Melbourne-born folk sensation Judith Durham, chanteuse of a generation, has died from bronchiectasis, a chronic lung disease she contracted at the age of four. She was 79.
Singer-songwriter and musician Judith Durham is best known for being the lead singer of The Seekers, which – in the 1960s - became the first Australian group to achieve major chart success in the United States and the UK. They sold more than 50 million albums worldwide.
Durham was born Judith Mavis Cock on 3 July 1943 in Essendon, Victoria. She was a classically trained pianist and vocalist who attended the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, qualifying with an Associate in Music, Australia" (AMusA).
At 18, she took on her mother’s maiden name – Durham – and started performing at the Memphis Jazz Club in Malvern, Victoria. Her polished renditions of blues, gospel and jazz pieces caught the attention of a musician called Frank Traynor, who asked her to sing with his band, Jazz Preachers. They went on to record an EP called Judy Durham and several singles for W&G Records.
In 1963, Durham joined the folk-influenced pop band The Seekers on vocals, piano and tambourine. The other band members at the time were Athol Guy (double bass and vocals), Keith Potger (12-string guitar, banjo and vocals) and Bruce Woodley (guitar, mandolin, banjo and vocals).
Potger, an ABC radio producer, used his connections to help the fledgling group make a demo tape while Durham – working a day job at an advertising agency with Guy at the time – passed the result onto W&G Records.
The Seekers achieved a minor hit with their first single, a cover of the 1894 Australian bush ballad 'Waltzing Matilda' and decided to travel to the UK to pursue further musical opportunities.
The Seekers sailed on the SS Fairsky in early 1964 – providing musical entertainment along the way – and ended up prolonging their stay in the UK beyond the initially planned ten weeks because they were booked solid. It could be fair to say that the Brits went gaga for The Seekers’ beautiful melodies in general and Durham’s angelic vocals in particular.
The same year, The Seekers released an interesting hit based on a Russian folk song, circa 1883, called 'The Carnival Is Over'. Adapted by Tom Springfield with English language lyrics, it topped the UK and Australian charts. At its peak, it was selling 93,000 copies per day in the UK. It went on to become The Seekers’ signature song and they closed all of their shows with it.
In 1965, The Seekers released the truly fabulous 'Georgy Girl' which was used as the title song for a film of the same name and nominated for an Academy Award. It reached number two on the U.S. Billboard chart and number one on the U.S. Cashbox chart.
By 1967, The Seekers had returned home to Australia and set an all-time attendance record when they entertained 200,000 people (nearly a tenth of the city’s population at the time) at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne. Their TV special The Seekers Down Under attracted the biggest TV audience ever with a 67 rating.
Also in 1967, The Seekers were named as joint Australians of the Year — to date, the only group to achieve this honour. They were inducted into the Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) Hall of Fame in 1995 and individually named Officers of the Order of Australia in the Queen’s Birthday Honours in June 2014.
Durham left The Seekers in 1968 and embarked on a solo career. One of the highlights of this was her modernisation of 'Advance Australia Fair', the Australian National Anthem. She also joined with her fellow band members for reunion work on the nostalgia circuit.
Sadly, during this period, Durham’s life was marred by tragedy, misfortune and ill health. In 1990, Durham, her husband (British pianist and musical director Ron Edgeworth) and their tour manager (Peter Summers) were involved in a horrific car accident in Victoria. The driver of the other car died at the scene and Durham broke a leg and one of her wrists.
Shortly afterwards, when Durham got back together with The Seekers for a silver jubilee tour, her husband was diagnosed with motor neurone disease. He died in 1994, with Durham by his side. Durham later worked tirelessly to raise money and awareness to fight the degenerative disease.
In the late 1990s, a woman called Margaret Dahlstrom – a former president of the Judith Durham fan club – was convicted of stalking Durham for five years.
The court was told that Dahlstrom had been a fan of Durham’s since she was 16 and helped promote Durham’s concerts from the mid-80s to 1992. Following a dispute over finances, Durham asked Dahlstrom not to promote any more concerts.
Dahlstrom responded by sending Durham threatening faxes, claiming she had been treated “like a doormat”. To ram the point home, Dahlstrom apparently sent Durham 41 doormats through the mail. Dahlstrom was subsequently prosecuted and later gaoled for three years for stealing credit cards from schools.
In 2000, Durham broke her hip but did, however, perform 'The Carnival is Over' from a wheelchair at the 2000 Paralympics closing ceremony shortly afterwards.
In 2003, Durham suffered a stroke that diminished her ability to read and write, although her singing ability was unaffected. Displaying great personal courage and pluck, Durham worked hard during her convalescence to regain her ability to read and write music.
Her death following a battle with bronchiectasis – a chronic lung disease the singer contracted at the age of four due to a complication with measles – prompted a flood of tributes that attested to both Durham’s musicianship and her philanthropy.
In a joint statement, former bandmates Athol Guy, Bruce Woodley and Keith Potger paid tribute to 'our treasured lifelong friend and shining star'.
'Her struggle was intense and heroic, never complaining of her destiny and fully accepting its conclusion. Her magnificent musical legacy Keith, Bruce and I are so blessed to share.'
“I first saw The Seekers in a small coffee place in Toorak Road, Melbourne, called The Treble Clef, in the 1960s when they were starting out.”
“Judith had the most beautiful, pure singing voice and made The Seekers famous. I met Judith in 1986 when she volunteered to sing for a fundraiser we were having during the nurses’ strike at the Athenaeum Theatre. She was the most unassuming person and very likeable.”
“The Seekers were the definitive professional entertainment unit. It was wonderful to see them. They dressed impeccably. They performed impeccably.”
“There was no one else who could sing those songs the way that Judith sang them. It’s really sad for the entertainment industry. It’s really sad for the people of Australia.”
Durham’s family accepted an offer of a state funeral in Victoria to commemorate her remarkable life.
Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.
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