Karl Quinn April 03, 2012
Jimmy Little outside his Lilyfield home in 2009. Photo: Janie Barrett
THE first time Steve Kilbey heard Jimmy Little sing Under the Milky Way, it was as if he were hearing his most famous song for the first time. "As we were playing, he walked over, looked very intensely at me and said, 'And it's something quite peculiar', like he was explaining it to me, reinterpreting my lyrics back to me,'' the frontman of The Church recalled yesterday. "It was unexpected, it was very profound, and it was f---ing funny.''
That was in 1999, when the song was among the 11 Australian indie rock classics on Little's album Messenger, a comeback of sorts for the Aboriginal musician who released his first single in 1956 and had a chart-topping hit with Royal Telephone in 1963.
The last time Kilbey played the song with Little a couple of years ago was an entirely different matter, though. "I was playing the intro on guitar, which I don't normally do,'' recalled Kilbey, whose instrument of choice is bass. "And Jimmy just kept saying hello to all his friends and relatives. It went on for about three minutes, by which time my fingers were ready to pour blood, and then he turned to me and said, 'I can't remember the words'. You could see then he wasn't going to be around for much longer.''
Yesterday, after a prolonged battle with ill health, Little died at his home in Dubbo. He was 75.
"Jimmy was the sweetest man I ever met,'' said Brendan Gallagher, who produced Messenger and Little's 2004 album Life's What You Make It. "He was a natural prince, generous, humble, funny, outrageously talented and ferociously determined.''
Graham "Buzz'' Bidstrup — former drummer with The Angels, Little's manager for 12 years and, since 2006, chief executive of the Jimmy Little Foundation — said Little's mind and spirit remained vital to the end.
"The night before he died he was sitting up in bed writing. Yesterday morning he had a piano lesson booked. He kept saying there were so much more to do with the foundation,'' Bidstrup said. "That he went quietly while he still had that much in him was kind of cool, really.''
Little was born on Cummeragunja Mission near Barmah on the Murray River. His mother's people were from Victoria, his father's from NSW.
He was a Yorta Yorta man, and proudly so, but through music he found a connection with all Australians. "Everywhere I go, I feel like a part of me is there,'' he said. "I feel the whole nation is part of my home.''
His mother was a singer and a yodeller, his father a tap dancer, comedian and musician. If there was an option to do something other than showbiz with his life, it seems no one remembered to tell Jimmy Little.
By 16, he was winning talent quests; by 19, he was releasing singles. His first hit was a cover of Danny Boy in 1959, but it was the gospel-tinged country track Royal Telephone that got him his biggest early success, peaking at No.1 in Sydney in 1963.
He continued to record until the late 1970s when, according to his official biography, he "decided to take a break to devote himself to his family''. It wasn't until 1990 that Little began to edge his way back into public life with a role in photographic artist Tracey Moffatt's short film Night Cries.
As one of the first indigenous performers to enjoy mainstream success in Australia, Little did his bit to spread the gospel of tolerance. "He paved a way, made it OK for indigenous people to have a go in music,'' said Adam James, an indigenous musician and ambassador with the Jimmy Little Foundation.
The foundation was established by Little after his kidney transplant in 2004 to advocate for better health services for indigenous communities.
Indigenous Health Minister Warren Snowdon paid tribute to that effort. "It was his work as an advocate for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health and his work on the ground, at a community level, that was truly inspirational,'' he said.
Little was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 1999. In 2004 he was made a member of the Order of Australia and granted national living treasure status.
Last year, Little's wife of 55 years, Marjorie Rose, died.
Aboriginal elder Wayne Atkinson cited one of Little's self-penned songs as a fitting marker of his passing. "Yorta Yorta Man epitomises his love for country,'' Dr Atkinson said. "He said that 'One day he would be returning, like the legend of his tribal boomerang'.
"Welcome back, and at peace Jimmy.''