The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Judith Durham, who sang with Australia’s the Seekers, dies at 79

She and her quartet were an international phenomenon in the 1960s. Her admirers included Elton John, who once said she had ‘the purest voice in popular music.’

Singer Judith Durham in 1965 with other members of the Seekers. From left are Keith Potger, Athol Guy and Bruce Woodley. (AP)

A classically trained singer and pianist, Judith Durham had always been more interested in jazz than folk music. But at age 19, while working as a secretary at an advertising firm in Melbourne, Australia, and trying to launch a recording career on the side, she was invited by a colleague to sing with his folk-pop trio, the Seekers. She soon found herself onstage at the Treble Clef bar and cafe, harmonizing with the band on folk songs like “Down by the Riverside” and “Banks of the Ohio.”

As Ms. Durham told it, she was never officially invited to join the group. But in 1964, a little more than a year after she started sitting in with the musicians, they asked if she “wanted to go overseas.” The group had been hired to sing on an ocean liner bound for England. It seemed like a nice adventure, she thought, so she put her jazz ambitions on hold and tagged along with her three singing friends.

The voyage propelled Ms. Durham and the band to the top of the pop charts and, somewhat to her dismay, the center of swinging London. Soon after the Seekers arrived in England, they were discovered by a promoter and ushered into a recording studio, where Ms. Durham’s luminous soprano elevated songs like “I’ll Never Find Another You,” “The Carnival Is Over” and “Georgy Girl.” “I was shy,” she told a reporter decades later, “but when I sang I felt really empowered.”

Her death, on Aug. 5 at age 79, silenced what Elton John once described as “the purest voice in popular music,” which Ms. Durham unleashed in songs by the Seekers and later in her own decades-long career as a solo artist. The cause was complications from a chronic lung disease, according to a statement from Universal Music Australia and the record label Musicoast, which said she died in palliative care after being hospitalized in Melbourne.

For a few years in the mid-1960s, the Seekers were an international phenomenon, rivaling the Beatles in popularity and selling more than 50 million records. With their powerful harmonies and wistful lyrics about love and romance, the group was a gentle alternative to rock bands like the Rolling Stones and the Who. Folksier than most pop acts, poppier than most folk groups, they cultivated a clean-cut image that stood out in swinging London, where Ms. Durham avoided the club scene and spurned psychedelic prints in favor of more traditional A-line skirts.

Although she was dwarfed by her bandmates (she stood 5-foot-2), she emerged as the group’s focal point, winning over audiences with “her vulnerability and lack of pretension,” wrote culture critic Clive Davis, reviewing one of the band’s 1996 reunion concerts for the Times of London. “Shy and even gauche at times, Durham shares Barbara Dickson’s reserve, as well as her purity of diction,” he added. “She wants us to know that it is the song that matters, not the star.”

Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese called Ms. Durham “a national treasure and an Australian icon,” saying in a tweet after her death that she “gave voice to a new strand of our identity and helped blaze a trail for a new generation of Aussie artists.”

In England, the Seekers linked up with songwriter and producer Tom Springfield, the brother of English singer Dusty Springfield, climbing to the top of the British and Australian pop charts with their 1964 single “I’ll Never Find Another You,” which reached No. 4 in the United States. In 1966, they had their biggest American hit with “Georgy Girl,” the upbeat title song for a British film starring Lynn Redgrave, Alan Bates and James Mason. The song reached No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100, behind only “I’m a Believer” by the Monkees, and was nominated for an Academy Award.

The group’s other hits included “A World of Our Own,” “Someday, One Day,” “Morningtown Ride,” and “The Carnival Is Over,” which topped the pop charts in Britain and Australia and was based on a 19th-century Russian folk tune. When the Seekers returned to Australia in 1967, their performance at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl in Melbourne drew 200,000 people, setting a new attendance record for a concert in the Southern Hemisphere.

“When I saw that sea of people,” Ms. Durham recalled, according to the Melbourne Herald Sun, “I almost died of fright.”

Although she usually seemed serene during performances, Ms. Durham said she had battled anxiety and self-doubt since she was a teenager. “I was a very complex-ridden, worried, self-conscious and tense person,” she told the Daily Mail in 1996. “I found my world with the Seekers superficial and single-track. I enjoyed singing, but I felt like a bird in a cage.” She left the band in 1968 to focus on her own music, releasing solo albums and embarking on a spiritual journey that led her to meditate two hours a day. She often spoke about her belief in reincarnation and “the law of karma.”

“I don’t push my beliefs down people’s throats,” she said in a 1994 interview with the Age, a Melbourne daily. “That side of things can be over-commercialized and cheapened if it becomes too transparent. [But] I can’t imagine what it must be like to go on in life not believing what I believe. It gives me a purpose and a direction in life, and that is my life’s focus.”

Judith Mavis Cock was born in Essendon, a Melbourne suburb, on July 3, 1943. Her father was a military aviator during World War II who later worked as a sales manager for an electrical company. Her mother struggled with asthma — Ms. Durham was also sickly as a child, diagnosed with the lung condition bronchiectasis — but often joined in family gatherings around the piano, where Ms. Durham and her older sister sang Bing Crosby songs and other pop standards.

Ms. Durham started taking piano lessons at age 6 and later studied at Ruyton, a girls’ day school near Melbourne. She was working at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency when she met Athol Guy, an account executive who played the double bass and invited her to sit in with the Seekers. The group also included his former high school classmates Keith Potger and Bruce Woodley, who both sang and played guitar. By then, Ms. Durham had started performing using her mother’s maiden name.

In 1969, she married Ron Edgeworth, a British pianist and musical director. They performed together in small theaters and cabarets before settling in Queensland, in northeastern Australia. In 1990, they were in a car that collided head-on with another vehicle near Melbourne. The driver of the other car was killed, and Ms. Durham was hospitalized for several months with leg, arm and collarbone fractures.

Ms. Durham said the car crash spurred a reckoning with her own mortality, and inspired her to reunite with her old bandmates in the Seekers, who had previously performed in her absence with singers including Julie Anthony and Karen Knowles.

While they were preparing for an Australian concert tour, her husband was diagnosed with motor neuron disease, a degenerative disorder. He died in 1994.

“I regard everything that happens to me as part of my destiny,” Ms. Durham told the Daily Mail. “I always try to look for the best in things. It’s something Ron and I based our lives upon and, when difficult events came along, our belief in reincarnation made it easier for us.” Survivors include her sister, Beverley Sheehan, a fellow singer.

Ms. Durham continued to perform with the Seekers over the next two decades, touring across Australia and Europe. She and her bandmates were appointed Officers of the Order of Australia in 2014, the year after she suffered a stroke that affected her ability to read and write but not to sing. She felt a sense of responsibility, she said, “to give people joy” through music.

“As time has gone on, the music seemed to be very valuable,” she told the Age in 1997, looking back on her earlier hits with the Seekers. “Today’s music seems to lead to a lot of depression. … There is something about the harmonies of the Seekers. It seems to be infectious.”