Judith Durham, born Judith Mavis Cock in Melbourne, Australia (3 July 1943 – 5 August 2022) would for most rock and roll aficionados not belong on a tribute website for rock heroes. But when I learned of her passing last week, I realized that many of her early songs with the Seekers played an important part in my early rock and roll involvement – from learning to play guitar to appreciation for soft melodic rock during the early years of my teenage awareness. Also, Judith had a voice that mastered and actually stood out in almost every category of 60’s modern music. She could sweet voice you into folksy romance, belt it out in jazz rock, make you inconspicuously suffer the blues or lead the pack in a pop song. She could even sing the classics.
Early in life Judith believed her future would be as a pianist. She went on to gain her Associate In Music, Australia (A.Mus.A.) in classical piano as a student of world-renowned concert pianist Professor Ronald Farren-Price at the Melbourne University Conservatorium, with her first professional engagement in the arts playing piano for a ballet school.
Still in her teens, although excelling on piano, little Judy Cock dreamed of fame singing opera or musical comedy and in 1961, aged 18, she was ready to begin classical vocal training. One night, just for fun, she ‘sat in’ with a trad jazz band at a local dance called “Memphis”, and found instant success performing blues, gospels, and jazz standards of the 1920s and 1930s, also developing as a serious ragtime pianist. She began using her mother’s maiden name, and at 19 she made her first record, an EP for W&G “Judy Durham” with Frank Traynor’s Jazz Preachers.
Meanwhile, by day since leaving school, Judy’s first job was as Secretary to the Pathologist at the Royal Victorian Eye & Ear Hospital, but on taking a new secretarial job at J Walter Thompson Advertising, on her first day she met account executive Athol Guy. Athol played acoustic bass and also sang bass in a trio called The Seekers and invited her that very night to come and join him and the two guitarists Keith Potger and Bruce Woodley, to sing acoustic four-part harmony folk and gospel at a Melbourne coffee lounge “Treble Clef”. Still singing regularly with various jazz bands nearly every other night, she then became a regular every Monday with The Seekers. Adopting her birth name Judith, she recorded an album with The Seekers for W&G, appeared on local TV, then set sail for London in 1964 on “SS Fairsky” for a 10-week stay, singing for their supper on board.
On the advice of Australian entertainer Horrie Dargie, the group sent the album and TV footage ahead to a big theatrical agency, The Grade Organisation, and on their arrival in ‘swinging London’, agent Eddie Jarrett booked them extensively in clubs, TV, and variety theatre. He asked Tom Springfield (Dusty’s brother) to write and produce a single, resulting in the surprise chart-topper “I’ll Never Find Another You” which made The Seekers the first Australian group ever to hit No.1 internationally, made Judith Australia’s very first international pop princess and pin-up girl, and unexpectedly cemented her in the group as a full-time Seeker.
The next few years brought The Seekers worldwide adulation, with tours, more albums, and a succession of huge and lasting hits including “A World Of Our Own”, “The Carnival Is Over” and “Morningtown Ride”, which rivalled all the top groups like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones for the No.1 spot. The Seekers’ biggest international seller was “Georgy Girl”, originally written (music by Tom Springfield, words by Jim Dale) and recorded as the title song for the movie starring Lynn Redgrave, James Mason, Charlotte Rampling and Alan Bates. The song was nominated for an Academy Award® and the single made history when the group became the first Australians ever to reach the No.1 spot in the USA.
In 1967, The Seekers set an official all-time record when more than 200,000 people (nearly one tenth of the city’s entire population at that time!) flocked to their performance at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne. Their TV special ‘The Seekers Down Under’ scored the biggest TV audience ever (with a 67 rating), and early in 1968 they were all awarded the nation’s top honour as “Australians Of The Year 1967”.
But 24 year old Judith wanted to spread her wings, and without any notion of the lasting universal grief to be suffered by shocked Seekers fans worldwide, she plucked up courage to give ‘the boys’ six months’ notice. She was to leave the group in July 1968 to return to Australia … possibly to pursue a career as a solo singer in opera or musical theater … and she hoped to find ‘Mr. Right’.
The surprise for Judith was to receive offers as a solo artist, so she asked a London-based freelance musician, Ron Edgeworth, to be her musical director, pianist and arranger and a couple of years later her Mr. Right. In big demand as a London-based freelance musician, Ron had worked with all the big names, and had earlier toured and recorded with the legendary Alexis Korner’s All Stars.
From there on Judith started her solo career, with an occasional Seekers reunion over the years, and also focused on composing and writing music. Her one-woman shows stunned audiences and critics with her unique gift for singing in all styles – from folk to country, jazz to pop, blues to gospel, original songs, ragtime piano and even classical.
An indelible mark was made with Judith’s transition into her now classic mid-70s trad jazz recordings with bands she formed with Ron in San Francisco and London. “The Hottest Band In Town Collection” is now available though Universal. They also released a legendary album of their piano and voice performance at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1978 (“The Hot Jazz Duo”).
