Shortcuts / 11 August 2022

Judith Durham and Olivia Newton-John

Judith Durham and Olivia Newton-John are giants of music as Aussies who made it big overseas. They died within one week of each other, and both leave huge legacies. So in this Squiz Shortcut, we get across the Australian music scene that gave them their start, the life and times of the 2 women, and what they’ll be remembered for.

Let’s go back in time…
Sure thing. So imagine we’re in post-WWII Australia in the 1950s and 60s. Go on, close your eyes… It was a period when the great Australian dream was to own a home, a Holden, and if you were doing well – the latest Victa lawnmower and Sunbeam Mixmaster.

Simpler times…
They were, but things were also starting to change. Television, for example, started broadcasting in 1956. And Australia was no different to the rest of the world, with social change on the way.

And music was changing as well…
Yep – that was at the forefront of that cultural shift. Rock n’ roll entered the fray, with Elvis making a big splash around the world. And it was The Beatles’ tour of Oz that inspired some of our homegrown talent to seek success in the UK and US.

Which both of the women we’re talking about did.

Tell me about Judith Durham…
Well, we should probably across the Seekers first. They were the first Aussie band to find major success in both the UK and the US. The supergroup’s best-known configuration was the one that achieved that – the one that had Judith Durham on vocals, piano and tambourine.

Who were the others?
Athol Guy, who was on the double bass and vocals; Keith Potger played guitar, the banjo and vocals; and Bruce Woodley was on guitar, mandolin, banjo and vocals.

So everyone was on vocals?
Yep, and that was their style – beautiful harmonies. But it was Judith’s angelic and pure voice that set them apart.

You said before that the band’s best-known configuration was the one with Durham… Were there others?
So when the Seekers originally formed, there wasn’t a female singer. The lead vocalist was a bloke named Ken Ray – he left the group to get married and his place taken by Durham.

What was her deal?
She was an established jazz singer, and at the start, she only sang with the Seekers when she wasn’t performing in jazz clubs in Melbourne. But the group grew quite a following, and Durham’s music connections got them a local recording contract.

How did they start out?
Their debut single was Waltzing Matilda… It hit #74 on the national charts in November 1964. And during that time, they took a 12-month contract as the onboard entertainment on a cruise ship called the Fairsky. That’s what took them to the UK.

What happened there?
Things started happening… The breakthrough moment was when they filled in at a concert headlined by iconic singer Dusty Springfield, where they met her brother Tom Springfield. He was a songwriter, and he penned I’ll Never Find Another You for them.

A big name – and a big song…
It sure was – it was a hit song in the UK, the US and Australia.

What made them so popular?
Their success had a lot to do with their sound – they weren’t too pop, rock, or folk. That meant they got a lot of airplay. They went on to release a string of hits, including Georgy GirlThe Carnival Is OverMorningtown Ride

So many hits… What happened next?
In 1968, Durham announced she was leaving the Seekers to pursue a solo career, and the group disbanded.

Oh no…
Don’t worry, they did ok. Probably the notable success story of that time was Keith Potger, who formed the New Seekers. They had huge success with the song I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony) – Coca-Cola picked it up and amended it to become one of the most recognisable ad campaigns of the 20th century.

I think I saw that in Mad Men
No spoilers, please… But back to the Seekers, they did get back together over the years for reunion tours. And they remained very close through all those years. 

What else was happening in her life?
She was dealing with some personal struggles. Her beloved husband Ron Edgeworth died of Motor Neurone Disease in 1994. She had a bad car accident in 1990 and a brain haemorrhage during a Seekers tour in 2013. And she had a lung condition since childhood.

How did that affect her?
It slowed her down in recent years and ultimately claimed her life.

That happened last Friday? 
That’s right – her friends were with her when she died at 79yo. And they say she wasn’t afraid of death and was grateful for the big life she lived.

Speaking of big lives, how about Olivia Newton-John…
That’s for sure. She was a beloved Aussie who holds a very special place in so many people’s lives all over the world.

Wasn’t she born in the UK?
Yes, she was born in Cambridge, but she was an Aussie… Her father, Brinley Newton-John, was an MI5 officer on the Enigma project at Bletchley Park. That means he was part of the team that broke the German codes, pretty much winning WWII.

That’s seriously impressive…
It is. He’s also said to have taken Rudolf Hess into custody – he was deputy leader of the Nazi Party.

And if you go back another generation, her maternal grandfather was Max Born, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist.

Right. So how did the family come to be in Australia?
After the war, they moved to Australia with Brinley a position as a Professor of German and Master of Ormond College at Melbourne Uni. Olivia was 6yo when they arrived here.

Was she a talented kid?
Yep – and in 1965, she won a talent contest on the TV program Sing, Sing, Sing. The prize was a trip to the UK. She was 18yo and reluctant to go, but her mother pushed her to broaden her horizons, so off she went.

What happened once she got to the UK?
She battled it out on the music scene in London and had good success there – she even represented the UK at Eurovision, competing against ABBA, who won with Waterloo. But what she really wanted was to crack the US market.

We know she did – how did it come about?
It was in 1973 with the release of her country track Let Me Be There. It even earned her a Grammy for Best Country Female, a pretty astounding achievement for an Aussie based in the UK… She then doubled down with songs like If You Love Me, Let Me Know, and then I Honestly Love You became her first country-pop song to reach #1 in the US.

She was a country music star?
Yeah, and her ability to bridge pop and country music was a big deal at the time. But there was a bit of grumbling from country purists when she was given the Country Music Association’s Female Vocalist of the Year award in 1974, beating out big names including Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton and Anne Murray.

Yeah, it was enough to get her to leave the UK for America.

And then things really took off?
They sure did – it was a chance meeting with producer Allan Carr at a dinner party hosted by another Aussie singer Helen Reddy that saw her win a starring role alongside John Travolta in the 1978’s Grease.

Huge movie…
And a huge soundtrack – and that saw Newton-John catapulted into superstardom.

What happened post-Grease?
It set her in a new musical direction and more movies, including 1980’s Xanadu. And she had a huge hit the following year with Physical, which went on to become what some rankers say was the biggest song of the decade.

What was happening in ONJ’s personal life?
She met actor Matt Lattanzi on the set of Xanadu, and the pair married in 1984. They had a child together, Chloe, and divorced in 1995.

Did she marry again?
She did, to businessman John Easterling. He’s the CEO and chairman of Amazon Herb Company, which makes medicinal botanicals. That was a big part of Newton-John’s life since she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992.

How so?
She became a big advocate for medicinal cannabis. And in 2008, the Olivia Newton-John Cancer and Wellness Centre was built in Melbourne. It focuses on cancer care complemented by wellness programs.

How did she die?
Her niece Tottie Goldsmith said her condition had deteriorated in recent times, not only due to cancer but other complications resulting from her weakened immune system. But like Durham, her family and friends say Newton-John wasn’t afraid to die. She was 73yo.

They were incredible women. 
They sure were. 

Squiz recommends:

The Seekers performing I Am Australian at the 1994 AFL grand final

One of ONJ’s classic songs from Xanadu, Magic

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