Jimmy Little: mentor and musician

By Ken Eastwood 3 April 2012
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A decade ago Australian Geographic spoke to Jimmy Little, an icon of 1960s Aussie pop culture.

This story was originally published in the print edition of Australian Geographic in July 2003. Read our obituary for Jimmy Little here.

I FIRST MET this gentle giant of Australian music on Thursday Island in the Torres Strait. Clad in a Hawaiian shirt, guitar at the ready, he was speaking calmly and sweetly to a bunch of indigenous youths who’d just rushed inside from cricket and hockey coaching at the Thursday Island Croc Festival (Life stage, AG 67) for a session on goal-setting.

“The best person to help you is you,” he said quietly to them. “If you have a headache, and I take aspirin and some water, does it help your headache? No – you’ve got to take the aspirin yourself.”

It was hard to believe that this softly spoken, humble bloke, chock-a-block with home-spun parables and anecdotal advice, was the legendary James Oswald Little – one of our most successful Aboriginal performers. Winner of a 1999 ARIA award, a 1997 Mo award, 1989 NAIDOC Aborigine of the Year and Australian Pop Star of the Year way back in 1964, Jimmy has recorded some 30 albums and knocked up a half-century of integrity in an industry generally dominated by ego and marketing.

In recent years the man with the silky smooth crooning voice and the mildest of manners has been inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame, the Australasian Country Music Roll of Renown and has recorded with stars as diverse as The Wiggles and Kylie Minogue.

Jimmy Little aged 16

Jimmy Little in 1953, aged 16, on Australia’s Amateur Hour radio show. (Credit: Courtesy Little Archive)

Jimmy Little at home

A year after Croc Festival, I caught up with Jimmy at his semi-detached house in Lilyfield, in Sydney’s inner west. Like the man himself, the house was unassuming: no sign here of the three gold records he scored for his biggest hit, Royal Telephone. He guided me through the kitchen – where his wife of 45 years, Mari, was cooking huge ‘pots of vegies – to the den.

Photos of his family were stuck on the wall beneath posters of Albert Einstein and the Beatles Einstein declaring: “Imagination is more important than knowledge”. A wall clock ticked loudly, like a metronome beating out time, as we huddled around a single-bar heater, Jimmy speaking slowly and thoughtfully, his hands sweeping in wide, expressive movements.

Born in 1937 at Cummeragunja Mission, near Moama, on the New South Wales side of the Murray River, Jimmy was the eldest of seven, and son of itinerant seasonal workers. His father was a musician and played in the renowned Wallaga Lake gumleaf band. “It was a kind of nomadic lifestyle,” Jimmy recalled. “I liked travelling and wanted to travel the rest of my life.”

When at age 14 he began performing, Jimmy embarked on a career that would see him travel the wide brown land. His first recording, Mysteries of Life, was released in 1955. After nine more years playing country shows, sideshows, pubs and clubs, he hit the big time with the gospel song Royal Telephone, which stayed near the top of the Australian charts for 18 weeks.

Nearly 40 years on, he still gets requests for this song. “I love it because it says to me that people don’t want me to go just yet. They want me to sing it one more time.”

Mentoring in music

Jimmy continued playing and recording and picked up major acting roles in a fistful of films, including Shadow of the Boomerang, produced by the Billy Graham organisation, Night Cries and Until the End of the World. Without preaching politics or table-thumping, Jimmy encouraged all those around him, particularly other indigenous artists. In 1984, his unofficial mentoring role became more concrete when he was asked to teach at the Eora Centre, a training college for Aboriginal people in Redfern, Sydney.

“The director was looking for some indigenous role models, and the most obvious were sports people – boxers and footballers. But I had more time available during the day than boxers and footballers,” Jimmy said. He taught music and ‘life philosophy’ at the centre, “putting an emphasis on the Aboriginal cultures entwined with the modem lifestyle”.

His self-proclaimed “deep faith” is a mixture of his heritage – his Yuin father and Yorta Yorta mother – and Christianity. “Putting them together is like a double-adaptor – it’ll go together if you’ve got the connection”, he said.

In 2000, the Department of Education, Training and Science asked Jimmy to become an ambassador for education, literacy and numeracy. He now travels the country – from the Kimberley and the Alice to Newcastle – encouraging indigenous kids to stay at school and to learn as much as they can.

“It’s about choices, he said. “Life is a road that’s full of quicksand and potholes. I tell them ‘Stay at school and get your certificate. You’re only a child once, but you’re an adult the rest of your life’.” Despite the fact that he’s now on dialysis and on the waiting list for a new kidney, Jimmy travels in and out of Sydney, performing and doing this work. In a few years he wants to sell up in Sydney and get a mobile home and recording studio.

“I’ll go to all the communities – to the kids who are sniffing petrol, to the townspeople where there’s no work – and just encourage them. There’s a lot of artists out there – old and young – who never had the chances I’ve had. I’ve got so many things over the years that I really want to give something back. I don’t want to be a politician, but I want to be a well-meaning adviser.

You already are, Jimmy.

VIDEO: Jimmy Little singing Royal Telephone

Source: Australian Geographic (Jul – Sep 2003)