Obituaries Australia

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: use double quotes to search for a phrase
  • Tip: lists of awards, schools, organisations etc

Browse Lists:

Cultural Advice

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

These articles do not necessarily reflect the views of The Australian National University.

Durham, Judith Mavis (1943–2022)

by Alan Howe

from Australian

Judith Durham, singer
Born July 3, 1943 in Melbourne. Died August 5, aged 79, Prahran
.

Australia has produced many great women singers, but three tower over the rest: Dame Nellie Melba, Dame Joan Sutherland and Judith Durham. Durham’s pure, crystalline voice remained distinctively unmatched in her lifetime and will be enjoyed for as long as people have ears.

Not that Durham considered herself a singer. A few years ago she told the ABC: “I never feel I can sing.” She had planned on being a concert pianist. And the Seekers, whose name would become synonymous with hers, began life as an all-boy band. Their fates collided in the offices of the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency on December 4, 1962. But it had already been a circuitous path for Durham.

Her parents, Bill and Hazel Cock, lived on Mount Alexander Road in Essendon, and Durham was born in that suburb — the Cocks’ second daughter, but by then Bill was training in Canada before joining the RAF where he was part of Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris’s legendary Pathfinder Squadrons. These elite teams flew Lancaster bombers on perilous night missions over Germany and occupied Europe, and Bill would come home with bad memories and a Distinguished Flying Cross.

Durham found it hard to relate to the stranger who had returned from war, but they bonded around the upright German piano Bill played in the lounge room. She started with simple tunes alongside sister Beverley, but was clearly ambitious. “I so desperately wanted to be able to do what Dad could do on the piano that I’d sit there for hours,” she told biographer Graham Simpson years later. The girls were enrolled in lessons in 1949.

Later that year Bill’s employer promoted him, and it meant moving to Hobart. The family stayed a decade and the girls attended Fahan School in Sandy Bay. Soon, another girl whose parents had moved from Melbourne to Hobart would attend: actor Robyn Nevin.

At Fahan, Durham began to act and sing in school plays, the first was The Pied Piper. “I wore a rat costume and had to walk to the front of the stage and sing ‘I dreamt I was a happy rat in that, in that, in that delightful dream’.”

A childhood bout of measles left Durham with the lung disease bronchiectasis, normally more common in older Australians. That she was able to sing with constricted airways to her lungs was remarkable. That she did so for decades, astounding, and it speaks volumes of her determination.

The family returned to Melbourne and the girls attended Ruyton Girls’ School in Kew. By now seeing her future in music, Durham left at the end of year 11 and completed a secretarial course while studying piano at Melbourne University.

In this pre-Beatles era, church dances and small jazz cafes ruled Melbourne’s modest music scene. Those who had a television watched Bandstand. Durham was about to start training to be an opera singer when she first heard Bessie Smith, who had died 25 years before. It wasn’t long after that she was in front of the University Jazz Band singing the three Smith songs she had learnt – in a black dress made from a pair of her father’s pants and her Ruyton school jumper, she closed her eyes, held the mic stand and hoped for the best. The club paid her four pounds. As she started to make a name for herself, she decided to change hers, adopting her mother’s maiden name, but concerned it would upset her dad. It turned out he’d thought about changing his name years before.

Soon Durham, with an expanding repertoire, came to the notice of Melbourne jazz legend Frank Traynor, whose band, the Jazz Preachers, worked across the city for decades (it is Traynor’s distinctive trombone you hear when they play Carlton Football Club’s theme song, We Are The Navy Blues).

Durham started singing with other bands and the piano lessons became secondary; she didn’t have the time for all that practice required to get to concert standard. And the jazz clubs were more fun.

She had been working days as a secretary at Melbourne’s Eye and Ear Hospital and wanted a change of scenery. She went for an interview at the Victorian office of American ad agency J. Walter Thompson where she met an account executive who also harboured musical ambitions, but Athol Guy’s band had recently suffered a setback. Its idiosyncratic high-pitched singer, Ken Ray, had quit the Seekers to get married.

