Renée Geyer stood in the middle of a wooden marquee feeling bewildered. The Spiegeltent was designed in the 1920s as a movable cabaret venue – ballooning velvet canopies; gold leaf; hand-painted woodwork; circular, teak dance floor; stained, cut-glass mirrors. Renée stood side-of-stage, on a warm spring night last year, watching the venue fill up.
“A lot of these people were really young,” she told The Weekly.
“I asked my keyboard player, ‘Who are they? Where did they come from? Why are they here?’ This is years after I’m anybody famous, and the place is packed. I’m standing on stage going, ‘wow’.”
Gigs like this happened often, but she was always taken by surprise.
“I’m not fishing for a compliment,” she added with a wink. “I know I’m fantastic, but I am always in awe when I see an audience come to hear me.”
It had been 52 years since a teenage Renée Rebecca Geyer snuck out on school nights to sing in Bondi wine bars. Within a year, Go-Set magazine had crowned her Best Female Vocalist and the following year she’d debuted in the Top 40, where she remained for 10 years.
Renée’s hits, such as Stares and Whispers, Say I Love You and Heading in the Right Direction, helped to break the glass ceiling for Australian women performers. Her life featured momentous highs and desperate lows but the one constant for Renée was standing in front of an audience and baring her soul.
In a heartfelt conversation in December last year, Renée shared a little of that deep and complicated soul with The Weekly for what was to be a major story preceding a string of new shows.
But then tragedy struck. On January 10, 2023, Renée suffered a fall at home. She was taken to hospital, underwent hip surgery and made a strong recovery. “She was joking and bargaining with the physios,” recalls her manager and confidante Kathy Nolan. However, a few days later, she went into cardiac arrest.
Fearing damage to her kidneys and brain from the heart attack, doctors put Renée into an induced coma, which is when they discovered that she had a massive tumour on her lungs and the cancer had spread throughout her body. It was inoperable. Renée never woke up.
Renée’s brother, Robbie, flew to her bedside on January 17, and at 1.30 that day, life support was turned off. The world lost one of its most beautiful voices.
As a child, Renée slept with her transistor radio under her pillow. Instead of prayers, each night before bed she sang that week’s Top 10 chart. Born in 1953, the first daughter and third child of parents who had survived the Holocaust, Renée always spoke her mind.
“My father is Hungarian, tall, grand, intolerant and very clever academically,” she wrote in her memoir, Confessions of a Difficult Woman. “My father and I never got on. I don’t think he understood me. It’s funny, we were so much alike, but I was much too headstrong for a little girl. He loved me as a father does, but I was a constant source of annoyance to him.”
Edward Geyer was Jewish, from Budapest. Renée’s mother, Gabrielle (known as Ella) Perl, grew up in Bratislava in Slovakia. Her family was in Auschwitz where her mother, her aunt and two cousins were murdered by the Nazis. Renée recounted the story of little Ella trying again and again to join her mother in a line snaking its way towards the gas chamber, but her mother pushed her away, saying, “Go to Renée …” who was a friend from their community. It was Renée who saved her. So naturally, decades later, Ella’s first daughter carried her name.
So many of the family, on both sides, died in that ghastly time. It would be naive to think that the trauma didn’t pass down some generations.
Edward and Ella met in Palestine and later moved to Australia, where they settled in Sydney’s east and opened a Kosher catering business. Renée’s childhood was turbulent. She rebelled at school and was eventually expelled for petty thefts.
“I was a very hard child to raise. I got smacked a lot,” she told The Weekly. “Openly, I was always seeking attention, putting on a show, but inside I was a bit lonely and a little sad. I can’t explain this.”
Music was her escape. She was a nervous, beautiful and buxom 15-year-old who could really sing when she joined a Bondi garage band. She moved on to a band called Dry Red, then left home and school in the middle of year 11. Her next band, Sun, was a serious modern jazz outfit with a record deal.
