Judith Durham, one of Australia’s most recognisable voices, has passed away at 79.
An icon of the Australian music industry as lead singer for The Seekers and a solo artist, hers was an enduring female voice in an industry still dominated by men. Georgy Girl, A World of Our Own and The Carnival Is Over are just a few of the songs that will always ring best with her vocals.
Her artistry and approach was an alternative to the swinging 60s in popular music. There were no gimmicks to her art – just a soaring voice delivered with precision.
Born Judith Mavis Cock in the Melbourne suburb of Essendon in 1943, she studied classical piano at the University of Melbourne Conservatorium. Through connections at the university and in the local scene, she continued as a gifted musician and developed a following in the jazz community.
Using her mother’s maiden name she released her first EP, Judy Durham, with Frank Traynor’s Jazz Preachers. The liner notes introduced her as “the most promising and talented vocalist today”. She was 19.
Around this time Durham also began an office job where she met Athol Guy. After a quick introduction, Durham was invited to play with Guy, Keith Potger and Bruce Woodley at a local coffee shop.
From here, The Seekers were born.
For a short time Durham recorded with both Frank Traynor and The Seekers for W&G Records, providing, as jazz historian Bruce Johnson described in The Oxford Companion to Australian Jazz, an important link between jazz, folk and what would become pop mainstream.
Originally considered a folk and gospel group, The Seekers sound soon became distinct – in A World of Our Own, as their 1965 song declared.
Their debut album, Introducing the Seekers, was released in 1963. In 1964, the group travelled to the UK.
Soon after arriving, The Seekers recorded the single I Know I’ll Never Find Another You at Abbey Road Studios. When it was released in 1965 it made them the first Australian act to gain number one in the UK.
When The Seekers’ impact was examined by the National Film and Sound Archive, curator Jenny Gall quoted another Australian popular music legend, Lillian Roxon, who described the band as “one cuddly girl-next-door type […] and three sober cats who looked like bank tellers”.
Like journalist Roxon, Durham was a pioneering woman making it in and for Australian music in the epic pop culture centres of the US and UK in the booming 1960s.
Although apparently unassuming, she was not just “the girl next door”, but a fundamental talent who worked hard for her achievements.
Durham said the band had originally only planned to go overseas for “an adventure […] with no idea we would stay in England and become popstars”.
Intentionally or not, they became some of the biggest artists in the world during the 1960s. When they won the 1965 NME award for Best New Group they beat The RollingStones and The Beatles.
In the US they earned similar attention. Georgy Girl became the number one single in the US in 1967, beating Tom Jones, The Supremes and The Monkees.
The band were named Australians of the Year in 1967. In 1968 Durham respectfully called it quits.
A goodbye concert, Farewell the Seekers, was broadcast live on the BBC. It was watched by more than 10 million people. Their inevitable “best of” album appeared on the British charts for 125 weeks.
In the 1970s Durham continued as a solo artist, often recording standards and covers.
She returned to jazz as part of the Hot Jazz Duo in 1978 with husband Ron Edgeworth.
The pair continued to work together in the years to come on a variety of projects until he died of motor neurone disease in 1994.
Since that time Durham has been a patron of the Motor Neurone Disease Association of Australia and continued to fundraise for the organisation. It was one of many charities she supported.
She returned to The Seekers periodically for anniversary tours, as well as continuing to record her own work and with others.
From jazz to folk to classical and even contemporary pop as a cameo on silverchair’s B-side English Garden, even after a stroke in 2013 she continued to work.
Her last release, the single All in a day’s work with Lance Lawrence in 2020, was yet another display of a love of musical storytelling.
In an industry that often demands specific types of sparkle in women especially, she was physically small with a voice that loomed large.
A constant in so many households of a certain age, there was nothing quite like hearing Turn Turn Turn, Morningtown Ride or The Carnival is Over on an old radio or well loved turntable.
When I was lucky enough to finally see her live a few years ago it was like we were all little kids singing along for the sheer joy. Her enthusiasm and skill, even in her later years, radiated off the stage and out of the speakers.
May she rest well at the never ending carnival in the sky.