• Much loved Aboriginal Singer Uncle Jimmy Little AO. (Facebook)Source: Facebook
On what would have been his 80th birthday, today NITV remembers the much loved singer, actor and advocate of the Yorta Yorta/Yuin people, James Oswald "Jimmy" Little, AO.
Emily Nicol

1 Mar 2017 - 7:58 PM  UPDATED 2 Mar 2017 - 12:09 AM

Born March 1, 1937 Uncle Jimmy Little, the eldest of seven children, was raised in NSW on the Cummeragunja Mission.

 His father, James Little Sr of the Yuin nation was a a tap dancer, comedian, musician and singer who led his own vaudeville troupe during the 30's & 40's and his mother, Frances, a Yorta Yorta woman was a singer and yodeller who was also a part of the troupe.  Reflecting later in life, Little told ABC's Talking Heads program in 2005,"[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".

Picking up a guitar at the age of 13, Little took to the craft swiftly and within a year was playing at local concerts. The decision was then made to make the permanent move to Sydney in 1955 to pursue a career in country music and by 1956 Little was signed to Regal Zonophone Records and recorded his first single 'Mysteries of Life'/'Heartbreak Waltz'.  He was influenced by Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis and Jim Reeves. With a similarly smooth style, Little earned the nicknames 'The Honey Voice' and 'Gentleman Jim'. 

In 1959 Little married fellow singer Marjorie Rose Peters and shortly after their daughter, Frances Claire was born. When Frances was 18 months old, Little wrote a song for his only daughter which was released as a single through EMI. His first charting single 'Danny Boy'  came in 1959, whilst signed with Festival Records, peaking at #9 in Sydney charts. Further charting hits followed, including 'El Paso' until October 1963 when issued his biggest hit with the cover of gospel song 'Royal Telephone', reaching #1 in Sydney and #3 in Melbourne charts. The chart topper was the first song by an Indigenous performer to top the mainstream charts and also become a hit with white audience.

Little's former music manager Graham 'Bizz' Bidstrup, speaking to the ABC said that this was an interesting time for the singer, who was having great success during a time when Aboriginal peoples were not even recognised as citizens.

"He was going to play in places where they would tell him that he had to walk in the back door," Bidstrup said.

In the July 1963 edition of 'Young Modern' , responding to remarks about the political climate in both the US and at home in Australia, Little said, "​I [walked] forward into the world and I found that music… is the best way of expressing myself… as the universal language of this country [and] the world over. If felt if I can communicate between… peoples, I could perhaps set a small example…for the world around us."

​I [walked] forward into the world and I found that music… is the best way of expressing myself… as the universal language of this country [and] the world over. If felt if I can communicate between… peoples, I could perhaps set a small example…for the world around us.

Little continued to release charting songs including the Barry Gibb penned 'One Road', becoming among the first of many artists to record a Gibb song. Little ventured in to other areas of performing, making his screen debut in 1960 in evangelical feature film Shadow of the Boomerang, and this passion for performing continued right up through to to the 90's and included features in theatre and film. By the end of the 70's Jimmy Little decided to focus more on family and teaching and moved away from music.  

Little's only grandson, James Henry, a talented photographer, singer/songwriter & composer , tells NITV of his fond memories and the influence his grandfather had on him. "I was raised by my grandparents, I called them Mum and Dad - though even though he was my grandfather, he wasn’t that much older than me..he had his daughter, my mother (Frances) at an early age and she had me at an early age so he really did feel like a father. "

 " As much as I remember learning chords on the guitar from him, I also remember him taking me down to the park to play a bit of cricket or kick the footy around, go fishing."

Little was a huge football fan, having been a sportsman in his younger years and Henry remembers times shared with him at Leichardt Oval supporting his beloved Balmain Tigers, now Wests Tigers. "Quite often we would also go down to Chinatown, a particular Vietnamese place - there was a special soup that he loved and I knew that he was in his happy place when he was down at that restaurant."

A storyteller with a special way with words, one can imagine Little passing on gems of advice to his family but it was more visceral for Henry.  "There were times when we'd go fishing and go for a walk, and during that alone time he was able to impart some knowledge, though as much as what he told me through words, I also learnt through his example. He was loved and admired for his music, just as much as he was for his gentle nature and personality."

Henry recalls when Little was recognised by fans, he always gave a lot of time."In the relatively small amount of time he spoke to people he understood that having a chance to meet him and share appreciation of his music was special."

Henry recently got a bunch of old albums of Little's from Ebay and is getting acquainted with the grandfather who was of an age at the time of recording that he wasn't around to know. He also performs his songs during his own  live performances. "Still now, I hear stories from people, it's another way it keeps him alive knowing how much he was appreciated."

ARIA Award winning singer & multi-instrumentalist Brendan Gallagher worked closely with Little during a time when Little was getting back in to the music scene. The result was the ARIA Award winning album Messenger, a collection of contemporary songs that both he and Little worked on reproducing with their trademark styles. Gallagher had first seen Little play at an Indigenous music event organised by Bob Maza. "He was incredible, with such stage presence and a beautiful falsetto."

"There was a particular song, 'Quasimodo's Dream', that I had always wanted to reinterpret in a 6/8 waltz and when I saw him singing I thought, that's the guy who could sing it." Gallagher introduced himself after the show and the pair exchanged numbers. " I thought, if we could do that song, then maybe we could do others. So I rang Jimmy up and went over to his place and sat down and had a chat. That's how it all started."

The recording process was very simple and casual and Gallagher remembers LIttle as being a very talented but also special person. "He had great patience and he was very good at making people feel relaxed. His stage skills were pretty amazing. I'd seen him over the years and he had this innate skill to walk in to a room and shine -everyone knew a star was in the room. He could make everyone feel at ease and win them over very quickly, even before he opened his mouth.

He had this innate skill to walk in to a room and shine -everyone knew a star was in the room. He could make everyone feel at ease and win them over very quickly, even before he opened his mouth.

"He could really disarm, charm anybody. It was quite a skill. I picked up a few things from him. One was to always listen, and pick up pointers. I learnt a lot from him about being a human being; really, 'cause Jimmy was a pretty marvellous human being. I don't think i ever saw him angry. He could make you feel like the most special person in the room. (Little) was awesomely talented, with the most beautiful voice, a real pro and tenaciously determined. Jimmy Little didn't become famous just by someone shining a light through his door, he went after it and he pursued his dream. As he used to say his voice was his magic carpet that took him everywhere."

After Messenger,  Little went on to record several more albums alongside artists such as Paul Kelly, Bernard Fanning & Dave Graney. in 2004, he released his 34th album Life's What You Make It, a collection of songs by a range of contemporary artists such as the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen. 

Also widely acknowledged in the community for his mentoring and outreach work, Little was known as a 'Living National Treasure' and in 2004 was made an Officer of the Order of Australia  "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."

The Jimmy Little Foundation was set up to continue the efforts to improve the quality of life for Indigenous Australians. In 1990 Little was diagnosed with kidney disease, which progressed to kidney failure and the development of Type II diabetes.  "Unfortunately, I didn't get check-ups often enough or soon enough to realise the possibility that my kidneys could fail". The foundation was set up to help fellow Indigenous men and women have more positive health outcomes. “I have seen too much fear & sadness caused by the early death & suffering from potentially preventable chronic illnesses by my Indigenous brothers & sisters. So I started The Jimmy Little Foundation to do something positive to curb the rate of chronic disease. Our goal is to promote a healthier future for Indigenous Australians and I hope you will join us to help realise our dream." Jimmy stated.  On 2 April 2012 Little died at his home in Dubbo, aged 75 years.