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Judith Durham, voice of the Seekers and Australia’s first global pop queen

The Guardian
The Guardian
 2022-08-08
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Judith Durham in 1970. The Seekers still hold the record for the largest concert audience in Australia after more than 200,000 attended their 1967 concert at Melbourne’s Myer Music Bowl.

Judith Durham’s talent shone brightly across the Australian music landscape, her powerful bell-like voice, unpretentious nature and stoicism in the face of adversity securing her countless loyal fans.

Durham, who has died in Melbourne aged 79, was the distinctive voice of the Seekers, the folk-singing quartet who became an international sensation from 1964 until 1968, when Durham left to forge a solo career as a jazz singer. The band healed their rifts and reunited in recent times, reigniting enthusiasm for the Seekers and introducing younger audiences to the music of their parents’ generation.

In their short time together the Seekers, including Keith Potger, Athol Guy and Bruce Woodley, became Australia’s first international supergroup. Multiple hits, including I’ll Never Find Another You and The Carnival Is Over, put them at the top of the Australian and UK charts, and for six months in 1966 they were outselling the Beatles and Rolling Stones. They became the first Australian band to have a US No 1 with their biggest hit, the theme song for the film Georgy Girl, which was nominated for an Academy Award. The Seekers sold more than 50m records and still hold the record for the largest concert audience in Australia after more than 200,000 attended their 1967 concert at Melbourne’s Myer Music Bowl.

It was a meteoric rise to fame for the four Melburnians. What had begun as a 10-week stint on a cruise ship to London extended to four years and by that time Durham, who had a chronic health condition, was exhausted and struggling with her self-image. The Seekers were collectively named Australian of the Year in 1967, but the following year Durham gave the band notice that she planned to pursue a solo career. In later years she conceded she had had no idea how much her decision had affected her bandmates or their fans.

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The Seekers perform on the UK TV show Sunday Night at the London Palladium in 1966. Photograph: ITV/REX/Shutterstock

“I never thought for a million years that they would have thought that I turned my back on them … I thought everybody was feeling fine,” she told the ABC’s Australian Story program in 2019.

Judith Mavis Cock was born in Melbourne on 3 July 1943, the youngest of two daughters of William, a second world war aviator and DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross) recipient, and his wife, Hazel Durham. Judith’s sister Beverley Sheehan also became a jazz singer.

After leaving school, Judy Cock, as she then was, set her sights on a career as a classical pianist while dreaming of singing musical comedy or opera. However, a night sharing the stage with a jazz band at a dance when she was 18 led to her instant success as a gospel, jazz and blues singer. Opting to use her mother’s birth name, Durham went on to record her first EP at 19 with Frank Traynor’s Jazz Preachers.

On her first day working as a secretary at the J Walter Thompson advertising agency, Durham met an account executive, Athol Guy, who invited her to join him and his friends Keith and Bruce who were booked to sing acoustic four-part harmony folk and gospel at a Melbourne coffee shop that night. Although Durham sang with a few bands, she quickly became the Seekers’ Monday night regular.

In 1964, the band was invited to work their passage to London on board the SS Fair Sky, but as they cast off, the foursome had little idea of the impact they would have or what they would find in the then music and fashion capital of the world.

“My trendsetting idol was the Queen, so I’d have my matching handbag and gloves,” Durham said in a 2019 interview. “I was, you know, not at all tuned into Carnaby Street.”

After leaving the Seekers in 1968, Durham approached the composer Ron Edgeworth in London and asked him to become her musical director and pianist. He later asked her to be his wife and they married in Melbourne in 1969.

Together the couple formed a musical partnership, with Durham touring and recording around the world. Her one-woman show An Evening With Judith highlighted her vast singing range, from jazz to pop, country gospel and folk. From their base on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, Durham wrote and performed her own compositions and attended international jazz festivals.

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Judith Durham performs with the Seekers in Canberra during their Golden Jubilee tour in 2013. Photograph: Alan Porritt/AAP

In 1990, Durham sustained a fractured wrist and leg in a car accident that killed the driver of another car. The support she received from fans while recovering helped her decide to reconnect with her former band mates.

Much to the delight of their fans, old and new, the Seekers reunited in 1993 for the Silver Jubilee tour and, buoyed up by the response, continued to intermittently tour and record, selling out concert dates and making television appearances. However, during their 2013 Golden Jubilee tour, Durham had a brain haemorrhage, requiring six months of rehabilitation before resuming work. The Seekers would have celebrated their diamond anniversary this year.

In adopting her husband’s vegetarian, health-conscious lifestyle, Durham hoped to better manage her reduced lung capacity caused by bronchiectasis. Her authorised biography, Colours of My Life was released in 1994. Edgeworth died the same year after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease, prompting Durham to throw herself into raising the profile of MND.

In 1995, Durham and her bandmates each awarded the medal of the Order of Australia. In 2014 they were made Members of the Order.

Durham and Edgeworth, who were married for 25 years, chose not to have children. Durham is survived by her sister.

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