After nearly 40 years as Australia’s ‘Queen of Soul’, Renee Geyer says she still loves to perform, and gets a kick out of being invited to sing at this year’s Shir Madness festival
She’s worked hard to enjoy great success as a recording artist and performer across four decades but today Renee Geyer is not in any mood to relive past glories, or burdens. She has long had a reputation as difficult, and even titled her biography from 2000, Confessions of a Difficult Woman.
And the ARIA Hall of Fame recipient has had scrapes with the law for various misdemeanours. But as a musical trailblazer in a male dominated music industry, especially in the era she first found stardom, during the Countdown days of the 1970s, Geyer is matter-of-fact about her reputation. Perhaps rather than being difficult, she was simply doing it her own way?
“I guess so,” Geyer says drily. “I just do what I do and get on with it.”
The Australian public was alerted to her unique and unmistakable voice on her version of James Brown’s It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World, recorded in 1974. She once described herself (on an ABC television interview in 2007) -as a ”white Hungarian Jew from Australia sounding like a 65-year-old black man from Alabama”.
That powerful husky howl has carried her through the course of a music career spanning decades, continents and genres. She performed hits on Countdown in the 70s and 80s (playfully slapping Molly Meldrum in the process), done recording sessions in the United States with some of the world’s best musicians and is writing and performing to this day.
Geyer has recorded jazz, reggae and swing but her true passion lies in rhythm and blues; a genre that Australia has never embraced in the same manner as USA, or even UK.
“It’s not really big in this country so it was hard in the beginning you know,” says the 63-year-old. “I’m a big fan of rhythm and blues so I just do what comes naturally, rhythm and blues is in my blood, somehow I just keep doing it.”
She will do it again this weekend at the 2017 Shir Madness Jewish music festival in St Kilda, an event where she is excited to be performing. “I’m just really glad to be invited and asked – I’m just grateful that people still want to hear me sing… that’s the main thing,” she says.
The daughter of a Hungarian Jewish father and a Holocaust survivor mother, Geyer was born in Melbourne. Her mother was liberated in 1945 from a camp in Mauthausen, after having been through many camps including Auschwitz, where Renee’s grandparents perished.
The Geyers moved to Sydney when Renee was young, where they ran a Jewish migrant hostel, and her father worked as a kosher caterer. He was also a baritone in the choir of Sydney’s Great Synagogue.
“My parents worked for the Jewish Welfare Society all throughout my life so they’ve always contributed to the Jewish culture in Australia,” she says.
While her parents were working hard to rebuild their lives in Australia, their daughter was growing up listening to singers like Sam and Dave and Aretha Franklin on her transistor, learning the phrasing, the soulful howls, and guttural cries. She sports a tattoo of the Queen of Soul on her arm.
“I love Aretha Franklin, I always have. She’s probably my favourite singer,” says Geyer.
After her success in the 1970s and ’80s, Geyer packed up and headed for the US where she immediately felt at home amongst her musical peers. She recorded with legendary Motown Records producer Frank Wilson with Stevie Wonder’s band backing her on such cuts as Stares and Whispers. “He produced a couple of albums for me and it was a great experience to work in another country with new people,” she says.
She went on to work with the likes of Buddy Guy, Joe Cocker, Chaka Khan and Bonnie Raitt, the latter still a close friend. “I moved to the US and been back and forth ever since,” she says. “I always catch up with friends in LA and New York, so I go as much as I can.
Bonnie Raitt is one I see of course, I’ve got many friends and I try to keep up with all my friendships,” says Geyer.
Upon returning to Australia in the mid-1990s, Geyer embarked on a successful collaboration with Paul Kelly, one of the many in the music industry who respects Geyer’s talent and body of work. In the 2000s she again recorded albums, including one venturing into swing, inspired by Frank Sinatra’s 1966 recording with Count Basie in Las Vegas.
For her performance at Shir Madness, she says the audience can expect to hear happy and sad songs all under the banner of rhythm and blues. “I pick songs here and there and decide on the day what I’m going to do that night, it usually includes things that people like, there’s always It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World, Heading in the Right Direction and Say I Love You.”
Reflecting on her career so far, with decades of best-selling records and the love and respect of peers in the music industry as well as fans, Geyer is thankful, and looking toward the future. “I’m happy things are still going, I haven’t finished yet.”.
Shir Madness is on Sunday September 3 at Temple Beth Israel, 76 Alma Rd St Kilda, Melbourne.
For bookings and more information: www.shirmadness.com
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