Guy had heard of Durham. Her sister, a receptionist at Channel 9’s Melbourne studios, had spoken to him about Durham the year before. He had not heard her sing, but it made sense to replace Ray with a woman. Durham spoke to Guy that first day and by the evening another Seeker, Bruce Woodley, had picked her up and driven her to their gig at the Treble Clef restaurant on Toorak Road. There she met Keith Potger. They played a set of folk standards and the songs Durham did not know she harmonised on working out the lyrics as she went along.

Durham didn’t immediately join the Seekers, but over the months that became unavoidable. They recorded Waltzing Matilda, which grazed the charts and their debut album, 1963’s Introducing The Seekers, which included If I Had A Hammer, This Train and The Wild Rover, set the blueprint for the band’s two-guitar, upright bass and Durham sound. Oddly, former singer Ray returned for the cover photo shoot, replacing Potger, who worked at the ABC and was concerned about its attitude to his other life.

The next chapter in the Seekers’ story is well known. One of J. Walter Thompson’s clients was cruise line Sitmar. Guy convinced Sitmar to book the Seekers for some Pacific cruises where they would be the house band. This led to the offer of a return cruise to London, again playing on board in lieu of fares. The band left in March 1964.

By the time they berthed in Southampton that May the youth music scene had been turned upside down by the Beatles. The Seekers were never at the cutting edge of music anyway, but folk bands were passe – with the exception of American trio Peter, Paul and Mary, who were mining the catalogue of a then up-and-coming songwriter, Bob Dylan. A good song will usually prevail, but they are not easily found fully formed and unrecorded or overlooked on songwriters’ neglected albums.

At this stage the band got lucky. Against the odds they were booked in London for Irish singer Ronnie Carroll’s television show, appearing on a bill that included Dusty Springfield and met her brother, Tom (these were stage names: Dusty was born Mary O’Brien, her older brother was Dion). Tom had written the hit Island of Dreams for Dusty when they were the Springfields, and his songwriting skills were improving, but no longer suited his sister’s style.

He offered the Seekers an already completed composition, I’ll Never Find Another You, which they recorded at the end of 1964 and which topped the UK and Australian charts the next February – displacing the Righteous Brothers’ You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, the most played song of the 20th century – and managed No.4 in the US. Weeks later, Springfield had written another song and A World of Our Own rose to No.3 in England and Australia.

By year’s end, Springfield was back with another, The Carnival is Over, based on an 1883 Ukrainian folk song. This topped charts around the world, dislodging the Rolling Stones from top spot in London. By the end of the year the Seekers were Britain’s highest-selling act, besting the Hollies, Elvis and the Beatles. They were at 1965’s New Musical Express poll winners concert with the Beatles, Stones, Moody Blues, Roy Orbison, the Who, the Walker Brothers, Small Faces and the Yardbirds.

Morningtown Ride would follow in 1966 and in the following year Springfield came up with a final chart-topper, Georgy Girl, part of the soundtrack to the hit film and nominated for an Academy Award as best original song (Born Free won).

By then Durham had long been thinking of striking out on her own and had mentioned it in passing to the others. By agreement, any member wishing to leave had to give six months’ notice. Durham did and the others were disappointed.

But first they triumphantly returned to Australia and on March 12, 1967 played the brief but unforgettable set at Melbourne’s Myer Music Bowl. I was there. So were 199,999 others – one in every 10 people in Melbourne showed up to see the hometown heroes. The following year new prime minister John Gorton announced them as Australians of the Year and they completed the documentary The Seekers Down Under, apparently our highest-rating TV show until Neil Armstrong walked on the moon the following year. Then minister for tourism, Don Chipp, arranged a special showing of it in Parliament House.

In London, Durham had met brilliant pianist Ron Edgeworth and she had asked him to come to Australia with her to be music director for her first solo tour. They became a couple and married at Scots’ Church in Melbourne, where her parents had married three decades earlier.

