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Wednesday, 9 May 2012
Page: 4446


Mr WYATT (Hasluck) (16:08): I also rise to offer my condolences on the occasion of the death of James Oswald 'Jimmy' Little. I had the incredible privilege of knowing Jimmy well, particularly in the latter stages of the work he was doing around developing an awareness of the impact of renal disease, because we sometimes neglect what it means to lose kidneys or kidney function, such as the imposition of being married to a machine that cleanses your blood.

I met Jimmy many years ago through a mutual friend, May O'Brien. Jimmy was performing at a conference we went to. As a child I had always loved Royal Telephone, and when Jimmy asked for requests May yelled that out. She said to me: 'Come and meet Jimmy. He is an incredible man. He has done so much very quietly in his own way to bring the issues of his people and our people to the fore of the public view'. And so I did meet him and, in a sense, when you do meet somebody for whom you have admiration and respect you tend to follow their career after that. It was tremendous. I met with him several times, but the best meeting I ever had with Jimmy was when Buzz Bidstrup, who was a drummer in a band and who got to know Jimmy over those years, invited me to meet with Jimmy in his home when he was living in Sydney to talk about the establishment of the foundation and what Jimmy hoped to achieve.

It was an incredible 2½ hours of sitting with somebody who was so peaceful, so calm and so measured in what he had to say but who was extraordinary in the vision that he had for the work, the capability and the capacity that he could bring to the foundation, in two ways: one was to lend his name to the foundation and the second was his commitment to go out and use his music and share his knowledge and his own experience with others, hopefully to make a difference in the way people would view renal disease. Of course, after that they were highly successful in attracting funding to commence the program in the Northern Territory.

It is sad that he died on 2 April at his home in Dubbo, aged 75 years. I know he would have been with family. I know that is something he really appreciated. Over the time I knew him personally there were elements that came to the fore about the quality of Jimmy. At the commemoration service for Jimmy I was asked to represent the Leader of the Opposition, and I heard the premier of the state deliver a very powerful speech about the quality of the individual and the quality of the work he undertook—the way in which he reached out beyond his Aboriginality. He reached into society and touched people with his vision, with his song and as a person. People who knew him loved him dearly. But I think, more importantly, what was recognised in all of this was the strength of his family and the support that he received from 2004 onwards when he had his first transplant.

Jimmy had a quiet sense of humour. He recounted the days when he first started touring; when he would go into hotels to perform he was often told to go through the back door of the hotel—which was the black door, where blacks only could go. He said that on occasions people who were performing with him would say, 'If Jimmy can't come through the front door of the hotel then we are not performing at this hotel,' and they would pack up and leave and perform elsewhere.

His friendship with so many people in the industry was remarkable. It was fascinating that when Kylie Minogue performed a song with him her parents came down not to see Kylie perform with Jimmy but to see Jimmy perform and to meet Jimmy. Such was the gentleness of the man and the admiration that Australians had for him.

James Oswald 'Jimmy' Little was an Australian Aboriginal musician, actor and teacher from the Yorta Yorta people. He was raised on the Cummeragunja Mission in New South Wales. He died at his home in Dubbo aged 75 years, and what an incredibly rich 75 years they were for him, particularly 1958, when he started to play much more openly and to perform across the spectrum of music that was available at the time. He was certainly influenced by Nat King Cole and others of that period, and some of the gospel music. But at no stage did he pigeonhole himself into a particular genre, although country and western music was a favourite of his. I have heard him play a range of music which demonstrated his capacity to walk across those genres of music and still hold an audience, and to hold them well. I heard the story of how he met Marjorie Rose Peters, a fellow singer. The excitement was described as, 'He looked across the room and saw an incredible smile,' from his future wife. Some time later they connected again and became a couple. They married and had one child, Francis Claire Peters-Little, a documentary filmmaker, writer and historian who also sings. She said, 'I can't sing,' but when she sang one of Jimmy's songs at the concert that night it was with an incredible voice, and I thought, 'If she can't sing, there's hope for me in terms of karaoke.' The way she encapsulated it was just beautiful.

