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Little, Jimmy (1937–2012)

by Frances Peters-Little

This article was published:

Jimmy Little, performing at Corroboree 2000, by Loui Seselja

Jimmy Little, performing at Corroboree 2000, by Loui Seselja

National Library of Australia, 24523705

James Oswald Little (1937–2012), widely known as Jimmy Little, was a singer, musician, and philanthropist. He was born on 1 March 1937 at Cummeragunja Aboriginal mission, eldest of five surviving children of Yuin Monaro man James Edward Little, entertainer and gum leaf band musician, and his Yorta Yorta wife Frances McGee, a chorister. Jimmy left school at thirteen, the year his mother died, and joined his father bean picking on the south coast of New South Wales. He performed at local concerts and entered local talent quests, gaining in experience and confidence, before winning second prize on Australia’s Amateur Hour radio talent show on radio 2GB, Sydney, in 1953.

Influenced by American singers Nat King Cole, Johnny Mathis, and Jim Reeves, Little had a smooth style and mellifluous voice that earned him the nickname ‘The Honey Voice.’ In 1956 he gained a recording contract with Regal Zonophone (later EMI Records) and released his first single ‘Mysteries of Life/Heartbreak Waltz.’ He married Marjorie Rose Peters on 19 August 1957 at St Peter’s Anglican Church, Walgett. Over the next two years he recorded sixteen tracks, sometimes with the guitarist Pat Ware, including ‘Give the Coloured Lad a Chance,’ a protest song with the lyrics written by his father, and ‘Frances Claire,’ which he wrote about his newborn daughter.

Little signed with Festival Records and had his first charting single, ‘Danny Boy,’ in 1959. The ballad’s ‘warm sincerity [and] high degree of feeling’ (Australian Women's Weekly 1959, 7) saw it reach No. 9 in the Sydney charts. He played the part of Johnny the stock boy in Billy Graham’s feature film Shadow of the Boomerang that year. His next single, ‘El Paso,’ reached No. 12 in Sydney and No. 6 in Adelaide in 1960. A frequent guest on Channel 9’s Bandstand in 1961, he signed a contract with Channel 7 and occasionally appeared on Johnny O’Keefe’s variety show Six O’Clock Rock with fellow artists such as the Bee Gees, Noeleen Batley, Rob E. G. (Robie Porter), Lonnie Lee (David Laurence Rix), Patsy Ann Noble, Col Joye, Little Pattie (Patricia Amphlett), Judy Stone, and his entertainer brother Fred Little.

In 1962, with Ted Quigg, Little co-founded the All Coloured Show, a touring revue featuring Aboriginal artists, including his brother Fred, Colin Hardy, Claude ‘Candy’ Williams, Betty Fisher, and Noel Stanley. The revue performed at hotels and clubs across New South Wales that otherwise banned Aboriginal people from their premises or cordoned them off in separate areas. Little and his bandmates performed in such venues in the hope of changing racist attitudes. By the end of 1963, all their shows were booked out and people flocked to see them. Little had recorded his most successful 1960s hit, ‘Royal Telephone,’ a gospel song originally recorded by Burl Ives, in October that year. It reached No. 1 in Sydney and No. 3 in Melbourne, earning the singer three gold records. His next charting song, ‘One Road,’ penned by Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, reached No. 19 in Sydney and No. 30 in Melbourne. Gibb was seventeen years old when he wrote the song, and Little was one of the first artists to record a Gibb composition. The following year Everybody's magazine named Little Australian pop star of the year. He continued to appear with the All Coloured Show until it wound down in the early 1970s.

