Game-Changing Women of Austalian Music – Renee Geyer Pt. 3

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Stares and Whispers (J Footman/F Wilson/ T McFadden) 1977 and Say I Love You (E Grant) – Renee Geyer 1981.

In the period 1974-87 ABC’s Countdown was the dominant music show on Australian TV, its viewing audience peaked at 3 million which was 20% of the entire population of the country. It changed the face of the local music industry, played a crucial role in moving the focus of pop music marketing away from radio to TV, provided a national platform for performers to reach the most remote parts of the country, and ushered in the music-video era both in Australia and overseas

It was deliberately pitched at a teenage market, and for most performers, an invitation from Molly Meldrum to appear on the show, was gleefully accepted. The Countdown years chronologically defined the early career of Renee Geyer in this country, she was one of the Mushroom artists who performed regularly along with her co-labelmates Skyhooks, Split Enz, Kylie Minogue, and others, but Renee was not a comfortable fit within the Countdown “family”. Her music was for adults not teenyboppers, she could be erratic and temperamental, and the live audiences at Countdown tapings were mostly teenage girls, who were more interested in seeing boys in bands not girls, she famously slapped Molly across the face once on air, and she preferred live performing, not the miming that Countdown inevitably demanded.  

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In 1977 Renee Geyer’s fourth studio album Moving Along would be the first she recorded in the US and released internationally, she closely aligned herself with the Motown House of Hits and engaged one of its most famous musicians and producers, Frank Wilson, whose previous credits included The Supremes, The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and The Four Tops. Below – Frank Wilson

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The cream of US session musicians assembled in Stevie Wonder’s Crystal Sound Studio in Los Angeles in May 1977 to record the album, including members of Stevie Wonder’s band – Nathan Watts, Ray Parker Jnr. Motown’s most famous bass guitarist and Funk Brother James Jamerson with backing vocals by Venetta Fields, and Renee Geyer Band alumni Barry Sullivan and Mal Logan, who Renee had insisted accompany her to the US. The album was a potent fusion of funk, soul and disco and Cash Box magazine praised it “Geyer is an Australian songstress with dynamic interpretive qualities in her voice and material that ranged from disco to MOR; already with an established reputation in her homeland… she seems poised and ready for a listen to by the Yanks.” Below L-R – Ray Parker Jnr, Nathan Watts, James Jamerson.

Stares and Whispers was the first single released and it was a smouldering, funky, soul song infused with all the angst and drama of an emotional breakup, the stares and whispers of those who know that a woman has been jilted, that the love for her partner is unrequited, and there is no chance of a reconciliation. The song was co-written by Frank Wilson, Terri McFadden and John Footman, and Wilson would co-produce this song a second time in 1977 when Freda Payne covered Renee Geyer’s version for her album Stares and Whispers.

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Renee was scheduled to perform this song on the 100th edition of Countdown on April 3 1977, but due to her heroin addiction at the time, she was lucky to make it to the studio. Renee has been candid about her drug-taking throughout the 70’s and 80’s in her memoirs Confessions of a Difficult Woman (R Geyer and E Nimmervoll), 2000) when she recalled three occasions on which she overdosed on heroin and was resuscitated, one of these overdoses occurred at a friend’s house in Elsternwick (Melb) in the mid-70’s, following the release of Stares and Whispers.

Geyer was clinically dead for twenty minutes, despite the best efforts of others who pinched and punched her, and walked her along a gravel road to keep her awake, until paramedics arrived with the Narcan and completed her recovery. The very next day Renee was to appear on the 100th Countdown show to perform this song, she was bruised and battered with gravel rash on her feet, she wore platform shoes with straps right across her injured toes which was excruciating, and she required special makeup to conceal the bruises on her face and body, she managed to get through the show, but the video makes riveting viewing, knowing the drama of the previous evening.  

The life-threatening OD which preceded this performance makes for uneasy viewing.

The song was Geyer’s first top 20 hit at #17 locally, and Moving Along hit #11 here, but as the album had been targeted to launch Renee Stateside, and it failed to chart there, her aspirations for an international breakthrough were crushed. A contributing factor may have been Renee’s refusal to co-operate with her record company Polydor who believed that Geyer’s vocals were so black-sounding that a photo of her would simply alienate the black radio programmers once they knew she was white, but she was adamant that her photo appear, and consequently the album dropped off the radio playlists. Below – The local version of the album artwork for So Lucky.

