Obituary of Judith Durham | pop and rock
Judith Durham, who died of bronchiectasis at the age of 79, was the lead singer of The Seekers, her soprano voice helping to make the group one of the most popular of the 1960s. The Seekers were both the first great Australian band to achieve international success and the first to top the UK and US charts.
Their television specials The Seekers Down Under (1967), The World of the Seekers and Farewell the Seekers (both from 1968) all attracted huge Australian and British television audiences. The band are estimated to have sold over 50 million singles and LPs at the height of their popularity, while based in London during their chart career they were never considered part of of “swinging London”: the three male band members dressed in matching suits while Durham, with her classically trained voice and preference for dresses, ensured they seemed rooted in an earlier era of light entertainment.
Today, the Seekers are rarely mentioned when discussing 60s pop music, but their hits remain beautifully crafted songs that convey a timeless, melancholic air.
It was while working as a secretary at the J Walter Thompson advertising agency that Durham met Athol Guy, an account executive and musician who, learning that she could sing, asked her to sit down with her trio, the Seekers, including Keith Potger and Bruce Woodley, in a Melbourne cafe on a Monday night in 1963. The band performed folk ballads and initially Durham shared vocals with the three male musicians.
Melbourne-based label W&G Records heard a demo from Seekers and signed them, insisting Durham featured prominently. The group’s first LP, Introducing the Seekers, was released in November 1963 featuring a rendition of the Australian bush ballad Waltzing Matilda. Offered the entertainment station aboard a ship of the Sitmar Line, the group accepted and, in March 1964, sang of their passage to Great Britain.
Originally, the Seekers planned to stay for 10 weeks and then make the return trip to Melbourne. Instead, they found the Grade agency (to whom they had sent their album) lining up bookings.
A UK single, Myra, was released that year without much success, with the band concentrating on the variety circuit. After a performance, they were approached by Tom Springfield, formerly of popular British pop-folk group the Springfields and Dusty’s brother, offering advice and songs. It turned out to be a chance encounter, with I’ll Never Find Another You – written and produced by Springfield with Durham’s bell vocals in the lead – released by EMI in December. By February 1965, it had reached No. 1, replicating that position in Australia, and No. 4 in the United States. The Seekers were on their way and A World of Our Own took them to No. 3 in the UK in April.
The Carnival Is Over – adapted by Springfield from a Russian folk song – took them back to No. 1 for three weeks in November and was, at one point, selling 93,000 copies a day. A year later, Morningtown Ride took them to No. 2, while Georgy Girl (1967), the theme song to a Lynn Redgrave movie, gave them a No. 3 hit (and No. 1 on the charts). American Cashbox). The LP Best of the Seekers spent six weeks at No. 1 on the UK charts in 1969, dislodging The Beatles’ White Album from the top position and spending 125 weeks on the charts.
However, by this time Durham had parted ways with the group, having released their first solo album in time for Christmas 1968. Signing to A&M Records, Durham had their sights firmly set on Gift of a Song (1970) in the music market. easy listening, but that, and his subsequent endeavors, lacked the distinctive songs and sound that had characterized the Seekers’ hits and failed to find an audience. The 1974 album Judith Durham and the Hottest Band in Town saw her return to the blues and jazz standards of her youth.
Born in Essendon, a suburb of Melbourne, Judith was the daughter of Hazel (née Durham) and William Cock, a World War II airman. In 1949 the family moved to Hobart, Tasmania where Judith attended Fahan Girls’ School before returning to Melbourne in 1956 where she attended Ruyton Girls’ School.
She enrolled at the University of Melbourne Conservatory to study classical piano while taking voice lessons. Durham liked to sing at social gatherings, which led the Melbourne University Jazz Band to ask the 18-year-old to join. A natural performer, she joined Frank Traynor’s Jazz Preachers in early 1963. From now on, she would perform under her mother’s maiden name, releasing her first EP, Judy Durham, that year.
After leaving the Seekers, Durham began working with British pianist Ron Edgeworth. They married in 1969 and embarked on touring and performing careers together, releasing the live album The Hot Jazz Duo in 1979. Durham also had an acting role on the Australian television show Cash and Company and has directed television specials.
In 1990, she fractured her leg and wrist in a car accident in which the driver of another car was killed. The support she received from Seekers fans led her to reconnect with former members of her group, and in 1993 she joined them for their silver anniversary; extensive tours of Australia and the UK followed. At the close of the Sydney Paralympic Games in October 2000, Durham, suffering from a broken hip, sang The Carnival Is Over from his wheelchair.
In 2002, Australian postage stamps featured the band in time for their 40th anniversary, but a 50th anniversary tour in 2013 had to be postponed after Durham suffered a brain haemorrhage following a concert in Melbourne. After six months of rehabilitation for Durham, the tour was successfully rescheduled for 2014, ending with two concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London. In 2018 she released So Much More, an album of unreleased material.
In Australia, Durham has received numerous accolades for his music and charitable efforts. Edgeworth died of motor neurone disease in 1994, and Durham became a prominent campaigner for disease awareness.
The following year, Durham and his bandmates were each awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia. In 2014 they were made members of the order.
She is survived by her sister, Beverley, as well as two nephews and a niece.
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