Judith Durham needed the Seekers to shine, just like Paul McCartney needed the Beatles


Archie Roach, Judith Durham, Olivia Newton-John. All gone. That’s a lot for any music fan to absorb in just a few weeks.

Curiously, their passage in such a short time has obscured the extent of each artist’s contribution and the reasons why they have touched us so deeply.

In some ways, Durham, like a neglected second child, has been the worst served.

Yes, we were told she was born in Melbourne. Yes, we now know that she sewed her own stage clothes. And of course, we were told over and over again the purity of his bell voice. But strangely, in all of this, something has been lost or forgotten.

Despite all her singing gifts, Durham was not a solo artist. At least not when it mattered most.

She was a woman leading a group. That in itself was remarkable in the 1960s. That band was The Seekers and what a band it was. Fifty million records sold testify to this.

The power of the group

Alone, Durham would have been Paul McCartney without the Beatles. Luckily, in the Seekers, she found her Xanadu.

To get a sense of the band’s majesty and groundbreaking impact, just listen to the 12-string guitar intro to the song I’ll Never Find Another You.

Recorded in 1964, the song took The Seekers to number one in Britain and number four in the US and set them on the path to success.

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From time to time in life, there are those voices that combine in a way that is not the sum of their parts: one plus one is not two, it is three. We heard it with Lennon, McCartney and Harrison. Then there’s Crosby, Stills and Nash.

To bring the example closer to home, there is the sublime sound of the Finn Brothers singing together.

When Judith Durham sang alone, she had a beautiful voice. When she performed with The Seekers, something truly amazing happened. In such a setting, her voice took on a new character, lulled and slightly tempered by the other three.

Sometimes, unless you listen carefully, you would hardly know they are there. But they were and it was the rough edge of Keith Potger, Bruce Woodley and Athol Guy that kept Durham grounded. In the folk rock sound they pioneered, there was no room for jazz pyrotechnics.

They got that swing

The vocals, however, were only part of the piece.

Ask a music critic about the band and chances are they’ll tell you they’re a bit too middle-of-the-road to be taken seriously. But how the wolf hides in sheep’s clothing.

Put aside the clean image, short hair and sports jackets, focus on the music and it’s the revolution.

The Seekers in 1965 – Athol Guy (left), Judith Durham, Bruce Woodley and Keith Potger – were a little too intermediate to be taken seriously by many music critics. But their image defied reality.(Provided: Bruce Woodley)

The Byrds made a career out of the sound of the 12-string electric guitar. The Seekers took an acoustic 12-string and applied the same principles months before the Byrds released their breakthrough single Mr Tambourine Man.

The guitar, however, and the vocals were only part of the mix. As Duke Ellington so aptly put it, “It doesn’t mean a thing if it doesn’t have that swing.”

The Seekers were able to swing and for that we can thank Athol Guy.

Standing off to the side, with his black-rimmed glasses and upright bass, he injected just the right amount of swing to elevate the songs into the stratosphere. This was the quality that Judith Durham understood. It spoke to him, and Georgy Girl is a classic example.

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The Seekers perform Georgy Girl while on tour in the 1960s.

The “fifth” seeker with a famous sister

All of this, of course, becomes meaningless if you can’t find the right material.

The third, and absolutely crucial element of Judith and the band’s greatness, are the songs they choose. They’ve sung songs from many great writers, but one name stands out.

His name is Tom Springfield. Dusty’s brother. Tom was in many ways the fifth seeker.

I’ll Never Find Another You, World of Our Own, Georgy Girl and The Carnival is Over all came from his guitar and pen. All delivered the Seekers the ammunition they needed to take on the Beatles, Stones and Kinks.

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The Seekers’ popularity was aided by the songs of Tom Springfield.(Provided)

Clever song choice that tapped into the zeitgeist

Formed in 1962 as the sixties were really starting to take off, The Seekers were largely the metaphorical children of President John F Kennedy.

In 1964, with the world still accepting his death, they began their recording career in Britain. The song they chose was I’ll Never Find Another You. Filled with the hope and promise of a new generation, it could well have been written for the president himself:

There’s a new world somewhere they call the promised land

And I’ll be there one day, if you’ll hold my hand.

Over the next four years, the band delivered a series of songs that were a delightful hybrid of musical forms defying categorization.

As music critic Ian McFarlane said, “They were too pop to be considered strictly folk and too folk to be rock.”

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Listen to Judith Durham on Conversations with Richard Fidler, recorded in 2012.

And that, of course, was their strength. The songs they sang were mostly upbeat, always emphasizing the positive. For some, it may have felt out of step with the times and yet, in hindsight, the music they offered seems entirely appropriate.

As the social experiment of the sixties continued, Britain witnessed a mass exodus of young men and women leaving the regions and coming to London. They came looking for fun and all that London had to offer.

Drawing on the spirit of the times, the group recorded a song that tells the story of a young woman struggling with the uncertainties of this new world. Basically, the song sounds with a note of sadness:

Hey, Georgy Girl swings in the street so free,

No one you’ve ever met could see the loneliness there.

But like the best songwriters, the music subverts that loneliness with its driving rhythm.

Don’t be so afraid to change and rearrange yourself,

It’s time to jump off the shelf.

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Behind the lasting influence of The Seekers, pictured here in 2019, were songs that tapped into the zeitgeist.(Australian History: Darren James Photography)

A soundtrack for the late 60s

In 1967, the group found itself in Australia. At an outdoor concert at the Myer Musical Bowl, 200,000 people came to see the band or, to put it another way, a tenth of the entire city. During this concert, the group played a song which now seems to herald the end of the sixties and the dream it had offered.

It was called the Carnival is over. Based on a Russian folk song with lyrics written by Tom Springfield, it reveals a very different quality to their earlier hits. In this song, the author admits that love and joy can in fact be fleeting and that everything may not be possible.

It would provide a fitting epitaph for the group and, indeed, for the entire generation.

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As 1967 turned into 1968, the dream of the sixties began to unravel. Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King would die at the hands of assassins. The Beatles would begin their long, slow descent, as Charles Manson roamed the hills above Los Angeles seeking followers and choosing the people he would slaughter.

The carnival was well and truly over.

Judith Durham will begin a solo career.

Led by Keith Potger, the Seekers would rise again, this time called the New Seekers. Unfortunately, however, they will never be able to bottle the magic of the original group.

It’s always interesting to think about what could have been. Without this group, Judith Durham’s farewell, you can imagine, would have been very different. Despite all his considerable gifts, his death is unlikely to have made headlines.

Cruelly, and I mean no disrespect to her, if she hadn’t been a Seeker, we may have just mourned the passing of a talented jazz singer.

Durham’s great gift was his ability, within the context of the group, to curb his considerable talent to find something far greater. Combine with three other musicians and a great songwriter to represent the rise of a dream and just as surely to chart its demise.

It was, if you think about it, quite an achievement.

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