Judith Durham: a pioneering woman in Australian music | australian music
“I never dreamed of being a pop star. I wanted to sing on stage and play the piano. I never thought I would write songs. But once things started, all of those things happened. are unfolded.
Judith Durham, who died in Melbourne on August 5 at the age of 79 from bronchiectasis, a chronic lung disease, was always the last person to acknowledge the effect she had as a pioneering woman of Australian music.
Born Judith Mavis Cock in Essendon in 1943, she adopted her mother’s maiden name to perform as a jazz singer at 18.
But it was a young folk/pop group from Melbourne led by a colleague from the advertising agency Athol Guy that would change his life and the history of Australian music.
Two years after joining the Seekers as a singer, Durham found herself on what was supposed to be a 10-week trip to the UK by ship (they were the entertainment on board). The journey took several years.
Their easy-listening sound quickly charmed the Brits – drawn to Durham’s pure voice and diction – and Dusty Springfield’s brother Tom offered to write a song for them. This track, I’ll Never Find Another You, reached number 1 in the UK in 1964. It was number 1 in ours and reached number 4 in the US.
A steady stream of global hits followed – The Carnival Is Over, A World of Our Own and Georgy Girl – all written by Springfield, the latter peaking at No. 2 in the US.
Journalist Lillian Roxon summed up the group in 1969: “If it hadn’t been for the Seekers, a wise manager would have invented them. A cuddly girl-next-door type and three sober cats that looked like bank tellers.
Their accomplishments were remarkable – performing with the Beatles and Rolling Stones in London and being welcomed home with a performance at Melbourne’s Sidney Myer Music Bowl in 1967 watched 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 announced to her bandmates that she was leaving for a solo career.
This fierce determination to do things her own way – as politely as possible – was a hallmark of Judith Durham.
She called the Seekers her brothers and knew how lucky she was that they protected her and was proud that they remained friends – working together on the 1997 anthem I Am Australian.
Time had taken away all bitterness – the band had replaced Durham several times but the chemistry was never the same.
She would return several times on tour with the Seekers, usually to mark career milestones. In 2013, shortly after stepping off stage in Melbourne on a Seekers reunion tour, Durham suffered a brain haemorrhage.
When it took her 15 minutes to write “soy milk” when requesting a meal at the hospital shortly after the medical episode, she realized she had a problem – treating him like another challenge in a life that survived a major car accident in 1990 and the death of her beloved husband, Ron Edgeworth, in 1994.
She had to relearn how to read and write – including music – and play keyboards again. That trademark voice was undamaged and a year after the brain haemorrhage she was back on stage, fulfilling her engagements in Australia and the UK – the unfinished business that motivated her to recover.
Durham shared a specialist – Professor John Olver – with Countdown host and Australian music industry icon Ian Molly Meldrum, who fell from her roof and suffered severe brain damage in 2010.
She had called Meldrum after he had come out of the coma; after his hospital stay, the couple became phone buddies.
“She was truly the sweetest person you could ever meet,” Meldrum said. “There’s a reason you’ve never heard a bad word about him. And his comeback after the hemorrhage was truly remarkable.
“It really takes hard work and discipline to recover from a brain injury, but Judith has always been very determined. And still so modest about his talent and his success.
Jimmy Barnes once reunited with Durham because she met one of her heroes – Keith Moon from The Who.
Olivia Newton-John saw the Seekers play at her school in her early days and was inspired by how she and Helen Reddy broke into the international market, noting: “She was one of the first Australian girls to go to the stranger.”
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 sang when they went to sleep as children.
“Songs are 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 breathtaking. I am in awe of it all. I find it really, really hard to think that people put me at that level.
Durham’s solo career, alongside that of the Seekers, has been impeccably preserved on CD and DVD – his longtime friend and manager, Graham Simpson, knowing the importance of protecting the legacy.
“It’s wonderful to have all of this captured. Otherwise it all went up in smoke,” she said.
Durham closed after a final solo tour of New Zealand in May 2016, happy that the last time she performed on stage lived up to her high standards. She knew that further tours risked causing another cerebral hemorrhage.
She had battled pulmonary bronchiectasis since she was a child and it ultimately prevented her flying from Melbourne, including to Brisbane in 2019 after being inducted into the Australian Women in Music Awards honor roll.
For the past few years, Durham had been composing music and was planning to write his memoirs. She would occasionally consult a book about her life that 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 should all live our lives as if we don’t have much time left. For me to live long enough to see how much of a thread I’ve been in people’s lives is wonderful.