HOLLYWOOD — Fifty years ago, The Seekers were a pop music sensation. Yet despite the world chart-topping success of the '60s Aussie band, 1967 marked the only time the original group members Athol Guy, Keith Potger, Bruce Woodley and lead vocalist Judith Durham would tour the United States.
The hectic tour — some two dozen engagements largely at college campuses and a couple of TV appearances — lasted from late September to early November.
"Even though we were major stars in the UK, we were signed to a booking agency that handled theatrical acts, so we were in situations where we had to sign for extended seasons," recalled Durham from her home in Melbourne. "There never seemed to be any time to tour the U.S. as major names.
Nevertheless, the group's pop-folk fusion proved popular in America and their hit, "Georgy Girl," was a nominee at the 1967 Oscar ceremony for "Best Song" for the film of the same name.
"We were invited to go to the awards ceremony and sing the song. But our management insisted that we honor our commitment to, of all things, a pantomime season in Bristol (UK)! We were all so terribly disappointed."
The film, which lost to "Born Free," starred Lynn Redgrave in the part of Georgy, a young girl with musical talent grappling with her image as she attempts to discover herself in London's swinging '60s.
"The song was a perfect fit (for the movie)," noted Durham. "It was a very low-key black and white British film, but I really loved it. I could really identify with the Georgy character. Tom Springfield and Jim Dale's song has come to have more and more meaning to me over the years."
The Seekers had burst onto the world music scene just 2 years earlier with their 1965 hit "I'll Never Find Another You," but Durham struggled with the sudden celebrity status.
"I was suddenly thrust into the international spotlight and found myself inadvertently in competition with the glamorous UK stars of the period — Dusty Springfield, Sandie Shaw, Lulu, Twiggy. I was a 20-year-old girl who worked by day as a secretary, and I weighed more than 10 stone (140-lbs at 5'2"). Those girls were "real" stars to me — slim, pretty, and wearing beautiful clothes. I sewed my own frocks for TV shows and performances. I didn't feel I was glamorous enough to be the pop star I was being projected as. It caused a lot of anxiety for me for the first two or three years."
From 1965 to 1968, The Seekers' sound enchanted the pop music world with a string of hits including "A World of Our Own," "Someday, One Day," "The Carnival Is Over," and several albums (see theseekers.com.au). As 1967 drew to a close, the group was as popular as ever and pressure on the lead singer continued to mount.
"My workload was far greater than the boys in those years," she said. "I was the focal point of the group, so the media focus was always on me. We worked constantly for four years and when we weren't doing seasons of tours, we were in the recording studio. It was exhausting." So, in July 1968, she parted ways with The Seekers to pursue her own career (see judithdurham.com).
With her departure, The Seekers disbanded. The group reformed over the years with various replacement lead vocalists, while Durham focused on her solo career. Enviably, however, the group's enduring popularity led to several reunions of the original ensemble.
"In 1992, 24 years after the group split up in 1968, we finally all got together in one room for a restaurant meal," recalled Durham. "We talked vaguely about doing a one-off concert the following year to mark the 25-year anniversary, but it turned into a full-scale 110-date sold-out tour."
Reuniting with The Seekers meant putting her 25-year solo career on hold, but Durham felt compelled. "I wanted to do it for the group's fans, who had remained so loyal for so long, and who had never stopped pleading with us to come back. What I didn't realize was that it would become an on-again, off-again situation for another 25 years!"
But four years ago, tragedy struck.
"We were still performing by the time our 50th anniversary rolled around. During a sell-out Australian tour as part of our Golden Jubilee in 2013, I suffered a brain hemorrhage after the first of four nights in Melbourne."
Durham was in hospital and rehab for six months and her recovery is still continuing, but the group eventually completed tours of New Zealand and the UK.
"That was a difficult time," she admitted. "I had problems finding the words I needed in conversation, and still do to a certain extent. I effectively had to learn to write again. But my long-term memory wasn't affected, so I had no problem remembering things like lyrics. And thankfully, my voice wasn't affected in any way."
And what a voice it is! Elton John once compared it to legends such as Karen Carpenter, calling it "the purest voice in popular music." And from the other side of the musical spectrum, Dutch violinist and conductor Andr Rieu characterized it as "very unique, individual, and powerful about the way in which it affected me."
"I didn't ever have singing lessons," said Durham. "My mother told me that from the age of about 2 I was singing in perfect tune."
Looking back on the past 50 years, Durham — who turns 75 next July — has continued to forge ahead through the good times and the bad.
"Even though age and illness have slowed me down some, I still crave creative stimulation," she said. "I hope I can still absorb myself in those pursuits until it's time to go."
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala, and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 650 newspapers and magazines. See tinseltowntalks.com