The other thing Jimmy did was that, whilst he became an Aboriginal star, he always said: 'I am Australian. I value my heritage. I value the fact that I am a Yorta Yorta man but I also value the fact that I am part of, as Christine Anu would say, 'my island home.' He had an influence on Australia in a period when people's views about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were very strong. But he was very gentle and quiet and, as a passive person, he brought home to people the incredible capability and talent that he as an Aboriginal man had. He had an influence on the music industry. It was fascinating listening to Col Joye recount his times of singing with Jimmy Little and to Judy Stone, who also performed, talk about being encouraged by him and Col to do her first song and send it off to Festival Records. So he taught and reached out to those he saw with the ability to sing and provide music and be part of, in a sense, songwriters who sing the history of a country or tell a story of a set of circumstances. That is what he continually did.

I was pleased when he won a place in the ARIA Hall of Fame and then the award for the Best Adult Contemporary Album because each of those two awards recognises his influence and, in particular, his contribution to the Australian music industry. What was particularly rewarding from my perspective, and I know that of many Australians, was Australia Day 26 January 2004, when he was made an Officer of the Order of Australia, with the citation, 'For 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.'

It was interesting listening to the Minister for School Education, Early Childhood and Youth, Peter Garrett, talk about his movie endeavours. He enjoyed those. He was not somebody who hit the scene for a long time but his contribution in those was great. I think the other attribute that is important was the work he did at the Eora Aboriginal Education Centre in Redfern, and he certainly imparted his knowledge and skills to aspiring young Aboriginal people who were looking at going into the arts. I know personally some individuals who were encouraged to think beyond where they were at and to pursue a career in music. Jimmy was also a guest lecturer at the Koori Centre at the University of Sydney.

In 1990, Jimmy was diagnosed with kidney disease. At that time he said, 'Unfortunately, I did not get check-ups often enough or soon enough to realise the possibility that my kidneys could fail.' In a sense his comments epitomise most Aboriginal people who experience renal disease, who because they ignore the signs and symptoms and do not look after themselves they end up with kidney disease. With the advent of transplants, Jimmy had a kidney transplant in 2004 which gave him a new lease on life and certainly drove his desire to continue with his music and to perform and to travel. I had the incredible privilege at that concert to see the Jimmy Little Trio perform with two or three of the artists but, in particular, with the family member when they sang one of his songs. Let me tell you that those three gentlemen, even though age has caught up with them, still showed pizazz and sparkle in playing their guitars and drums. They were tremendous and they certainly got tremendous recognition. But, as a result of immunosuppressants, he developed type 2 diabetes as well as a heart condition. It was after his transplant that he established the Jimmy Little Foundation to promote health and diet in Indigenous communities. If you look at what he has achieved in bringing a message to Aboriginal communities and to young people through his music, his knowledge and his experience, he has certainly promoted an awareness of renal disease—the need to look after your body as well as the signs and symptoms you need to consider in order to have a better pathway than he did.

In 2005 Jimmy told Peter Thompson on the ABC TV program Talking Heads how he would like to be remembered, and I think this epitomises Jimmy Little the person:

I just want people to remember me as a nice person who was fair-minded and had a bit of talent that put it to good use.

I think any of us who are aware of his contribution to the industry would agree that his contribution over a long period of time is significant to the way in which the genres of music became known. He was often on the television shows of his era. Some of you will remember Bandstand and some of the other Saturday shows. Jimmy Little was a regular on those shows and in his presentation brought home very strongly to all Australians that he was a talented musician.

I want to acknowledge the concert of Australian performers who paid their own tribute to Uncle Jimmy. The tribute was through song and personal reflections on how Jimmy Little impacted on them personally and professionally. With your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, I would like to table that list.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER ( Ms AE Burke ): There are no objections to the tabling of that document.

Mr WYATT: Thank you very much. I will finish by saying that we have lost a great Australian and an Aboriginal leader who showed that you can achieve things doing what you have to do quietly and under the radar, but powerfully—through the voice, through song and through your actions.