Judith Durham, lead singer with the Seekers whose bell-like voice brought chart success – obituary

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Judith Durham in 1967 - ITV/Shutterstock
Judith Durham in 1967 - ITV/Shutterstock

Judith Durham, who has died aged 79, was the wholesome chanteuse fronting the Seekers, the Australian singing group voted more popular than the Beatles in 1965, the year in which they scored two middle-of-the-road No 1 hits that bucked contemporary musical trends and led to sales of some 50 million records around the world.

With an unaffected bell-like voice of remarkable purity that was later likened to that of Karen Carpenter, Judith Durham was not the typical dolly-bird pop star of her day.

Cutting a decidedly homespun figure compared with the more glamorous pop divas of the time, she could present as something of a frump, invariably covering up with her signature floor-length stage dresses, and always struggling with her weight. In style, make-up and manners, she was, as one interviewer noted, entirely unrepresentative of the Swinging 60s.

From obscure origins as a secretary in an advertising agency who sang in her spare time to pay the rent, she became, as the Telegraph remarked, something of a phenomenon — “a pop star of abounding talent, including a genuine singing voice”.

Judith Durham in 1968 - Edwin Sampson/ANL/Shutterstock
Judith Durham in 1968 - Edwin Sampson/ANL/Shutterstock

Yet, as Maurice Rosenbaum, the paper’s pop chronicler, admitted, her essential quality was hard to define. Talk of warmth, simplicity and “niceness” might have lured the unwary towards the quicksands of sentimental approval, whereas hers was an admirably controlled talent worthy of the best in contemporary song.

Her outstanding vocal gifts were evident in two chart-topping releases of 1965, I’ll Never Find Another You and The Carnival Is Over, both written and produced by Tom Springfield (the latter toppling the Rolling Stones’ Get Off Of My Cloud from the No 1 spot) and which established them as Britain’s favourite foursome when they overtook the hitherto all-conquering Beatles in a popularity poll.

Unusually for the time, their instrumental line-up comprised two acoustic guitars (Keith Potger and Bruce Woodley), and a full-sized double-bass over which towered the inscrutable Athol Guy wearing trademark Buddy Holly-style heavy horn-rimmed glasses.

Although in 1966 their recording of Tom Springfield and Jim Dale’s Georgy Girl from the film of the same name reached No 2 in Britain, it topped the Cashbox chart in the United States, and a year later the Seekers were named Australians Of The Year for 1967.

Never the less Judith Durham found sudden celebrity difficult to deal with. Always highly-strung, she disliked the glitzy trappings of showbusiness and considered herself too contained a person to handle the hoopla of chart success.

It was no surprise when, after less than five years with the Seekers and at the height of their success, she broke away to become a solo artist. A year later, in 1969, she married her pianist and arranger Ron Edgeworth.

She subsequently weathered her share of setbacks. In 1990 the couple and their tour manager were involved in a road accident on a freeway outside Melbourne in which the woman driving another car died at the scene and Judith Durham sustained a fractured wrist and leg.

A few years later she was stalked by her former personal assistant who sent more than 40 doormats to the singer’s home and bombarded her with letters, faxes and phone calls. The woman was subsequently prosecuted.

Judith Durham at a 60th Birthday concert at the Royal Festival Hall in 2003 - Richard Gardner/Shutterstock
Judith Durham at a 60th Birthday concert at the Royal Festival Hall in 2003 - Richard Gardner/Shutterstock

During the Seekers’ golden jubilee tour in 2013 Judith Durham suffered a stroke which, although leaving her singing unimpaired, affected her ability to read and write.

The daughter of a sales manager for an electrical firm, she was born Judith Mavis Cock on July 3 1943 in Melbourne. A sickly child, she suffered with the chronic lung condition bronchiecstasis, leaving her with limited lung capacity.

When the family moved to Hobart, Tasmania, she attended the Fahan School before moving back to Melbourne in 1956, enrolling at Ruyton Girls’ School followed by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. With ambitions to be a pianist, she studied classical piano at the University of Melbourne and on qualifying undertook some professional piano engagements. After some classical vocal training she sang blues, gospel and jazz pieces.

At 18 she asked to sing with a band at a local jazz club and in 1963 began performing there under her mother’s maiden name of Durham. She also made her first extended play record.

While working as a secretary at the J Walter Thompson advertising agency she met an account executive called Athol Guy who, with Keith Potger and Bruce Woodley, invited her to join them in the Seekers, an Australian equivalent of Pete Seeger’s influential 1950s folk quartet the Weavers. Judith Durham likened herself to their female lead singer Ronnie Gilbert.

After cutting their teeth on the folk-gospel scene in Melbourne, the Seekers sailed for England early in 1964, entertaining the ship’s passengers on the voyage.

On arrival, they shared a variety bill in Blackpool with the singer Dusty Springfield, whose brother Tom Springfield wrote a song for them. Recorded on a shoestring budget, I’ll Never Find Another You became their first chart-topping British hit in February 1965, followed by A World Of Our Own, which reached No 3 and in November by The Carnival Is Over.

Their next release, a cover of Paul Simon’s Someday One Day, struggled to No 11 but Morningtown Ride got to No 2, becoming a perennial children’s favourite and a version of it later being used as the theme tune for Radio 2’s Junior Choice request programme. When the group split in July 1968 Judith Durham returned to Australia to launch a solo career.

In 1994 she appeared in a Seekers reunion and in 2003 undertook a solo tour of Britain. A recording of her 60th birthday concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London was released on DVD the following year.

In February 2009, she closed the 50th anniversary concert at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne by reprising The Carnival Is Over. Later that year, in consultation with indigenous representatives, she updated the lyrics to the Australian national anthem Advance Australia Fair.

In 2015, with fellow Seekers Athol Guy, Keith Potger and Bruce Woodley, she was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO). She was also named Victorian of the Year for her services to music and a number of charities.

“I think our songs have endured because they are about life as you would wish it could be,” she reflected late in her career. “They have the imagery of innocence and idealism. And we all need some of those.”

Her husband Ron Edgeworth predeceased her in 1994 aged 56, two years after being diagnosed with motor neurone disease. There were no children.

Judith Durham, born July 3 1943, died August 5 2022

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