Television specials and unremarkable records followed. Durham had never been musically adventurous, at least not since she sang eyes closed on a small stage many years before. And with no Springfield to chime in with perfect melodies for her glorious voice, she had to pick and choose from other sources, while she and Edgeworth wrote separately and together. She recorded a Christmas album — rarely a good sign. During these years she chose songs other writers had recorded, but that had been lost, including inspiring interpretations of the brilliant but overlooked ballads Here Am I and Wonderlove from the first Mason Williams album, itself remembered only for his instrumental smash Classical Gas. And her version of Carrie Jacobs-Bond’s 1909 masterpiece, When You Come to the End of a Perfect Day, is perhaps definitive. Her concerts still sold out — few wished to miss hearing that voice. The Seekers carried on and experimented with other talented singers — Julie Anthony, Louisa Wisseling, Karen Knowles and Cheryl Webb — but the magic was missing.

Durham and Edgeworth lived in the UK and Europe and then bought property in Queensland.

In 1990, while midway through her solo Silver Jubilee Tour, they were involved in a car accident as they travelled up the Calder Highway on their way to the Riverina town of Toolebuc. Both broke bones. The young woman driving the other car was killed. Durham was airlifted to the Alfred Hospital, Edgeworth was treated in Kyneton.

While in The Alfred and in rehab, Durham was overwhelmed by the thousands of Seekers fans’ flowers, cards and letters. She had no idea how loved she was, and what the Seekers meant to so many.

The reunion was inevitable. At the end of 1992, the four gathered at a restaurant in Toorak, the suburb where it had all started. Two months later a reunion tour was announced and sold out across Australia, New Zealand the UK. Once again they played the Myer Music Bowl and, yet again, the crowds responded most to the songs their old mate Springfield had written so many years before. The live album from the tour went platinum. By then, Edgeworth was in the later stages of motor neurone disease, which claimed his life in 1994.

A few years later, I worked on an album of songs made famous by Australians but updated by different cultural groups in their national style. Durham agreed to help out South American band Inka Marca, who were to record The Carnival is Over. Inka Marca’s singer struggled with its key and quite long phrases – it’s not easy to sing. But Durham coached him and then sang it with him, joining in on the more difficult lines and harmonising with him at the end, adding her own flourishes with “I will love you, ’til I die”. It was a beautiful moment. One of her many.

Another was Skyline Pigeon, an ethereal ballad written by Elton John and his lifelong lyricist sidekick, Bernie Taupin. It was on John’s first album, Empty Sky, released in 1969. John describes it as the first song by which the pair were excited. Someone else excited by it was Durham and, by profound coincidence, when she came to record it in the first weeks of 1971, her producer, unaware that Durham was married to one of the best pianists in England, hired two sessions musicians to help out. One was Dudley Moore (the actor and comedy partner of Peter Cook), the other Reggie Dwight, not by then popularly known as Elton John. In a quiet moment, Dwight told Durham that Skyline Pigeon was his song under that stage name.

Years later, he explained that he had been overwhelmed by her interpretation: “Judith Durham, like Karen Carpenter and Eva Cassidy, possesses the purest voice in popular music. When she recorded one of my songs I was so flattered, and love her version. She made the song her own — a very enviable talent.” Durham made him understand he had not fully realised that charming composition, so he re-recorded it in 1972 and it was the B side of his 1973 worldwide hit, Daniel.

Last Friday, Durham, like the tormented bird in that song, was turned loose from this life.

Fly away, skyline pigeon, fly …
Let me fly to distant lands
Over green fields, trees and mountains
Flowers and forest fountains
Home along the lanes of the skyway.

Original publication

Other Obituaries for Judith Mavis Durham

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Alan Howe, 'Durham, Judith Mavis (1943–2022)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/durham-judith-mavis-32691/text40613, accessed 3 October 2022.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2022