With Gamilaraay men Cyril Green, Doug Peters, and Max Kim, who was replaced by Neville Thorne, Little formed his own band, the Jimmy Little Trio, in the mid-1960s. The trio recorded two albums, Jimmy Little Sings Country and Western Greats (1965) and Country Boy, Country Hits (1968), making it one of the first all-Aboriginal commercial recording bands. Little was by then ‘one of Australia’s busiest TV personalities’ (Australian Women’s Weekly 1963, 12) and he used his celebrity to campaign for Aboriginal rights, appearing on radio; television, as a presenter in the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s ground-breaking documentary about the living conditions of Aboriginal people A Changing Race; and film to inform Aboriginal people of their rights to join the electoral roll and vote.

In 1968 Little compered and performed at a debutante ball organised by the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs (FAA) at which twenty-five young Aboriginal women were presented to Prime Minister (Sir) John Gorton. Held at the Sydney Town Hall, the gala event was attended by more than a thousand people. The FAA had been formed in 1964 to help Aboriginal people relocate to Sydney and find jobs and housing. Much of its activity centred on raising money through weekly talent quests, the sale of Aboriginal artefacts and art, and the running of a coffee shop on George Street, Sydney, which Little sometimes managed. Little became president of the FAA in 1970, replacing Lawrence McDermott, lord mayor of Sydney. Two other executive positions, formerly held by non-Aboriginal people, went to Aboriginal people at the same time: Pastor David Kirk was elected chairman and Lynn Thompson secretary. This represented an important step in the push for Aboriginal-controlled organisations. Little also became inaugural president of the Koori United rugby league team in 1970, an integral part of the NSW Koori Rugby League Knockout Carnival that would become one of the largest annual Indigenous gatherings in Australia.

Little recorded twenty-eight long-playing and eighteen extended-play records during his time with Festival Records, his musical style varying from gospel to ballads, country to reggae. He had a country music hit in 1974 with ‘Baby Blue,’ previously recorded by the George Baker Selection, a rock band from the Netherlands. In 1982 he recorded a version of the Jamaican reggae group Toots and the Maytals’ ‘Beautiful Woman.’ Festival Records released him from his contract that year, after which Little concentrated on live performances in nightclubs. However, clubs and hotels were offering less live entertainment and he found it difficult to get work. This ‘jolt to [his] security’ (Little 2003) forced him to seek work elsewhere. His grandson, James Henry, had been born in 1979 and Little and his wife Marjorie helped to raise him.

In 1985 Little began working with the renowned Aboriginal playwright Robert Merritt at the Eora Centre (later Eora College), mentoring Indigenous music students. He was invited by Carole Johnson, a choreographer and graduate of the Juilliard School, New York, to sit on the board of the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association Dance College in 1987. The following year he served as joint artistic director of the Festival of Pacific Arts. Returning to acting, he was cast in two theatrical productions—Michelle Harrison’s Black Cockatoos (1989) and Black Mary (1997) by Julie Janson—and several films, including Tracy Moffatt’s Night Cries (1990), Wim Wenders’s Until the End of the World (1991), Paul Fenech’s Somewhere in the Darkness (1999), and Kevin Lucas’s musical drama Black River (1993).

Little returned full time to music in 1995, recording his Yorta Yorta Man compact disc at Monitor Records, Tamworth. The album was named after his autobiographical song of the same name, and featured songs by Australian artists such as James Blundell. Four of the fourteen tracks were written by Little, ‘Yorta Yorta Man,’ ‘Nobody Else,’ ‘Ngalareen,’ and ‘Australia Downunder’; the last was co-written with Marjorie. Later that year the singer Brendan Gallagher found Little performing to a noisy room of patrons at the Clock Hotel, Surry Hills, Sydney. Gallagher had long dreamed of producing an album of 1980s hits by Australian artists; he just needed the right singer. Little’s versatility made him the perfect choice. Four years later, Messenger was born out of the bedroom studio of Gallagher’s Bondi flat. The album earned Little two Deadly awards (best male artist and best single release) and an Australian Recording Industry Association (ARIA) award (best adult contemporary album) in 1999, and introduced him to a new, younger audience. He was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame that year. In 2001 Messenger was certified by ARIA for a gold record, Little’s first since 1964. He spent the next two years touring Australia and making guest appearances at music festivals and television. Three more albums followed: Resonate, produced in 2001 by Daniel Denholm with tracks written by Paul Kelly, Bernard Fanning, Brendan Gallagher, and Little’s daughter Frances Peters-Little; Down the Road, which was co-written by Don Walker and Troy Cassar-Daley and produced in 2003 by Little’s manager and drummer for the Angels, Graham Bidstrup; and Life’s What You Make It, produced by Brendan Gallagher in 2004. Little also covered songs that were previously recorded by well-known overseas artists such as the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, U2, PJ Harvey, Neil Young, Brian Wilson, Elvis Costello, and Bruce Springsteen.

