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.

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