The original popstar: Judith Durham

Long before Kylie, there was Judith Durham. Karen Kissane talks to the woman
who sang those Seekers songs …

Judith Durham doesn’t swing down the street so fancy free these days. She limps, just a little, the stiffness at her hip belying her youthful figure. She has the husky voice and throaty cough of a lifelong smoker even though she’s not one; it’s due to a chronic lung condition. And she has a face that matches her years; genuine, but thinner and more worn than that of the girl whose voice first put Australian pop music on the world map.

Then, just as you resign yourself to the looming reality check, Durham smiles. The world’s largest dimples traverse both cheeks. She beams irresistible cheerful rays of openness and warmth. Hey there, Georgie girl.

Durham is about to do a national tour to celebrate her 40th year in show business. It’s billed as a series of solo concerts but the three men who made up the Seekers with her – Athol Guy, Bruce Woodley and Keith Potger – feature as guests. This is how Durham has resolved the long-running tensions between her ambition for a solo identity and the need to keep happy both her nostalgic fans and “the boys”, who were such a big part of the sound that produced her greatest commercial successes.

She has come to terms with the fact that any major concert must feature Seekers songs, those sweet evocations of an age in which optimism got more air time. When she left the group in the ’60s, she says, she had no idea of the staying power of their hits. “I knew that they were nice songs, but I thought there were plenty of nice songs around. I didn’t understand how few songs last for 30 years.

“How many fans follow an artist and play their music on a daily basis to their children, to their grandchildren for the next 25 years? How many artists have fans who want to come to their 10th anniversary concert or their 20th?”

It’s not just daggy parents who still rock their babies to sleep with the Seekers’ mellow classics. Durham tells of composing with Paul Kelly several years ago. He took her into his children’s bedroom at tuck-in time and had them sing her Morningtown Ride. “Paul was brought up on Seekers music himself, so even though he’s now moved on and is creating his own music, it’s still a love that he wanted to pass on.”

Durham began life in Essendon, Melbourne, as Judith Mavis Cock (a widening exposure to the vernacular when she started singing with jazz musicians alerted her that her mother’s maiden name might look better in lights). She was the product of sensible stock (her parents insisted she do secretarial studies in case the night job never took off) and middle-class schooling (Ruyton Girls School in Kew).

By her own account, she was earnest and innocent. Her biography tells us that the first boy with whom she played postman’s knock complained that kissing her was like kissing his sister. At 16, she wanted to exchange her birthday present of mascara for sheet music.

In her 20s, she had a smash tour of England with the Seekers and in 1965 knocked the Rolling Stones from No.1 with what became her signature ballad, The Carnival is Over. Others might have celebrated such youthful success with youthful excess. Australia’s sweetheart continued to cut her own fringe and make her own frocks, travelling with her sewing machine on tour.

Durham is still unabashedly earnest about the need for musical goodness and niceness. She says her world view was shaped by the sheet music lyrics she used to sing growing up. “A lot of my philosophies came from sheet music. Some Day My Prince Will Come, or Blue Skies Smiling at Me – they were very uplifting, wholesome lyrics, and I really believed those words when I sang them.”

She believes each generation’s outlook is shaped by its music and says she wanted the earlier Seekers’ reunion partly because “music out there was becoming quite negative and there weren’t those positive influences for young people. It’s important to do good in the world and I saw that as a way of doing it.”

First published in the Sydney Morning Herald.

Durham believes “for sure in my heart” in the law of karma (she has followed the teachings of an Indian guru for many years and is a strict vegan). She says her belief that all positive and negative events are the result of her own good or bad actions earlier in life, or in a previous life, has helped her accept misfortunes. There have been quite a few of those.

In 1974 she lost all the money she took with her when the Seekers folded (about $80,000) in the financial collapse of a Swiss bank. In 1990 a car smash in country Victoria left her seriously injured and facing months of rehabilitation. In 1994 she lost her husband and musical colleague of 25 years, pianist Ron Edgeworth, to motor neurone disease.

Four years later she took much-publicised legal action to end stalking and harassment by the former president of her fan club. And last year she was forced to sing from a wheelchair at the closing ceremony of the Sydney Paralympics – not the big gig forecast in John Clarke’s satire on the Games, but an international spotlight nonetheless – because she had broken her hip in a
fall at home.

“I used to worry a lot and regret a lot before I took on this whole concept of karma,” she says. “But now [I understand] that destiny is what it’s all about. I still push ahead and look forward to achieving certain goals but I try not to lay up expectations that they have to happen.”

In interviews, she focuses on the positives. The hand injured in the car accident recovered enough mobility to play her beloved piano again; for most of her adult life she had that rare phenomenon, a happy show-business marriage.

