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Wednesday, 9 May 2012
Page: 4449


Mr ZAPPIA (Makin) (16:22): I join others in speaking on this condolence motion and extending my personal condolences to the family of Jimmy Little. I did not personally know Jimmy Little, but I certainly knew of him, and I knew of his music. I listened to his music because I enjoyed it. Today I pay tribute to him not only because of his music but because he was an extraordinary person. And I say he was an extraordinary person because, up until 1967, when we had the referendum that gave some recognition to Indigenous Australians, very little recognition and very little opportunity were given to Indigenous people across this country. So for an Indigenous person to be given any form of recognition prior to 1967 was indeed remarkable. Yet Jimmy Little was able to achieve that, and he did it through his music. What made it even more remarkable was that in the 1950s and 1960s budding artists were everywhere. To break into the music and entertainment industry was in itself a very difficult feat. It was a very competitive industry, it was a selective industry and, according to some, it was an industry in which discrimination was rife. So for Jimmy Little to in fact break through is something that should be acknowledged in its own right. If we look across the oceans to the USA, where in the same era a number of African-Americans had in fact broken into the music industry, and we look at the stories associated with the industry there, it is pretty easy to understand that, because of the competition and the pressures within the industry just for someone to be recognised and to get through, quite often it was a case not so much of what ability and what talents you had but of who you knew within the industry to open the doors and make it possible for you. Jimmy Little did that here in Australia, when I suspect there was no-one in particular to open doors for him and make it possible, because Australia was in fact lagging behind the American and perhaps even the English entertainment industry of the time.

Jimmy did break through and he obviously broke through because of his personality and his singing ability. His singing ability quickly brought him to fame. He performed and sang a number of songs that I recall were played regularly on pop radio. Pop radio was, at the time, the forum through which any entertainer was given some sort of recognition. In breaking through he became an inspiration and a leader for his community. That in itself was important because he broke through in the years leading up to the 1967 referendum. His success, his leadership and the inspiration he provided to others undoubtedly contributed towards the changes to the Constitution in 1967. In fact, I saw a brief film clipping where he was one of the Indigenous leaders of the time who was interviewed in the lead-up to the 1967 vote. Again, he was interviewed because he was being held up as one of the successful Indigenous people of this country.

Undoubtedly, he did pave the way for others and since his success there have been numerous other Indigenous artists and, in particular, many singers who have become successful in this country. I am sure that all members of this House would be familiar with so many of them. But it was not just Indigenous artists who subsequently became recognised; it was Indigenous people across the country. We have since seen many Indigenous people very successfully performing in a whole range of sports throughout this country and in fact representing this country in sports. One of those Indigenous people, Lionel Rose, not only represented Australia in boxing and won a world title but also followed that up with his own hit single here in Australia. Again, that is a good example of an Indigenous leader who proved that you can be successful if you put your mind to it.

It is always difficult for anyone to achieve any form of success when you have to be the first one to break through. I said earlier on in my remarks that I suspect that Jimmy Little did that not just because of his talents but because of his personality. There is no doubt that there have been many a talented person who have never been successful and whose talents unfortunately, for one reason or another, were never able to be shared with the rest of the community. Other speakers have talked a little bit about that. With my limited knowledge of his personality, he struck me as a person who was genuinely prepared to compromise and understand others and, in a very peaceful way, try to bring people together. I believe that that was his strength. He then went on to use that extraordinary personality or characteristic to assist Indigenous people in this country in so many different areas.

If you look at his record subsequent to his artistic acknowledgement, you will see that he continued serving the Indigenous people of this country until the day he died. He continued standing up for what he believed was right. He received many, many recognitions. I will come to those recognitions in just a moment. Interestingly, from my recollection, it was only a couple of years ago that he came to this place to support the Indigenous people of Australia. Jimmy Little was known to the world mainly for his singing. He was born on 1 March 1937 and passed away on 2 February 2012. He was a man from the Yorta people but he was raised by the Cummeragunja in New South Wales. From the age of 14 Jimmy embarked upon a career as a singer-songwriter and guitarist, a career that would span six decades. That in itself is quite remarkable. Also, as other speakers have noted, he has acted in a number of films including Shadow of the Boomerang in 1960 and Until the End of the World in 1991, and he performed in a stage play, Black Cockatoos.

Whilst Jimmy is best known for his work as an entertainer, he also made a significant contribution as a teacher who has worked at the Eora centre in Redfern and as a guest lecturer at the University of Sydney's Koori Centre, where he worked from 2000 onwards. Jimmy was best known, however, for his music and he started recording with Regal Zonophone in 1956 before launching his career at Festival records with a 45rpm EP called Ballads with a Beat. Ballads with a Beat reached the top 10 in the Australian musical charts and was followed by a number of EPs, singles and albums in the 1960s. The gospel song Royal Telephone, released in 1963, sold over 75,000 copies, but his most popular album was Messenger which peaked at 26 in the ARIA Albums Chart in 1999.

Jimmy built a reputation as one of Australia's premier country performers in the 1970s, but he was also fond of big orchestral sound, evident in his 1972 album Winterwood, and in the album entitled An Evening with Jimmy Little, live at the Sydney Opera House. Jimmy also diversified into reggae music in the 1980s. Jimmy was recognised through a number of forums and his contribution to music received the recognition it deserved when he was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame in 1999.

There was more to Jimmy than music, however. He was made an Officer of the Order of Australia on Australia Day in 2004 and, as the member for Hasluck quite rightly quoted:

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.

In the same year, the Australian people voted Jimmy as a Living Treasure. Jimmy received honorary doctorates from the Queensland University of Technology, from the University of Sydney, and the Australian Catholic University. He was a recipient of the National Aborigines and Islanders Day of Observance Committee, otherwise known as NAIDOC, Aboriginal of the Year Award in 1989. He was named Senior Australian of the Year in 2002 and received the Australia Council's Red Ochre Award in 2004. It is quite a long list of accomplishments and recognition, again, just highlighting the extraordinary character of Jimmy Little. He married Marjorie Rose Peters in 1958. She unfortunately passed away in July 2011. Their 53-year marriage produced one child, a daughter, Frances Claire Peters-Little.

Jimmy was blessed in many ways but was forced to live with some serious health issues, as other speakers have also highlighted. He was a diabetic and had a heart condition. In 2004 Jimmy also had a kidney transplant. This event prompted him to turn a new page and he turned his considerable energy to promoting Indigenous health outcomes. After the transplant, the Jimmy Little Foundation was established.

Again, let me take a moment to just comment about that. As we all know, health issues are one of the most serious problems and challenges facing the Indigenous people of this country. Jimmy knew that, but he also knew that with better health care, many of those issues could be overcome. For him, the issue was passing on that information by educating his people and getting them to understand how they could do something about extending their own lives and living healthier lives. He committed his later years to doing that, and I certainly acknowledge his initiative in the Jimmy Little Foundation. The foundation was established with the vision of increasing the life expectancy of Indigenous Australians primarily through education and ensuring that they understood the importance and meaning of sound dietary habits. It is also interesting that the Jimmy Little Foundation now works with governments at the federal and state levels as well as with statutory and peak bodies to achieve those very objectives. I am sure others will talk about him and add to the comments already made about him but, as I said from the outset, Jimmy Little was in fact an extraordinary person and his achievements were indeed remarkable. So they certainly were, and I hope that through him other Indigenous people have been inspired given that he has set out the path and opened the doors for achievement by so many other Indigenous people who I believe have the talents and the abilities but simply need an inspiration to take them on to those achievements. To his extended family I once again extend my condolences.