After one album with Sun, Renée went solo and soon struck gold, literally, with a cover of James Brown’s macho epic It’s A Man’s Man’s World. Interestingly, the lyrics were written mostly by Betty Jean Newsome, James Brown’s girlfriend. Women’s Lib was at fever pitch in 1974, and Renée delivered the lyric with a soulful reading that turned this track into an anthem of female empowerment. Man’s World was Renée’s first hit single.
“I look back on it and I wonder what in the world made me think I could do that song?” Renée said, shaking her chestnut-blonde mane. “It was around this time Helen Reddy had I Am Woman. Women’s libbers were screaming at everyone, and I had to explain [the lyrics] all the time – so much so I started hating the song. But I love the person I must have been back then to even have the nerve to go ahead and do it.”
There was no bigger boys’ club than the Australian music business. Strong women who spoke their minds were not sought after but Renée was not the type to hold back.
“In that era, being outspoken and being robust and the way that I was, it was rare,” she recalled. “Looking back, it probably explains why it was so hard to communicate with some people sometimes. They probably thought of me as a little bit scary.”
“Renée wasn’t a walk in the park,” says Annie Wright, a music industry executive who worked with her in the mid-’70s and remained a close friend. “She had to be tough because it was a male-bonded industry and she was a true artist.”
In the ’70s, hearts were broken as often as Great Western champagne corks were popped. One of Renée’s most significant and tumultuous relationships started in the Toorak house she shared with Ian (Molly) Meldrum and co-manager Michael Gudinski.
“The thing with Michael was on and off through the years,” she confessed. “We ended up getting together quite a few times, but never ended up a couple.”
Although she insists she has never been in love, there were serious relationships. “The loves of my life have gone,” she said candidly. Dragon singer Marc Hunter was one. “Marc and I were like brother and sister with a bit of incest thrown in. He was the greatest friend. I just loved him so much.”
From the outset Renée made a decision that music would come first. Before love, before romance, before motherhood. Nobody embodied the old lyric, ‘there’s no people like show people,’ more than Renée.
“From the minute I decided that was my profession I didn’t really have a home,” she explained. “I had homes in many different cities. I knew that’s what life would be like. Sometimes it could be annoying, if I liked somebody and they were in another town, but the gig always came first.”
Sometimes that commitment to music was difficult to keep. There were times she chose to have a pregnancy terminated because she knew in her heart motherhood wasn’t compatible with the life she was leading.
“I have dreamed of the white picket fence and the house … but I knew that, if I had children, one thing was going to lose out. I didn’t want to make a child lose out and I wasn’t going to give up my job. It’s controversial because it is a terrible thing to do. But I don’t regret it. I would have been an unhappy mother.”
Renée’s 1975 LP Ready to Deal, with the hit single Heading in the Right Direction, was the first Australian album co-written and co-produced by a woman. Her standing in the local industry increased, as did her reputation as a sometimes-fearsome diva. She also started to record and release records in the US. After the So Lucky album peaked at number five in Australia, in 1981 Renée relocated to the US.
There, she put some records out and briefly had a critically acclaimed band but mostly paid the rent with sessions – Sting’s We’ll Be Together went to number seven and had a distinctly Renée Geyer vocal track.
“That Sting record is the perfect example of what I did most of my time in America,” she said. “Sting wasn’t even there that day … It was all made up by me. I was there all day and all night. I layered it six times. The other girls went home and I stayed and did more bits and pieces. When they did Saturday Night Live, the whole band was live except for my vocal. There I was, sitting on my bed in a big muu-muu, eating chips, getting fat and watching skinny black girls mime my voice. I knew and God knew and anyone that knew me knew that was me on the vocal track.”
One positive that came out of her time in LA was a friendship with singer-songwriter Paul Kelly, also looking to establish himself there. Paul and Renée shared a down-to-earth quality, and a truthful, passionate vocation in music. Renée reinterpreted some of Paul’s folkier songs into torch ballads. In return, he wrote Difficult Woman for her. Initially mildly insulted, she came to wear the “difficult” badge proudly.