And, while she has not had big commercial success in her solo career, she feels she would not have developed personally or professionally if she had not gone out on her own. “It wasn’t conceivable to keep the group going and still be able to develop as a human being and find out what it was life had in store,” she says.

Many fans have never forgiven her decision. But what they did not know at the time was the depth of her private misery. In England, she developed uncontrollable crying jags and became so depressed that she was hospitalised for several weeks. “I was very troubled,” she says of that time. “When I left the Seekers it was because I was unhappy. I wouldn’t have left if I’d been happy.”

It is almost a celebrity cliche now, but Durham might have been the first to develop “Diana syndrome”: anxiety and depression about weight and appearance as a result of being thrust into the public spotlight. She hated her face – too pudgy, eyes too small – and her well-fleshed body, which one British newspaper said made her look “more like Queen’s Pudding than Kings Road”. The arrival of Twiggy cemented the obsession.

“I didn’t feel I could talk to anybody about it,” Durham says now. “I was just consumed by it. You could go to a doctor then and ask for diet pills, but I don’t know if there was anybody I could have talked to who could have changed inside my head, who could have convinced me, ‘It’s all right to look like this’.”

Even after she lost 16 kilograms her self-esteem was so low that she still felt fat. “I remember being on a set of scales and reading the scales as a stone heavier than they actually were. It happens with plastic surgery when people change their nose and still see the old nose.”

Then there were the tensions in her working life. Reading between the lines of her biography, Colours of My Life, it seems that at times the male Seekers found Durham a tiresome princess (she admits to being bossy and perfectionist, but puts it down to professionalism), while she sometimes chafed against what she felt was their dominance and cliquey-ness (they had played together for some time before they invited Durham on board).

“It is true that back in the ’60s I was quite frustrated that I never got a chance to speak or be interviewed,” she says. “I think one element is strength in numbers with them. I mean, men like to stick together a bit, and back then I didn’t understand the male-female thing at all. I thought that if I didn’t get my point of view across to them that that was a failing in me rather than something that could have happened to many women at that time.

“I’m fascinated by that now. I often, if I’m in a confrontation, try and think, ‘Now hang on a minute, is this simply because I’m a woman trying to say this? Would it be an acceptable thing if I was a guy?’”

The final line of the gender divide was drawn when Durham discovered from an outsider that the man she had been seeing had been having relationships with other women behind her back – and that her colleagues had known.

“It certainly made me realise this was more of a professional situation; it put things on a different level,” she says. “I couldn’t believe that it happened. I’ve always questioned that situation ever since in the sense that you often hear people discussing ‘Would you tell your best friend?’ Do you do that? It’s a big question mark. In my mind, I believed that there had been a disloyalty there. It was a real shock.”

She had already made her decision to leave, though, and it is possible the Seekers had already passed their commercial prime. Their star waned after they stopped working with songwriter Tom Springfield (brother of Dusty).

Singing together now “feels like I’ve slightly gone back in time; it’s always just like picking up where we left off. It’s like not being a complete person but part of something. It’s a weird thing, really. But it’s lovely to see how they’ve grown up and matured. They’ve had families and Keith’s a grandfather now, a couple of times over.”

Durham had no children, by choice. So it is not grandchildren she wants to see grow and thrive as her legacy, but her music. “Paintings pass from hand to hand and people appreciate them through the generations,” she says passionately, the carefully ordered calm of her interview style cracking for the first and only time. “But a record, unless it keeps getting played, and keeps getting revitalised in a new format – it’ll be gone.”

She was surprised and pleased when the 1993 Seekers reunion tour resulted in the production of boxed CD sets of their albums and the reissue of some of her solo jazz recordings. “If we hadn’t had the reunion, gradually all those tracks would have disappeared,” she says.

She knows that her voice will eventually go. She has bronchiectasis, which fills her lungs with mucus that is difficult to clear and leaves her breathless. She tries to control it with her diet, avoiding cereal and dairy foods, “But it’s a chronic condition. It’s getting worse. That’s really why I’m treasuring this tour, because you just don’t know how long you’re going to be able to do a two-hour concert.” There’s a wistful pause.

Judith Durham’s 40th Anniversary Celebration with guests, the Seekers, is at the Sydney Opera House next Saturday. Inquiries, 9250 7777.



Born July 3, 1943

Training RMIT
(secretarial studies) and the Melbourne Conservatorium (classical piano).

Career highlights The Seekers were the first Australian group to hit No. 1 internationally. They also hold the Australian record for size of audience at a concert (200,000 people – then one-tenth of Melbourne’s population – at the Myer Music Bowl in 1966).

First published in The Age.