Jimmy Little: Aboriginal pop star and health advocate

 

He was known as "the gentleman of Australian music". Everyone loved Jimmy Little, for he was not only prodigiously talented, but a person of uncommon warmth. During a career spanning nearly 60 years, Little produced a string of hits, including the first No 1 by an Aboriginal artist, and also acted in plays and films. He became involved in indigenous education and set up the Jimmy Little Foundation to promote better health in remote communities.

His first chart success – a cover version of "Danny Boy" – came in 1959, three years before Australian Aborigines were given the vote. During his early touring days, some publicans tried to make him enter through the back door. Fellow band members insisted that he be treated with respect, and local townspeople often supported them.

The man dubbed the "honey voice" because of his smooth baritone was born on 1 March 1937 at a Christian mission by the Murray River, near the border of New South Wales and Victoria. The oldest of seven children, James Oswald Little came from a show business family. His father was a tap dancer, comedian and musician; his mother was a singer and yodeller.

By the age of 16, Little was winning talent contests; in 1955, at 18, he moved to Sydney, hoping to become a country singer. He released his first single, "Mysteries of Life", a year later. But it was the gospel-tinged "Royal Telephone", recorded in 1963, which made him a household name and brought him chart-topping success. No indigenous musician had even reached the top 10 before.

With his sweet, mellow voice, Little was often compared with Nat King Cole and Jim Reeves. He was also an accomplished performer, always impeccably turned out in tailored suits. "His voice was velvet," said Martin Erdman, an Australian producer. "Everyone felt he was performing to them one to one... But he could excite large crowds like very few performers could."

Little – who married Marjorie "Marj" Rose Peters in 1956, remaining devoted to her until her death last year – followed "Royal Telephone" up with "One Road", written for him by Barry Gibb. That was a top 20 hit, while a 1974 song, "Baby Blue", reached the top 10.

The 1970s, though, were a time of political and social upheaval, including the start of the Aboriginal people's fight for land rights. Little's easy-listening music became less popular – and he was denounced by some for not joining the street protests. He retorted: "Don't mistake kindness and gentleness for weakness."

Little began touring less, instead focusing on activities outside of music. During the 1980s he mentored young indigenous people at a community education centre in Redfern, in inner-city Sydney, and visited outback communities to promote literacy and numeracy.

Little also acted, appearing in an Australian play, Black Cockatoos, about the relationship between a white woman and an Aboriginal man, and in an opera, Black River. He had a role in Wim Wenders' 1991 film Until the End of the World, and received numerous accolades and awards, including entry into the ARIA (Australian Record Industry Association) Hall of Fame in 1999.

That year, at the age of 62, he released an album, Messenger, featuring his interpretation of classic Australian rock songs by the likes of Crowded House, Nick Cave and Paul Kelly. Messenger, which sold more than 20,000 copies, revived his career, winning the ARIA award for best contemporary album and bringing his music to a new generation.

In 2001 he recorded a duet with Kylie Minogue, "Bury Me Deep in Love", and in 2004 he was made an officer of the Order of Australia. That year, he released Life's What You Make It, with covers of songs by foreign artists including Elvis Costello, U2 and Red Hot Chili Peppers. Ill-health, though, was starting to slow him down. In 2004 he was diagnosed with kidney failure and went on to dialysis, receiving a kidney transplant two years later.

Aboriginal people suffer high rates of diabetes and kidney disease, and Little's experience inspired him to set up the Jimmy Little Foundation to raise money and advocate for better health education and services.

Little was much loved, by Aboriginal people and the wider public. "[He] was the sweetest man I ever met," said Brendan Gallagher, who produced Messenger. "He was a natural prince – generous, humble, funny, outrageously talented and ferociously determined."

James Oswald Little, musician, teacher and health advocate: born Cummeragunja Mission, Victoria 1 March 1937; married 1956 Marjorie "Marj" Rose Peters (one daughter); died Dubbo, New South Wales 2 April 2012.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Life and Style
fashionHealth concerns and 'pornified' perceptions have made women more conscious at the beach
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Sport
Ojo Onaolapo celebrates winning the bronze medal
commonwealth games
Arts and Entertainment
Rock band Led Zeppelin in the early 1970s
musicLed Zeppelin to release alternative Stairway To Heaven after 43 years
Arts and Entertainment
High-flyer: Chris Pratt in 'Guardians of the Galaxy'
filmHe was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
Sport
Van Gaal said that his challenge in taking over Bobby Robson's Barcelona team in 1993 has been easier than the task of resurrecting the current United side
footballA colourful discussion on tactics, the merits of the English footballer and rebuilding Manchester United
Life and Style
Sainsbury's could roll the lorries out across its whole fleet if they are successful
tech
Travel
The shipping news: a typical Snoozebox construction
travelSpending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Tracey Emin's 'My Bed' is returning to the Tate more than 15 years after it first caused shockwaves at the gallery
artTracey Emin's bed returns to the Tate after record sale
Arts and Entertainment
Smart mover: Peter Bazalgette
filmHow live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences
Environment
Neil Young performing at Hyde Park, London, earlier this month
environment
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: The Organisation: The Green Recrui...

Project Manager (HR)- Bristol - Upto £400 p/day

£350 - £400 per annum + competitive: Orgtel: Project Manager (specializing in ...

Embedded Linux Engineer

£40000 - £50000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Embedded Sof...

Senior Hardware Design Engineer - Broadcast

£50000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Working for a m...

Day In a Page

Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz