| ||Albums: You’ll Never Walk Alone (Festival, 1960), A Tree in the Meadow (Festival, 1962), By Request (Festival, 1963), Sing to Glory (Festival, 1963), Royal Telephone (Festival, 1964), Onward Christian Soldiers (Festival, 1964), Encores (Festival, 1964), Jimmy Little Sings Country & Western Greats (Festival, 1965), 10th Anniversary (Festival, 1966), Ballads and Strings (Festival, 1967), New Songs from Jimmy Little (Festival, 1967), The Best of Jimmy Little (Festival, 1968), I Can’t Stop Loving You (Festival, 1969), Winterwood (Festival, 1972), Waltzing Matilda (Festival, 1972), Country Boy, Country Hits (Festival, 1974), The Country Sounds of Jimmy Little (Festival, 1974), All for Love (Festival, 1975), Travellin’ Minstrel Man (Festival, 1976), The Best of Jimmy Little (Festival, 1977), 20 Golden Country Greats (Festival, 1979), An Evening with Jimmy Little: Live at the Sydney Opera House (Festival, 1981), Yorta Yorta Man (Monitor, 1995), Messenger (Festival, 1999)|
Aboriginal country singer Jimmy Little (b. 1937) has had a long and distinguished career. Since the 1950s, he has recorded 15 original albums and issued over 35 singles and 10 EPs. He enjoyed his biggest country/pop crossover hit in 1963 with ‘Royal Telephone’, but made his greatest impact on the Australian music scene with his wonderful 1999 album of cover songs, Messenger.
Little grew up on the Cummeragunja mission on the Murray River near Echuca, Victoria. His mother was from the Yorta Yorta tribe in the area. He dreamed of becoming a country music star, moving to Sydney during 1955 in order to pursue his ambitions. Throughout the 1950s, Little was the first Aboriginal country singer to draw big crowds. His heroes were mellow crooners like Jim Reeves, Nat King Cole and Johnny Matthis, and he earned the nicknames of ‘The Balladeer’, ‘Gentleman Jim’ and ‘The Honey Voice’.
Little issued his first 78-RPM single, ‘Mysteries of Life’/‘Heartbreak Waltz’, on EMI in 1956. He also made his acting debut, in the Billy Graham evangelical feature film, Shadow of the Boomerang (1960). Little’s first charting single was ‘Danny Boy’, which peaked at #9 in Sydney during 1959. He followed that up with another Top 20 hit in Sydney, when ‘El Paso’ reached #12 in February 1960.
His 18th single, ‘Royal Telephone’, proved to be Little’s biggest hit on the pop charts, when it peaked at #1 in Sydney and #3 in Melbourne (November 1963). Little’s fourth hit, ‘One Road’ (written by Barry Gibb), reached #19 in Sydney and #30 in Melbourne (March 1964). That year Everybody’s magazine named him Australian Pop Star of the Year. Little enjoyed one more chart hit, with ‘Baby Blue’ (#8 in Melbourne, #37 in Sydney, September 1974).
By the 1980s Little had abandoned recording to concentrate on his acting career. He made his theatre debut in the production Black Cockatoos. He also appeared in German director Wim Wenders’ 1989 feature film The End of the World, Tracy Moffatt’s The Night Cries and the opera Black River. In addition, Little worked as a teacher, did community work and was named MAIDOC Aboriginal of the Year in 1989. In 1992 he returned to the stage, to the Tamworth on Parade and Kings of Country roadshows. In 1994 he issued his 14th album, Yorta Yorta Man, and received Australian country music’s highest honour when he was inducted into Tamworth’s Country Music Roll of Renown.
In 1996, after seeing Little perform a gig in a Sydney club, musician/producer Brendan Gallagher approached the singer with the idea of teaming his captivating voice with a collection of contemporary, albeit completely reinterpreted, Australian songs. Little was unsure at first, although the collaboration resulted in one of the most delightful Australian albums of recent times, Messenger (June 1999). It was certainly mellow in mood, but highlighted by Little’s smoky, gorgeous whisper of a voice it rarely failed to captivate the listener. Messenger peaked at #26 on the national chart and sold over 20 000 copies.
For the album sessions, Gallagher utilised the services of his band, Karma County, to back Little in the studio, bringing in guest players like Paul Hester (drums; ex-Crowded House), Bowden Campbell (guitar; Front End Loader) and the girls from Tiddas (backing vocals). The songs Little and Gallagher chose to reinterpret included: ‘(Are You) The One I’ve Been Waiting For?’ (Nick Cave), ‘The Way I Made You Feel’ (Ed Kuepper), ‘Randwick Bells’ (Paul Kelly), ‘Cattle and Cane’ (Robert Forster/Grant McLennan), ‘Quasimodo’s Dream’ (David Mason), ‘Under the Milky Way’ (Steve Kilbey), ‘Black Fella/White Fella’ (Neil Murray/George Rurrambu) and ‘Alone with You’ (Jeremy Oxley). Little also contributed his version of the Sunnyboys’ ‘Alone with You’ to the Timelines: The Intergenerational Music Project album (September). The album was issued to celebrate the 1999 Year of Older People.
At the 1999 Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) Music Awards, Little took out joint Best Country Album (drawing with Kasey Chambers) and Best Adult Contemporary Album (for Messenger), and was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame. He also won Best Male Artist of the Year and Best Single Release of the Year awards at the 1999 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Music Awards (The Deadlys).
Encyclopedia of Australian Rock and Pop / Ian McFarlane 1999
under licence from Allen & Unwin Pty Ltd