting for the wheel to turn, as it always does. Her time would come again once heritage acts became something to celebrate rather than something to sweep under the carpet like yesterday’s news. Reconnecting with her natural audience via the power of social media, Renée remained true to herself, and to her fans, to the end.
Sadly, and suddenly taken from us in the early hours of 17 January, Renée leaves an industry in shock and her fans bereft. They know – and we know – that what really mattered was not the hit records, the stardom, the fame. It was that when it really mattered, you could always count on Renée to sing it from the heart. And so she leaves us, heading in who knows what direction, but assuredly, the right one. Adios, Renée, and thanks.
Renée Geyer. Born, 11 September 1953, died 17 January 2023. A soul, rock, jazz and blues legend to the end.
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