The Seekers singer produced a steady stream of global hits in the 1960s, before going solo in her trademark style of determination
“I never dreamed of being a pop star. I wanted to be singing on stage and playing piano. I never thought I’d be writing songs. But once things got under way all these things unfolded.”
Musician Judith Durham, who died in Melbourne on 5 August aged 79 from the chronic lung disease bronchiectasis, was always the last person to acknowledge the effect she had as a pioneering woman in Australian music.
Born Judith Mavis Cock in Essendon in 1943, she adopted her mother’s maiden name to perform as a jazz singer aged 18.
However it was a young Melbourne folk/pop band run by advertising agency workmate Athol Guy that would change her life, and the history of Australian music. Two years after she’d joined The Seekers as singer, Durham found herself on what was planned to be a 10-week trip to the UK by boat (they were the onboard entertainment). The trip lasted several years.
Their easy-listening sound soon charmed the Brits – drawn to Durham’s pure vocals and diction – and Dusty Springfield’s brother Tom offered to write a song for them. That track, I’ll Never Find Another You, hit No 1 in the UK in 1964. It was No 1 back home and reached No.4 in the US.
A steady stream of global hits followed – The Carnival Is Over, A World of Our Own and Georgie Girl – all written by Springfield, the latter peaking at No.2 in the US. Journalist Lillian Roxon summed up the band in 1969 saying “If there hadn’t been The Seekers some shrewd manager would have invented them. One cuddly girl-next-door type and three sober cats who looked like bank tellers.”
Their achievements were remarkable – playing with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in London and being welcomed home with a show at Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl in 1967 watched by a record-breaking 200,000 fans. They were the first Australian band to sell over a million records. “When I began I don’t think it was even called a music industry,” Durham said in 2019. “It was just you sang and played a few songs.”
However four years after the Seekers’ breakthrough, Durham told her bandmates she was leaving for a solo career.
That fierce determination to do things her own way – as politely as possible – was a Judith Durham trademark.
She called The Seekers her brothers and knew how lucky she was they protected her and was proud they remained friends – working together on the anthemic 1997 hit I Am Australian.
Time had washed away any bitterness – the band had replaced Durham multiple times but the chemistry was never the same.
She would return to touring with The Seekers several times, usually to mark career milestones. In 2013, shortly after coming off stage in Melbourne on a Seekers reunion tour, Durham suffered a brain haemorrhage.
When it took her 15 minutes to write “soya milk” when requesting meals in hospital soon after the medical episode she realised she had a problem – treating it as another challenge in a life that survived a major car accident in 1990 and the death of beloved husband Ron Edgeworth in 1994. She had to learn to read and write again – including music – and how to play keyboards again. That trademark voice was not damaged and a year after the brain haemorrhage she was back on stage, fulfilling her commitments in Australia and the UK – the unfinished business giving her motivation in her recovery.
Durham shared a specialist – Prof John Olver– with Countdown host and Australian music industry icon Ian Molly Meldrum, who had fallen off his roof and suffered severe brain injuries in 2010.
Durham had called Meldrum after he came out of a coma; after her stint in hospital the pair became phone pals.
“She really was the loveliest person you could ever meet,” Meldrum said.
“There’s a reason why you never heard a single bad word about her. And her comeback after the haemorrhage was truly remarkable. “It really takes a lot of work and discipline to recover after a brain injury, but Judith was always very determined. And always so modest about her talent and success.”
Jimmy Barnes once tracked Durham down because she’d met one of his heroes – Keith Moon of The Who.
Olivia Newton-John saw The Seekers playing at her school in the early days and was inspired by how she and Helen Reddy cracked the international market, noting “She was one of the first Aussie girls to make it overseas”.
Paul Kelly once asked Durham to come to his house to sing the Seekers’ Morningtown Ride for his daughters in their bedroom – it was the tune they’d sing as they were going to sleep as children.
“The songs become part of people’s lives,” Durham said of the request.
She could not believe Elton John once compared her to Karen Carpenter as having the “purest voice in popular music”, saying: “It’s mind-boggling. I’m in awe of all this. I really do find it very, very hard to think that people put me up at that level.”
Durham’s solo career, alongside that of The Seekers, was impeccably curated on CD and DVD – her longtime friend and manager Graham Simpson knowing the importance of protecting the legacy.
“It’s wonderful having all this stuff captured. Otherwise it’s all gone up in smoke,” she said. Durham got closure after a final solo tour of New Zealand in May 2016, happy the last time she’d perform on stage was up to her high standards. She knew that further touring could risk another brain haemorrhage.
She had battled the lung condition bronchiectasis since she was a child and it eventually curtailed her flying out of Melbourne, including to Brisbane in 2019 after she was inducted into the Honour Roll at the Australian Women in Music Awards. Over the last few years, Durham had been composing music and contemplated writing her memoirs. She’d occasionally consult a book on her life Simpson wrote in 2004 to remember moments that had become hazy.
Durham had made peace with her place in an industry and when she spoke of death in 2019 it was never morbid.
“I look at death very realistically. We all should live our life like we don’t have much time left. For me to live long enough to see how I’ve been a thread through people’s lives is wonderful.”