It’s A Man’s Man’s World (J Brown/B Newson) and Heading in the Right Direction (Punch/Paige) – Renee Geyer 1975
The daughter of a Hungarian Jewish father and a Holocaust survivor mother, Geyer was born in Melbourne, her mother had been liberated 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, they ran a Jewish migrant hostel, and her father also worked as a kosher caterer, and was a baritone in the choir of Sydney’s Great Synagogue. She once described herself in an ABC interview in 2007 as a “white Hungarian Jew from Australia sounding like a 65-year-old black man from Alabama.” Her powerful husky voice has carried her through the course of a music career spanning decades, continents, and genres, and she proudly wears a tattoo of her greatest musical inspiration, Aretha Franklin.
With an impressive CV in jazz/blues/soul, and a professional performer since the age of sixteen with the band Mother Earth, Renee went solo and issued this terrific cover of the James Brown classic which charted #44 in January 1975.
Clearly it was risky for Geyer to cover a song so identifiable with the King of Soul Music, she was a white woman and Brown’s original 1966 version was dramatic, explosive and one of the earliest soul songs to connect with white audiences, Percy Sledge’s When A Man Loves A Woman was another to do likewise. But Renee has commented that at the time she hated the obviousness of Helen Reddy’s feminist anthem I Am Woman, and deliberately recorded a song which was not obviously about female empowerment or equality, but quite blatantly about male machismo.
The song’s lyrics have been described as “biblically chauvinistic” as they attribute the significant achievements of modern civilization to man, while almost belatedly recognizing that it would all “mean nothing without a woman or a girl.” Surprisingly the lyrics were written by Brown’s girlfriend, Betty Jean Newsome, who was no doubt reflecting on the inter-gender relations she experienced at the time. Newsome subsequently disputed the extent of Brown’s contribution to the song and the sharing of royalties, it took several years to write, and over the journey Brown used the music to provide a song for Tammi Terrell known as I Cried and Brown himself recorded a demo version of the song in 1964 entitled It’s A Man’s World.
Brown’s backing group The Famous Flames delivered a big brassy sound with trumpets, trombone and saxophone that matched the declamatory soul cadences of James Brown, strings were added, and a female chorus deleted, from the final master, it became a live performance favorite, and Rolling Stone magazine ranked it at #123 in the list of 500 greatest songs of all time.
Renee Geyer’s second studio album was entitled It’s A Man’s Man’s World and the single was surprisingly the second to be lifted off the album, after the first single, What Do I Do On Sunday Morning, completely stiffed on the charts at #89.The album was recorded at Bill Armstrong’s studio (Melb) and produced by Tweed Harris who was a former member of the Groove and had recently worked with Sherbet; Mal Logan (keyboards), Barry Harvey (drums), Barry Sullivan (bass) and Phil Manning (guitar) were all Chain alumni and they brought an acutely bluesy sensibility to the recording session. Geyer’s version of the song was devoid of brass but did include a wistful string accompaniment which sinuously wound around Logan’s organ and piano riffs, and the young diva’s powerful vocal interpretation.
Geyer’s version of the song was devoid of brass but did include a wistful string accompaniment which sinuously wound around Logan’s organ and piano riffs, and the young diva’s powerful vocal interpretation.
Geyer delivered a bravura vocal performance unaccompanied by backing singers, and she infused the song with passion and a sense of quiet desperation.
Just as Aretha Franklin had claimed Otis Redding’s Respect for her very own, Geyer staked her claim to Brown’s It’s A Man’s, Man’s World as well, Aretha and Renee claimed these songs for women, and in the process imbued them with a smouldering feminism.
Later in 1975 Geyer would form her own collective – The Renee Geyer Band – who produced their debut album Ready to Deal, at the Armstrong Studios (Melb) with engineer Ernie Rose, the cover art featured a sultry Renee in a low-cut green halter-neck top, surrounded by her fellow band members in an impromptu poker school pose, with Renee holding all the aces.
The band was a talented and highly professional outfit, Mal Logan (keyboards), Greg Till (drums), Mark Punch (guitar), Barry Sullivan (bass), and they took their musical cues from the Average White Band, and Rufus and Chaka Khan. This song had already been written and offered to Geyer by her guitarist Punch and the co-composer Gary Paige, although the original recording of Heading In The Right Direction was by Sydney group the Johnny Rocco Band (’75) who featured lead singers Leo de Castro and Wendy Sadington.
Paige and Punch produced a genuine soul standard, the arrangement and orchestration was smooth and subtle, tranquil keyboards and soulful flute, saxophone, and guitar riffs showcase Renee’s moving vocals to great effect, to take the song into the top 30.
Australia had discovered its foremost female blues and soul singer and a genuine music icon, she was the first woman in Australia to co-compose and co-produce an entire album, Ready to Deal, and it charted a respectable #21 nationally.
Punch and Paige would also go on to write Words are Not Enough for Jon English, a #6 hit for him in 1978.
Renee Geyer is not only a soul singer of some repute but a diva known to be unpredictable and irascible at times, she admitted as much when choosing the title of her 2000 memoirs Confessions of A Difficult Woman. She narrowly avoided criminal charges on two counts of careless driving in her home city of Melbourne, and more recently pleaded guilty to a charge of intimidating with intent to cause fear, after she directed a verbal racist tirade at a hotel receptionist in Sydney in 2015.
Renee Geyer was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2005 along with Split Enz, Normie Rowe, Smoky Dawson, The Easybeats, Hunters and Collectors and Jimmy Barnes.