Entertainment People ‘National treasure’: Australia mourns Seekers’ legend Judith Durham, dead at 79
Updated:
Live

‘National treasure’: Australia mourns Seekers’ legend Judith Durham, dead at 79

Judith Durham devoted her life to music and won a place in Australia's heart.
Share
Twitter Facebook Reddit Pinterest Email
Live

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has paid tribute to “national treasure” Judith Durham, the Aussie secretary-turned-pop star who outsold The Beatles in the swinging sixties.

Durham died in palliative care, aged 79, on Friday night after complications from a long-standing lung disease, her management said.

The singer with The Seekers is remembered by her bandmates as the group’s “shining star” and they said losing their “treasured lifelong friend” would change their lives forever.

“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,” said Keith Potger, Bruce Woodley and Athol Guy in a statement on Saturday.

The Seekers in 1965, Bruce Woodley, Judith Durham, Athol Guy and Keith Potger. Photo: Getty

Her family will be given time to grieve her death in private before the Victorian government approaches them about a possible state funeral.

Victorian Minister Lily D’Ambrosio on Sunday offered her condolences to the family but said the government would not be drawn on a state funeral at this time.

“Judith Durham was a very, very private citizen and her family are very, very private too,” Ms D’Ambrosio told reporters. “Today is about remembering her and honouring her memory. She was an absolute treasure.

A life of song

Durham made her first recording at 19 and later achieved worldwide fame after joining The Seekers in 1963.

The group of four became the first Australian band to achieve major chart and sales success in the United Kingdom and United States, eventually selling 50 million records.

Durham embarked on a solo career in 1968 but recorded with The Seekers again in the 1990s.

Mr Albanese hailed Durham as “a national treasure and an Australian icon”.

“Judith Durham gave voice to a new strand of our identity and helped blaze a trail for a new generation of Aussie artists,” Mr Albanese said on Twitter.

“Her kindness will be missed by many, the anthems she gave to our nation will never be forgotten.”

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton said Durham was someone who “gave voice to more than one generation of Australians through words of universal appeal, carried by melodies that, once heard, became fixed in our memories”.

Australia’s entertainment industry also responded to the sad news, with singer Anthony Callea posting: “the skies above just gained a voice of an angel.”

Actor Magda Szubanski sent her “deepest condolences”.

“Her beautiful, crystalline voice was the naive but knowing siren song of my childhood,” Ms Szubanski tweeted.

The word “wholesome” could have been invented for Durham as she led The Seekers to 50 million record sales worldwide and resonated with audiences for over half a century, all the while spurning drugs, alcohol, tobacco, caffeine and meat.

She wore home-made frocks and sang folksy songs with three clean-cut blokes in suits and ties.

“Nobody in a million years could have predicted our success,” Durham had said of the musical fairytale that started Hollywood-style in a suburban coffee lounge.

On her first day as a secretary at the Melbourne advertising agency J Walter Thompson in 1962, Durham met an account executive called Athol Guy, who played bass and sang in a group once a week at the Treble Clef coffee lounge in Toorak.

That same Monday night she joined Guy and the two other Seekers, guitarists and singers Bruce Woodley and Keith Potger, completing a quartet that soon became the first Australian group to hit number one in Britain and the US.

Judith Durham was a wholesome singer. Photo: Getty

Durham, born in Essendon on July 3, 1943, was well prepared for a career in music, if not exactly pop. The second daughter of World War II airman William Cock and his wife Hazel gained a music degree studying classical piano at Melbourne University after returning from Hobart, where the family lived for seven years in the 1950s.

She started singing with the Melbourne Uni Jazz Band at 18 and within a year, using her mother’s maiden name, made her first record, an EP for W&G with Frank Traynor’s Jazz Preachers.

Singing her way to England

Life changed for The Seekers when they sailed to England in 1964 on the SS Fairsky, performing on board and literally “singing for our supper”, as Durham recalled, on what was supposed to be a 10-week trip.

The sexual revolution was underway but Durham’s “trendsetting idol” was the Queen.

“I’d have my matching handbag and matching gloves,” she said. “I would go to great pains to do that and make my own clothes to suit. I was not at all tuned into the London dolly birds and Carnaby Street.”

The song that changed everything was I’ll Never Find Another You, written by Tom Springfield, the brother of pop star Dusty Springfield.

Exposure on pirate radio helped it to soar up the charts, and it was followed by a succession of other hits, including A World Of Our Own, The Carnival Is Over, Someday One Day, Walk With Me and Morningtown Ride.

Their first three singles hit number one and they topped Britain’s charts with the highest-selling record of 1965, eclipsing The Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

#1 in America

Eventually they scored an Australian first by hitting number one in the US with Georgy Girl, from the film of the same name starring Lynn Redgrave, James Mason, Charlotte Rampling and Alan Bates.

In 1967 The Seekers set another record when they drew more than 200,000 people – almost 10 per cent of Melbourne’s entire population – to a concert at the Myer Music Bowl. They were also named Australians Of The Year.

When the bubble burst the following year it was Durham holding the pin.

On a tour of New Zealand she gave six months’ notice, honouring an agreed pact, to pursue a solo career, oblivious to the shock caused to both her colleagues and their fans.

A year later she asked London-based freelance musician Ron Edgeworth to be her musical director, pianist and arranger.

He also became her soul mate. They married and enjoyed 25 wonderful years together before he died in 1994 of motor neuron disease, Durham becoming patron of the association fighting for its sufferers.

The Seekers sang for their supper to get to England, then had the world at their feet. Photo: Getty

The pair entertained audiences all over the world with a mixture of folk, country, jazz, pop, blues, gospel, original songs, ragtime piano and even classical.

Fans of The Seekers finally got their wish when Durham reunited with “the boys” for a 25-year reunion tour which sparked an intermittent series of performances and recordings throughout the 1990s and into the new century.

In 1993 she had a hit with the patriotic anthem I Am Australian, co-written by Woodley.

In 1995 The Seekers were inducted into the Australian Record Industry Association’s (ARIA) Hall of Fame and Durham received an OAM for services to music.

She continued her solo tours, playing to standing ovations in Australia and Britain, where her 35-date Diamond Tour included a memorable performance at London’s Royal Festival Hall on her 60th birthday.

Courage after a stroke

Judith’s comeback after a cerebral haemorrhage in 2013. Photo: AAP

The Seekers’ Golden Jubilee Tour was cruelly halted in 2013 when Durham suffered a brain haemorrhage. She spent six weeks in intensive rehabilitation in a Melbourne hospital and had to learn again to read music and play the keyboard.

Fortunately, her singing was unaffected and doctors gave her the okay to resume touring.

She marked her 75th birthday in 2018 with her first solo studio album in six years, So Much More. She said when she sang the track You Are My Star, “my vision is of the whole universe surrounded by the love in my heart. It’s a love that defies time and space to encompass everything”.

“I will love you til I die,” she sang in The Carnival Is Over. Now her carnival is over.

-AAP