Renée used the word “complicated” as a self-description. Others found adjectives both more and less kind. She could be the most charming company – warm, sweet, witty, self-deprecating and generous. Bad Renée, however, was a terror. When irritated, she unleashed a mighty fury, not always justified, nor it seemed under her control. In 2015, she appeared in court after a hideous tirade that included a racist slur against a hotel receptionist. There were times her temper cost her professionally and times when she unnecessarily hurt people, which did weigh on her mind.
Moreover, the life of a musician can be precarious and for decades, Renée survived one gig to the next. Those days when the phone didn’t ring could be devastating, and Renée used recreational drugs, including heroin and alcohol, to smooth some of those rough times. By the end of her life, though, those problems were largely behind her.
Music explained everything in life for Renée, not least her emotions: “The most fabulous chord is a beautiful minor chord that’s got a bit of this and a bit of that and you’re not quite sure where it is … “
In the early 1990s, Renée returned to Australia. She began recording again with her extended family of musicians and writers, and often with Paul. She made some of the best records of her career and performed powerful live shows.
“Artists wanted to work with her,” says Kathy. “She didn’t rehearse and she was a hard taskmaster. She didn’t give compliments often but they knew that every night was different, so it was exciting to be on that stage.”
Even a breast cancer diagnosis couldn’t keep Renée from the road. In 2009, a lump in her breast was diagnosed as an aggressive cancer requiring emergency surgery. She was back on stage two days after a mastectomy.
“I had four or five gigs a week all the way through treatment,” she said. “I was wrapped in bandages underneath my clothes, and didn’t breathe in as well, so didn’t do as much belting, but I sang as well as I could and did the gig. When I had breast surgery, my mother came to look after me and it was a Monday night. She said, ‘Where are you going? It’s 10 o’clock.’ I was going to the Espy [Hotel Esplanade] two days after the operation. I knew I’d get on stage and get to sing.”
In retrospect, Kathy says, the signs had been there for the past six months that the cancer hadn’t been defeated. She’d had trouble catching her breath and there had been mysterious lumps. Focused as ever on her next show, Renée had brushed off the warning signs. She joked to Kathy, “If they offer me a state funeral, say no.”
“I don’t think about seeing the good side or the bad side, just give me another gig and I’ll move on,” Renée told The Weekly in that final interview. “The show took my mind off everything else, and people went, ‘Wow, you’re so great.’ Well, I have a huge ego, so of course I loved all that.” She rattled off a throaty laugh.
In the end, Renée was surrounded by music. Guitarist Charlie Owen brought his guitar to play at her bedside. Then Paul Kelly turned up, and most of her band, and they sang her favourite songs. When they played Foggy Highway, the doctor on duty pointed to the machines keeping her alive. “All her vitals were perfect,” says Annie. “The doctors had never seen anything like it.”
Half a century on, the slim, shy Bondi girl with Charlie’s Angels flicks had grown into a mature artist whose voice – husky in places and rich in the lower register – really inhabited her songs. She was beautiful and graceful because she’d grown into the jazz and blues she loved.
“I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t do this,” she told The Weekly. “That’s all I have. I know when I don’t feel right – whether it’s in the gut or the heart or wherever – and if I don’t feel right, I can’t keep my mouth shut. I need to open my mouth and sing.”
A memorial service and musical celebration for Renée will be held on April 4 at the National Theatre, St Kilda, Melbourne. Appearances by musician friends will include Paul Kelly, Russell Morris, Kevin Borich, Deborah Conway, Ross Wilson, Rebecca Bernard and Renee’s house band. For details and tickets, visit facebook.com/ReneeGeyerOfficial
Renee’s family has also suggested fans could remember her with a donation to the music industry charity, Support Act.
You can read this story and many others in the March issue of The Australian Women’s Weekly – on sale now.