The Commonwealth Department of Education, Science, and Training selected Little to promote its National Indigenous English Literacy and Numeracy Strategy in 2001. One of sixteen ambassadors for the program, he toured schools, encouraging Indigenous students to attend regularly and improve their health and fitness. Two years later he won the Australia Council for the Arts’ lifetime achievement Red Ochre award and, jointly, the Australian Entertainment ‘Mo’ Awards classic rock performer of the year; he had won the ‘Mo’ Awards John Campbell fellowship in 1997. His ‘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’ (Commonwealth of Australia Gazette 2004, 1) was recognised in 2004 when he was appointed AO. Other honours followed, including National Living Treasure (2004); honorary doctorates in music from the University of Sydney, Queensland University of Technology, and Australian Catholic University; the Australasian Performing Arts Association’s Ted Albert award (2010); and the Golden Guitar for lifetime achievement at the Australian Country Music Awards (2011).

Gentle, patient, and charming, Little spent many hours visiting and performing privately for people in aged care homes and hospitals. He cared for Marjorie after she became seriously ill with asthma and diabetes in the 1990s. His own health deteriorated during the early 2000s and he was diagnosed with kidney failure in 2004. After receiving a life-saving kidney transplant, he launched the Jimmy Little Foundation to help other Indigenous people with kidney disease. In failing health, Little retired from the music industry in 2010, although he continued an active involvement in his foundation until Marjorie died in July 2011. Little died of heart failure at his home at Dubbo just eight months later on 2 April 2012, survived by his daughter and grandson. Following a private service, he was buried at Walgett. In May 2012 the family was offered a State memorial service, which was held at the Sydney Opera House. In his own words Little hoped to be remembered ‘as a nice person who was fair-minded and had a bit of talent that [got] put … to good use’ (Little quoted in Gearin 2012, n.p.). His foundation, now managed by his daughter, stands as testament to this hope. In 2020 the Walgett Shire Council erected a 315 square metre mural of Little on the town’s water tower as part of the Australian silo art trail.

Frances Peters-Little is a Yuwaalaraay/Gamilaraay woman. She is the daughter of Jimmy Little.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Women’s Weekly. ‘A Little Who May Go a Long Way’ and ‘Listen Here.’ 16 September 1959, 7
  • Australian Women’s Weekly. ‘Revue is Truly All-Australian.’ 17 July 1963, 12
  • Commonwealth of Australia Gazette. ‘Australia Day 2004 Honours.’ 26 January 2004, 1
  • Gearin, Mary. ‘Jimmy Little Passes Away but Leaves Strong Legacy.’ 7.30 Report, 2 April 2012. Transcript. https://www.abc.net.au/7.30/jimmy-little-passes-away-but-leaves-strong-legacy/3928292
  • Little, Jimmy. Interview by the author, 2003
  • Personal knowledge of IADB subject
  • Riverine Herald. ‘New Role for Jimmy.’ 15 June 2001, 11

Additional Resources

Citation details

Frances Peters-Little, 'Little, Jimmy (1937–2012)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/little-jimmy-31046/text38418, published online 2021, accessed online 23 September 2021.

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