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It had been four years since Renee’s last hit, Stares and Whispers in 1977, her previous releases had included covers of James Brown and Isaac Hayes songs, and her Motown-inspired soul album Moving Along in 1977, so she needed a genre make-over to re-invent heself in this country. She looked for something more sprightly, exuberant, and accessible, a funky pop/R&B sound that would distinguish her seventh album So Lucky, by not only showcasing her great voice but also revealing her sense of fun and joie de vivre. Below – The US version of the album artwork for So Lucky, so inappropriate on every level.

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She had gathered a talented group of session musicians around her in the Shangri-La Studos in Malibu, including Ian McLaglan (keyboards), Bobby Keys (sax), and a rhythm section of Ricky Fataar (drums), Geoff Hales (percussion), and Ray O’Hara (bass), and the backing vocals of Venetta Fields, James Ingram, and Blondie Chaplin.

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The first single released was the more laid-back salsa/reggae romp, Say I Love You, nothing could be further from the declamatory-style of her earlier dramatic soul songs and power ballads, than this playful, teasing, lyrically uncomplicated three and a half minutes, which ticked all the boxes as a highly accessible dancefloor banger. Lyrically Renee was a joyous force of nature, she is in control here, not nursing a broken heart, nor carrying a torch for a married man she has fallen for, because she is the person asking to be forgiven for her infidelity, “just one more time”.

A party scene with lots of cameos by her band members – Harry Brus, John Watson,Ted Yanni Mal logan, Brenton White, and others, with John Swan also popping in, probably filmed in a wine bar in Oxford St Sydney, a good time was had by all!

The song was written by Eddy Grant, a rock-reggae singer/guitarist who had been a former member of the UK band The Equals who scored with Baby Come Back in 1968 and Eddy had also had a solo #1 hit in the UK with I Don’t Wanna Dance in 1982, Renee took Say I Love You to #5 nationally, for her biggest hit.

 Upon her return to the USA in the 1980’s Renee would continue to record and became an in-demand session vocalist for such artists as Joe Cocker, Sting, Shaka Khan, Bonnie Raitte, and Toni Childs and also record in collaboration with such Australian performers as Paul Kelly, Glenn Shorrock, Deborah Conway, Joe Camilleri, and Vika and Linda Bull. In 2003 Renee released Tenderland, her 11th. studio album, a collection of classic soul songs including Midnight Train to Georgia (Gladys Knight), Sexual Healing (Marvin Gaye), A Song For You (Leon Russell), Try A LIttle Tenderness (Otis Redding), Thieves In theTemple (Prince), and Punch and Paige’s local soul classic Heading In The Right Direction (Renee Geyer), it was a brilliant collection of timeless songs, which charted #11 and was Renee’s last album to sell 35,000 copies.

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Renee Geyer is a gifted singer who has consistently ranked among the country’s best, she has lived and worked here and in the US for many years, from the age of 17 she was frequently the only female in her various bands, and she toured nationally at a time when it was uncomfortable, exhausting, and sometimes dangerous. She has cohabited with several men including Michael Gudinski, Pedro Ferrer (husband of Supreme Mary Wilson), and US musician James Jamerson Jnr; acknowledged that she was not relieved of her virginity until she was 20 years old, and that she has also had several abortions; but there is no evidence of her ever being married, nor having children. Below L-R – Renee and Michael Gudinski, Pedro Ferrer, James Jamerson Jnr.

She is also a diva known to be unpredictable and irascible, she has admitted as much when choosing the title of her 2000 memoirs Confessions of A Difficult Woman. Her embrace of recreational drugs from the mid-70’s to the mid-80’s – speed, marijuana, hashish, LSD, cocaine, and heroin – was fulsome, but she survived, albeit her long-term health may have been compromised by periods of drug addiction. Her weight has ballooned in recent years, and she has been a fad dieter, but mentally and physically she is still capable of performing and remains as invested in her music as ever. Below – Renee drove her car through the front window of a Wink Optometry shop in Melbourne in 2010. 

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She has 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.

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She can be cantankerous and in her more advanced years, curmudgeonly, and she does not suffer fools gladly. Renee Geyer was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 2005 by Michael Gudinski, along with Split Enz, Normie Rowe, Smoky Dawson, The Easybeats, Hunters and Collectors and Jimmy Barnes. 

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