Jimmy Little

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ames Oswald Little was born on 1 March 1937 and his totem is the long-necked turtle. His mother Frances, was a Yorta Yorta woman and his father, James Little Sr, was from the Yuin people. Jimmy Little Sr was a tap dancer, comedian, musician and singer who led his own vaudeville troupe along the Murray River during the 1930s and 1940sand his mother was a singer and yodeller. Jimmy grew up, as the oldest of seven children, on the Cummeragunja Mission on the Murray River in New South Wales about 30-km from Echuca in Victoria. Little later recalled his upbringing; “my parents taught me well about the value of life, freedom, love, respect, all those basic things that we need. As Vaudevillians, I loved them. It was part of my dream to follow in the footsteps of Mum and Dad. And I’m so proud that I was able to do that”. Jimmy also became a devout non-denominational Christian.

At the age of 13 Jimmy was given a guitar and within a year he was playing at local concerts. When he was 16 he travelled to Sydney to perform on a radio program, Australia’s Amateur Hour and in 1955 he left home to live in Sydney and pursue a career in country music. His influences were Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis and Jim Reeves and his mellow style earned him the nicknames of “the Balladeer”, “Gentleman Jim” and “the Honey Voice”.

By 1963 Jimmy had released 16 singles with his biggest hit being the song “Royal Telephone” which was based on the version by Burl Ives. Jimmy was also one of the first artists to record a Gibb song – “One Road.” From the end of the 1970s, Jimmy turned from his musical career to focus on his family and becoming qualified as a teacher.

By the 1980s Jimmy had turned to full-time acting, making his theatre debut in Black Cockatoos. His teaching and community work earned him the title of NAIDOC Aboriginal of the Year in 1989 and after winning this award he returned to working in the music industry.

In 1992, Jimmy released his 14th album, Yorta Yorta Man, in 1994 and in the same year, he was inducted into Tamworth’s Country Music Roll of Renown, the highest honour an Australian country music artist can achieve.

Messenger, a collection of contemporary songs reinterpreted through Little’s smooth vocals, was released in June 1999 and peaked at No. 26 nationally, selling over 20,000 copies. It had been organised by Brendan Gallagher (from Karma County) and featured covers of well-known songs by Australian artists: “(Are You) The One I’ve Been Waiting For?” by Nick Cave, “The Way I Made You Feel” by Ed Kuepper and “Randwick Bells” by Paul Kelly.

At the ARIA Music Awards of 1999 Messenger won Best Adult Contemporary Album and Little was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame. At The Deadly Awards of 1999 – the annual Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Music Awards – he won Best Male Artist of the Year and Best Single Release of the Year. By 2001 Messenger was certified by ARIA with a gold record for shipments of 35,000 units.

In 2002 Jimmy won the Golden Gospel Award at the Australian Gospel Music Awards for his lifetime support of Australian gospel music. In 2004 he released his 34th album, Life’s What You Make It, a collection of distinctive and poignant versions of songs by contemporary artists as diverse as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, U2, PJ Harvey, Neil Young, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen. In 2010 Jimmy retired from performing.

Jimmy Little died on 2 April 2012 of natural causes in Dubbo, aged 75 years.

Recognition

1997
At the 1997 Mo Awards, Jimmy was awarded the John Campbell Fellowship for “an outstanding contribution to the community beyond his normal career in the entertainment industry”.[21]

2004
On Australia Day (26 January) 2004, Jimmy was made an Officer of the Order of Australia with the citation, “For service to the entertainment industry as a singer, recording artist and songwriter and to the community through reconciliation and as an ambassador for Indigenous culture”. Also that year he was named a Living National Treasure.

2005
In June 2005, on the last day of National Reconciliation Week, Jimmy and composer Peter Sculthorpe were awarded honorary doctorates in music by the University of Sydney in recognition of “their joint contribution to reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians”.

2006
Launched the Jimmy Little Foundation in 2006 to help the many other indigenous Australians who were succumbing to kidney disease. The foundation works with patients in regional and remote Australia and partnered with the Fred Hollows Foundation in 2009 to develop a nutrition and education program for indigenous children to reduce the cycle of bad nutrition leading to diabetes which can lead to kidney failure.

2010
At the APRA Awards of 2010 Jimmy was awarded the Ted Albert Award for ‘Outstanding Services to Australian Music’. “Royal Telephone” was featured on the SBS documentary, Buried Country: The Story of Aboriginal Country Music (2000) and its accompanying CD.