It was with sadness that we heard the news that Judith Durham, known for her work with the superstar folk-pop group The Seekers, passed away on 5 August 2022, aged 79.
Judith was born Judith Mavis Cock in Essendon, a western suburb of Melbourne, in 1943. As a teenager, she focused on classical piano and obtained an Associate in Music, Australia at the Melbourne University Conservatorium.
However, she also had a desire to sing, and she began classical vocal training at age 18. Although her interest at this time was classical music, she began to sing at the Memphis Jazz Club in Malvern, performing blues, gospel and jazz.
At 19, she started using her mother’s maiden name, Durham. In 1963 she recorded an EP for W&G Records titled Judy Durham, with Frank Traynor’s Jazz Preachers.
While working in her day job as a secretary at an advertising company, Judith met Athol Guy. A double bass player, Athol invited Judith to sing with his trio, The Seekers, which included guitarists Keith Potger and Bruce Woodley. Their first performance together was on the night of their first meeting. Following that show, they played regularly in Melbourne, attracting a large following.
Thanks to Judith’s connections at W&G Records, the group were able to release their first album, Introducing The Seekers, in 1963. This led to them accepting a 10-week boat trip to London where they were part of the onboard entertainment. In this clip, recorded for an oral history at the NFSA in 2015, Judith speaks about her early singing ambitions as well as the group’s first trip to the UK:
Upon arrival in London, the group was offered work through booking agency The Grade Organisation which resulted in club shows and television appearances.
They also met songwriter Tom Springfield from the group The Springfields, which also featured his soon-to-be-famous sister Dusty Springfield. He wrote the song 'I’ll Never Find Another You' for The Seekers, which was released at the end of 1964. It became a worldwide smash hit in early 1965, reaching No. 1 in Australia and the UK and No. 4 in the US, making it the first single by an Australian group to hit the top 5 in all 3 countries. In 2011, the song was added to the NFSA’s Sounds of Australia registry:
The success of this song led to a string of hits for the group. These included the Tom Springfield compositions 'A World of Our Own' and 'The Carnival Is Over' (which was based on a Russian folk song) in 1965, a cover of Malvina Reynolds’ 'Morningtown Ride' and – perhaps their best-known song – 'Georgy Girl', both in 1966.
'Georgy Girl' was written by Tom Springfield for the movie of the same name. It was another No. 1 in Australia, and made No. 3 in the UK and No. 1 on the US Cashbox chart as well as No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the US.
It was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1967 but lost to the title song from Born Free.
In March 1967, The Seekers returned to Australia for their homecoming tour which included a show at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl attended by an estimated 200,000 people. While in Australia, the group filmed a television special, The Seekers Down Under, on Channel 7 which was watched by an audience of over 6 million.
In January 1968 they were also the first musical group to receive Australians of the Year and, still at the time of writing, are the only joint winners of the award. However, just a month later, Judith informed the other members that she had decided to leave the band to begin a solo career. Their final performance was in London on 9 July 1968 at the Talk of the Town nightclub and was aired by the BBC.
Judith’s first solo album, For Christmas with Love, was released in November 1968 on the same label as The Seekers, EMI's Columbia Records. However, this was followed by a period where she received various offers from other labels for a solo contract.
Judith was focused on a solo career that was about her musical interests rather than necessarily generating chart success. In this interview, recorded with Forbes Cameron in February 1969, she talks about the transitional period which occurred before she signed with A&M Records later that year:
Although her solo career enabled her to perform music of various styles, there was always a degree of pressure for Judith to reunite with The Seekers. This eventually occurred in 1993 with tours of Australia, New Zealand and the UK. In the years that followed, Judith continued to tour with the group occasionally as well as release 2 studio albums.
She reunited with The Seekers one last time, for their 50th anniversary tour in 2013. Following this, she regularly suffered from ill health and confirmed her retirement from touring in 2018 when she released a compilation of previously unreleased songs called So Much More.
At a time when popular music was dominated by rock bands around the world like The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The Easybeats, Judith Durham’s voice leading the folk-pop of The Seekers found a huge worldwide audience. This will ensure that her legacy will continue for generations to come.