“I never dreamed of becoming a pop star. I wanted to sing on stage and play the piano. I never thought I would write songs. But once things got going, all these things unfolded.”
Musician Judith Durham, who died in Melbourne on August 5 aged 79 from the chronic lung disease bronchiectasis, was always the last person to acknowledge the impact 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 at the age of 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 joining The Seekers as a singer, Durham found herself on what was planned to be a 10-week tour of the UK by boat (they were the onboard entertainment). The trip lasted several years.
Their easy-listening sound soon charmed the British – attracted by Durham’s clean vocals and diction – and Dusty Springfield’s brother Tom offered to write a song for them. That track, I’ll Never Find Another You, went to No.1 in the UK in 1964. It went to No.1 at 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 it hadn’t been The Seekers, some wise manager would have invented them. A cuddly girl-next-door type and three sober cats who looked like bank tellers.”
Their achievements were remarkable – they played with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in London and were welcomed home with a show at Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl in 1967, seen by a record 200,000 fans. They were the first Australian band to sell over a million records.
“When I started, I don’t think it was even called a music industry,” Durham said in 2019. “It was just you singing and playing a few songs.”
But four years after the Seekers’ breakthrough, Durham told her bandmates she was leaving for a solo career.
The fierce determination to do things her own way – as politely as possible – was a Judith Durham trademark.
Calling The Seekers her brothers, she knew how lucky she was to have them protect her and was proud they remained friends – working together on the anthemic 1997 hit I Am Australian.
Time had washed away all bitterness – the band had replaced Durham several times, but the chemistry was never the same.
She returned to tour 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 type “soy milk” when requesting hospital meals soon after the medical episode, she realized she had a problem—treating it as another challenge in a life that survived a major car accident in 1990 and a death of loved one. husband Ron Edgeworth in 1994.
She had to learn to read and write again – including music – and to play the keyboard again. That trademark voice wasn’t damaged and a year after the stroke she was back on stage, fulfilling her commitments in Australia and the UK – the unfinished business that gave her the motivation to get well.
Durham shared a specialist – Prof John Olver – with Countdown host and Australian music industry icon Ian Molly Meldrum, who had fallen from a roof and suffered serious brain injuries in 2010.
Durham had called Meldrum after he came out of his coma; after her stay in hospital the pair became phone friends.
“She was truly the most beautiful person you could ever meet,” Meldrum said.
“There’s a reason you’ve never heard a single bad word about her. And her comeback after the bleed was truly remarkable.
“It really takes a lot of work and discipline to recover from a brain injury, but Judith was always very determined. And always so the message of her talent and success.”
Jimmy Barnes once tracked Durham down because she had met one of his heroes – Keith Moon of The Who.
Olivia Newton-John saw The Seekers play 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 Australian girls to go overseas”.
Paul Kelly once asked Durham to come to his house to sing Seekers’ Morningtown Ride to his daughters in their bedroom – it was the tune they would sing to sleep as children.
“The songs become part of people’s lives,” Durham said of the request.
She couldn’t believe that Elton John once compared her to Karen Carpenter as having the “purest voice in popular music”, saying: “It’s shocking. I’m in awe of all this. I really find it very, very difficult to think that people put me on that level.”
Durham’s solo career, alongside The Seekers, was impeccably curated on CD and DVD – her long-time friend and manager Graham Simpson knew the importance of protecting the legacy.
“It’s wonderful to have all this captured. Otherwise, it’s all gone up in smoke,” she said.
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Durham closed after a final solo tour of New Zealand in May 2016, glad her last time 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, which ultimately limited her flying out of Melbourne, including to Brisbane in 2019 after she was inducted into the Honor Roll at the Australian Women in Music Awards.
In recent years, Durham had been composing music and considering writing her memoirs. She had occasionally consulted a book about her life Simpson wrote in 2004 to recall moments that had become hazy.
Durham had made peace with her place in an industry, and when she spoke about death in 2019, it was never morbid.
“I look at death very realistically. We should all live our lives as if 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 amazing.”