Judith Durham, who has died of bronchiectasis aged 79, was the vocalist 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 major Australian band to achieve international success and the first to top the UK and US charts.
Their TV specials The Seekers Down Under (1967), The World of the Seekers and Farewell the Seekers (both 1968) all scored huge Australian and UK TV audiences. It is estimated that the group sold more than 50m singles and LPs during the height of their popularity yet, while London-based during their chart career, they were never considered part of “swinging London”: the band’s three male members dressed in matching suits while Durham, with her classically trained voice and preference for gowns, ensured they appeared rooted in an earlier, light-entertainment era.
Today the Seekers are rarely referenced when 60s-era pop music is discussed yet their hits remain beautifully crafted songs that convey a timeless, wistful 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 she could sing, requested she sit in with his trio, the Seekers, including Keith Potger and Bruce Woodley, at a Melbourne coffee house that Monday evening in 1963. The band were performing folk-informed ballads and, initially, Durham shared vocals with the three male musicians.
The Melbourne label W&G Records heard a Seekers demo and signed them, insisting Durham feature prominently. The band’s debut LP, Introducing the Seekers, was released in November 1963 alongside an interpretation of the Australian bush ballad Waltzing Matilda. Offered the position as on-board entertainment on a Sitmar Line ship, the group accepted and, in March 1964, sang their passage to Britain.
Originally the Seekers planned to stay for 10 weeks, then make the return journey back to Melbourne. Instead, they found the Grade agency (whom they had sent their album to) lining up bookings.
A UK single, Myra, was released that year to little response, the group concentrating on working the variety circuit. After one performance they were approached by Tom Springfield, formerly of the popular British pop-folk group the Springfields and Dusty’s brother, offering advice and songs. This proved a fortuitous meeting, with I’ll Never Find Another You – written and produced by Springfield with Durham’s bell-like voice way out front – released by EMI in December. By February 1965 it had reached No 1, replicating that position in Australia, and No 4 in the US. The Seekers were on their way and A World of Our Own took them to No 3 in the UK that 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 film, gave them a No 3 hit (and No 1 on the US Cashbox chart). The Best of the Seekers LP spent six weeks at No 1 in the UK charts in 1969, dislodging the Beatles’ White Album from top position and spending 125 weeks in the charts.
However, by this time Durham had split from the band, having released her debut solo album in time for Christmas 1968. Signing to A&M Records, Durham aimed Gift of a Song (1970) firmly at the easy listening market but this, and her subsequent efforts, 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 Hazel (nee Durham) and William Cock, a second world war aviator. In 1949 the family shifted to Hobart, Tasmania, where Judith attended Fahan girls’ school before returning to Melbourne in 1956, where she attended Ruyton girls’ school.
She enrolled in the University of Melbourne Conservatorium to study classical piano alongside taking voice lessons. Durham enjoyed singing at social gatherings, and this led to the Melbourne University Jazz Band asking 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 using her mother’s maiden name, releasing her debut EP, Judy Durham, that year.
After leaving the Seekers, Durham began working with the British pianist Ron Edgeworth. They married in 1969 and embarked on a touring and performing career together, releasing the live album The Hot Jazz Duo in 1979. Durham also took on an acting role in the Australian TV show Cash and Company, and made TV specials.
In 1990, she fractured a 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 her former band members, and in 1993 she rejoined them for their silver anniversary; lengthy tours of Australia and the UK followed. At the closing of the Sydney Paralympic Games in October 2000 Durham, suffering a broken hip, sang The Carnival Is Over from her 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 Melbourne concert. After six months’ rehabilitation for Durham, the tour was successfully rescheduled for 2014, finishing with two concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in London. In 2018 she released So Much More, an album of previously unreleased material.
In Australia, Durham received many honors for her music and charitable endeavours. Edgeworth died of motor neurone disease in 1994 and Durham became a prominent campaigner for awareness of the disease.
The following year, Durham and her 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, and two nephews and a niece.