Through the 80s Judith Durham and Ron Edgeworth based themselves on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland, Australia, and for the first time Judith concentrated totally on writing and performing her own compositions, even completing a full scale musical “Gotta Be Rainbows” with book written by eminent playwright Ian Austin. Having experienced her very first songwriting success in 1967 with co-writer David Reilly on The Seekers classic “Colours Of My Life”, by the 80s Judith had developed through the decades as a remarkably talented and prolific composer of both lyrics and music, writing more than 300 works.
After the untimely passing of her husband in 1994, 51 year old Judith, went back into recording albums and touring. In 1996 Judith again toured the UK as a solo artist with the release of “Mona Lisas” (later repackaged as “Always There” in Australia), her Abbey Road album of legendary 60s and 70s covers produced by the late Gus Dudgeon.
To welcome in the new millennium with delighted Seekers fans around the world, she embarked on The Seekers ‘Carnival Of Hits Tour 2000’, and in 2001 Judith celebrated her own remarkable life-long musical journey in her “40th Anniversary” Australian concert tour.
In the same year, as an unexpected treat for loyal Seekers fans, Judith recorded with ‘the boys’ the album “Morningtown Ride To Christmas”, and late in 2002 a double album “Night Of Nights … Live!” was released after The Seekers’ Australian tour, in conjunction with The Seekers’ Australia Post Souvenir Stamp Sheet commemorating 40 years of musical magic from Australia’s first-ever international pop icons.
2003 was one of Judith’s busiest and most artistically satisfying years ever. In March she toured Australia with ‘the boys’ on The Seekers` `Never Say Never Again! Tour` which was received joyfully by fans all over the country – and with barely a month to get ready, she flew to the UK for her massive solo tour. Highlight after highlight followed, leading up to the Magic Date of December 3, 2013, the 50th Birthday of the Seekers.
Judith was thrilled to embark on a whole year of celebration – marking half a century of Seekers music. Judith found herself back in the studio with the group recording and filming two standout tracks for ‘The Golden Jubilee Album: 50 Tracks For 50 Years’. “Silver Threads and Golden Needles” and the visual feast of “In My Life” were destined to be standout moments in ‘The Golden Jubilee Tour’, when The Seekers hit the road in May/June 2013.
Following the media frenzy of their 50th Birthday Party in Melbourne came yet another accolade for The Seekers – the presentation of a 24-carat gold ‘stamp’ by Australia Post as part of their ‘Legends of Australian Music’ series – and the official handover of the portrait of the group to the National Portrait Gallery, painted by Helen Edwards, “The Seekers Reunite 50 Years On”.
The group announced and then sold-out a ‘Golden Jubilee Tour’ of Australia, which was abruptly halted when Judith suffered a brain hemorrhage after the first of four sold-out nights in Melbourne. Six months of hospitalisation and rehabilitation followed – during which time Judith’s commemorative ‘Platinum Album’ was released to mark her 70th birthday – before she was given the green light for the Australian tour to resume. Another sold-out tour of New Zealand followed, before The Seekers toured the United Kingdom, performing 18 sold-out show culminating in two packed houses at London’s Royal Albert Hall.
Just prior to the return to Australia, The Seekers were advised that they had individually been awarded the Order of Australia (AO) – one of the highest honours that can be bestowed on Australian citizens. Judith would add yet another honour to her tally by being named Victorian of the Year 2015 the following year.
Also, in 2015, Georgy Girl: The Seekers Musical opened to packed house in Melbourne, before moving on to successful seasons in Sydney and Perth. Among the production’s many musical numbers were Judith’s “Mama’s Got the Blues” and “I Remember”, and “Colours of my Life”, which she co-wrote with David Reilly.
Judith undertook a solo ‘farewell’ tour of New Zealand, playing 18 sold-out concerts as her Colours of my Life compilation CD soared to No. 2 on the charts there.
And in 2018, Ambition Entertainment packaged The Seekers’ three record-breaking 60s TV spectacular into one magnificent collector’s edition set, The Seekers: The Legendary Television Specials. Proving again that the music of The Seekers is timeless and much loved, the DVD set reached No. 1 on the ARIA chart!
Another highlight of 2018 is the release of Judith’s first solo studio album in six years. Timed to mark Judith’s 75th birthday, So Much More is a collection of beautiful songs that Judith Durham has composed with some immensely talented writers and musicians from around the world – all lovingly crafted, and superbly sung.
These never-before-released tracks tell of hope and courage, pain and loss, all-consuming devotion, uplifting spirituality, friendship, and a profound love of Australia and its indigenous heritage.
Durham was born with asthma and at age four she caught measles, which left her with a life-long chronic lung disease, bronchiectasis. Durham died from bronchiectasis on 5 August 2022, at age 79. She definitely avoided the “Rock and Roll lifestyle” during her life, without smoking, little to no alcohol, a vegetarian since 1968 and a vegan in later life.