Uncle JIMMY LITTLE was a genuinely lovely soul who loomed large in Australian popular music history. The first indigenous singer to have a Top 10 hit died yesterday after a long illness, aged 75. He was a universally loved figure among Aboriginal people and in the wider Australian public.
Little was a warm and gentle person who was born at the Cummeragunja Mission outside Barmah on the banks of the Murray River. As a young man, he moved to Sydney to further his musical career. His natural, warm singing voice was perfect for the times. He was a consummate mellow balladeer who was often favourably compared to both Nat King Cole and the smooth US country crossover singer Jim Reeves.
Little’s period of greatest success occurred between 1959 and 1964 when he scored minor hits with Danny Boy (1959) and a cover version of Marty Robbins’s El Paso (1960); he became the first Aboriginal musician to have a nationwide No.1 hit, in 1963 with the country gospel song Royal Telephone; and enjoyed Top 20 success in 1964 with the Barry Gibb-written song One Road.
Little’s success with Royal Telephone occurred four years before the 1967 referendum that amended references to Aboriginal people in the constitution. He was a successful indigenous musician at a time when Aborigines had few rights.
Little continued to perform mostly to country music and indigenous audiences. He was a regular at the Tamworth Country Music Festival and was often in demand as an actor. He appeared in Shadow of the Boomerang in 1960 and in Wim Wenders’s Until the End of the World in 1991. He seemed to be little more than a footnote in Australian music until, to the surprise of many, he went into the studio in 1999 and recorded the successful Messenger album on which he recorded highly original versions of Australian songs from the 1980s which had been hits for, among others, the Church, Crowded House, Paul Kelly, Ed Kuepper and Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.
Little was at core a decent man who was widely respected within the Aboriginal community. He worked tirelessly to improve Aboriginal literacy and was always available to add his musical voice to any worthy Aboriginal cause. After being diagnosed with kidney failure in 2004, he established the Jimmy Little Foundation to help deal with kidney disease among indigenous people.
Little had been battling ill health and complications for a decade. He died at home in Dubbo.