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Wednesday, 9 May 2012
Page: 4444

Mr GARRETT (Kingsford SmithMinister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth) (16:00): On indulgence, I rise in this chamber to pay tribute to the life and times of Uncle Jimmy Little, one of the pioneering Aboriginal entertainers of our age, an Aboriginal man whose career spanned some 44 years and who said, with great eloquence, 'The main ingredient in my songs is love.' He reflected that both in his work and in his relations with everybody he met during what was an absolutely remarkable career.

Jimmy grew up on the banks of the Murray River. He was a child of the mission and he had a mother and father who provided him with not only the support as a young child that would prove invaluable to him during the course of his career but the inspiration as well, as they were vaudeville entertainers—in a period of time where I have to say that vaudeville entertainers, particularly those of Aboriginal ancestry or birth, were extremely rare.

Jimmy had a career which not only spanned 44 years but saw him become very successful as a singer of popular songs, very successful as an interpreter and a balladeer. He was a renowned and acknowledged country and western music singer. He acted. And, up until the time of his death, he was also significantly involved not only with his community but particularly in the work that he was doing with the Jimmy Little Foundation, whose activities were directed towards supporting and assisting people who had suffered from kidney disease, something that Jimmy himself experienced.

Jimmy's mum was a Cummeragunja woman, his dad a Yorta Yorta man, and the influence that he had over successive generations of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander performers cannot be in any way underplayed. The fact is that knowing that Uncle Jimmy was still recording, was still touring, and that you were likely to see him or run into him somewhere around Australia in a town or at a venue, and that each and every time he would be the most gentle, the most reflective and the most generous of people to be with, I know provided a great deal of inspiration, and consolation at times, for Aboriginal performers and artists, particularly those who were starting out on that long road.

Jimmy was not without ambition. He saw from an early age that this was what he wanted to do and he set about doing it with an extraordinary degree of perspicacity. He persevered through literally thick and thin. And—I think tellingly—he never sought to overly exaggerate, deny or try and manipulate in any way the way that people saw him and how he was, as a proud Aboriginal man. The fact is, as he himself said, he was very proud to be an Aborigine, a member of the First Australians. In that sense, he was somebody whose engagement with other Australians was always carried out with dignity; he had a strong sense of who he was and what his culture was. But he was also somebody who was very focused on his craft of being a first-rate entertainer.

I want to reflect briefly on Jimmy's music and, in particular, his singing. I think I bring some small degree of past practice to these observations, but I will try to make them brief for the benefit of those listening. Jimmy was someone in possession of a beautiful voice. As one commentator said, 'He knew how to sing soft and slow and low,' and I can assure you that is not necessarily easily done. He was a superb balladeer and interpreter, no more so than when he recorded, with the very well known Australian musician and producer Brendan Gallagher, a fantastic collection of songs called The Messenger, an album that featured the work of many well-known artists of the seventies and eighties, particularly Paul Kelly but also The Church—an extremely beautiful version of Under the Milky Way—Ed Kuepper, The Reels and others. Of course, Jimmy had had significant success much earlier than that. He was literally a veteran of the entertainment world and of the music industry in particular.

Royal Telephone is probably still the song that he is best known for. In 1963, to sell 75,000 copies of a single was an absolutely extraordinary achievement. Jimmy's subsequent induction into the ARIA Hall of Fame—probably a little overdue but nonetheless absolutely appropriate—came on the back of a significant career in the sixties, releasing singles and EPs of the music he created. As has been noted by commentators, that particular chart-topping single took place before the 1967 referendum, which tells us something about the journey that Jimmy Little took.

I also want to mention his versatility, because he acted as well. He acted early on in a film called Shadow of the Boomerang, but he continued to act intermittently in the middle period of his career. He brought his presence to the screen as he brought his presence to the stage as he brought his presence to any room that he walked into.

At the end of the day, I think Jimmy was an example to everybody, not only to his own people for the way in which he conducted himself—he blazed the trail for many performers—but also for the way in which he gently engaged and interacted with others. He was never strident. He never sought to blame anybody. He always looked for the positive in any situation. He always wanted to give back to his people.

Jimmy was not only a role model as an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander man; as Clinton Walker, who has written about Jimmy, said, he was also a role model as a human being. He received the Order of Australia, he was New South Wales Senior Australian of the Year, he was the recipient of the National Aborigines and Islanders Day Observance Committee's Aboriginal of the Year award and so it goes on. Leaving aside all of those awards, which were absolutely appropriate, the way Jimmy lived his life was a great inspiration to us all. I want to pass on my deep condolences and pay my respects to Jimmy's extended family and to those who worked with him for many years.