Obituaries: Judith Durham, the voice of Australian hit-makers the Seekers

Judith Durham, singer. Born: 3 July, 1943 in Melbourne. Died: 5 August, 2022 in Melbourne, aged 79.

There is a wee joke in Georgy Girl – The Seekers Musical about how other pop groups of the 1960s would trash their hotel rooms but the clean-cut foursome from Australia would leave them tidier than when they arrived.

The Seekers were not The Who or The Stones. They were never cool. They sang pop, with a strong folk influence. They were easy listening, though the term hardly does them justice. Some of their covers were maybe a little bland occasionally, but at their best their melodic balladry packed an emotional wallop and much of the credit was due to lead singer Judith Durham.

“We didn’t move in circles where there was drugs and sex and those sorts of things,” said Durham, who eschewed blue denim jeans for frocks she made herself.

Judith Durham did not fit the template of pop stardom - but she had a great voice

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Durham modelled her look on The Queen. “I felt that’s how a lady is supposed to dress,” she said in an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald a few years ago. “I had my matching handbag and gloves, everything.”

The Seekers may never have been cool, but they were enormously popular. They worked their passage from Australia to England by singing on the ship that brought them over. They came for ten weeks and stayed on.

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They were Australia’s first internationally successful pop group. They had two UK Number Ones in 1965 – I’ll Never Find Another You and The Carnival is Over – and they sold over 50 million records worldwide.

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They were big worldwide, but they were colossal in Australia, where a TV special drew a bigger audience than the moon landing. And in 1967 200,000 people, one-tenth of the population of Melbourne, turned out for a free concert in the city.

The first records I ever played were on my grandparents’ gramophone and the Seekers LP was probably the one I played most – my grandparents didn’t have any Beatles. I still have the record Hide and Seekers, which includes The Water is Wide, Morning Town Ride and What Have They Done to the Rain.

And when I visited my son in Australia a few years ago I went to see Georgy Girl – The Seekers Musical and I well remember how stirred I felt by their anthem I Am Australian. It made me proud to be Australian… even though I am not. It was not performed by the original group, but their spirit infused songs like A World of Your Own and of course the theme song from the film Georgy Girl.

Like the Lynn Redgrave character in the film, Durham regarded herself as “fat and frumpy”. She did not fit the template of pop stardom, not then, not now, but she did have a great voice.

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She was born Judith Mavis Cock in 1943 in the Melbourne suburb of Essendon. Her father was a navigator during the Second World War and subsequently worked in sales. Her childhood was split between Melbourne and Hobart in Tasmania.

She studied classical piano at the Melbourne University Conservatorium and before joining the Seekers she sang with a jazz group called Frank Traynor’s Jazz Preachers, using her mother’s maiden name Durham as her professional name.

The Seekers were originally a trio consisting of three old friends from Melbourne Boys High School, Keith Potger and Bruce Woodley on guitars and Athol Guy on double bass.

Although Durham was already singing professionally, her day job was as a secretary at an advertising agency, Guy also worked there and invited Durham along to gigs where she would join them on stage, initially as guest vocalist before becoming their lead singer.

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They recorded their first album in 1963, had a minor hit locally with their version of Waltzing Matilda and set sail the following year to try their luck in the UK. Within the year they had topped the charts in both Australia and Britain.

After arriving in the UK they wound up on a bill supporting Dusty Springfield. It was a fortuitous booking as it led to them meeting her brother Tom Springfield.

Dusty and Tom had previously sung together in a pop-folk trio called The Spingfields. Tom liked the Seekers’ sound and thought they were the ideal group to record his composition I’ll Never Find Another You.

Durham’s clear, confident vocal propelled it to No 1 in the UK and No 4 in the US and it marked the beginning of a fruitful relationship between the group and Tom Springfield.

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The Seekers had eight Top 20 hits between 1965 and 1967 and were the first Australian group to top the US charts when Georgy Girl reached Number One. But in early 1968 Durham left fans distraught when she suddenly announced she was leaving the group.

After the split, Potger went on to form the New Seekers, who had a Number One with I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing and represented the UK at Eurovision. Woodley enjoyed some success as a songwriter, composing several songs with Paul Simon, including Cloudy, and co-writing I Am Australian, which became a popular feature of Seekers reunion concerts. Guy went into politics and was elected to the Victoria state parliament.

Durham was married to pianist Ron Edgeworth and they toured and recorded together, playing jazz and gospel. But the highlights of her post-Seekers career were probably the Seekers reunions.

They lived in the UK and Switzerland before settling in Australia, where Durham did a lot of charity work. She embraced vegetarianism, meditation and spirituality.

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A broken hip prevented her singing The Carnival is Over at the closing ceremony of the 2000 Olympics, though she did perform it from a wheelchair at the Paralympics. In 2002 the group appeared on Australian postage stamps.

In 2013 She suffered a brain haemorrhage, but the following year took part in a reunion tour, ending with two concerts at the Royal Albert Hall. Her husband died in 1994. They chose not to have children.

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