For many Australians under the age of 40, the first time they would have heard the voice of Jimmy Little would have been in 1999, the result of a chance meeting a few years earlier. Brendan Gallagher, of the sorely underrated Australian band Karma County, had accidentally caught Little singing in a Sydney bar. “I was instantly drawn to the front of the stage by one of the most beautiful voices I’d ever heard,” he wrote in the liner notes to Messenger. “I sat transfixed as Jimmy worked his way through a set of songs with such grace and style that I forgot to go to the bar and buy a drink; very unusual behaviour on my part.”
Gallagher introduced himself to Little after the show and struck up a friendship, and Messenger was the collaboration that resulted. It’s an album of classic Australian songs by the likes of the Go-Betweens, the Church, Paul Kelly, Ed Kuepper and the Reels – many of them radically rearranged by Gallagher, and most of which Little himself had never heard before Gallagher introduced him to them. The album was a critical and commercial success, receiving extensive airplay, and introducing a new generation of Australians to a voice that had first came to national prominence in 1963, via his hit version of the country gospel standard Royal Telephone.
Central’s never busy, always on the line
You may hear from heaven almost any time
‘Tis a royal service, free for one and all
When you get in trouble, give this royal line a call
That voice! It was high and flutey, but as rich and mellow as caramel. Most of all, Little had exquisite timing. He had a touch of Elvis about him in that he sang his ballads with seemingly endless patience – if a song was slow, Little was slower. He sang like he had all the time in the world. He was a gifted storyteller who, once he had you in the palm of his hand, was happy to keep you in suspense. He made it all sound and look so bloody easy, and he was a master when it came to interpreting other people’s songs. Have a listen to how effortlessly he gets inside the narrative of the Go-Betweens’ Cattle And Cane:
That’s where I first heard and saw Jimmy Little, too. Cattle And Cane was (and remains) one of my favourite songs, and I was impressed with how Little not only recounted Grant McLennan’s childhood vignettes as though they were his own, but also the sincerity and ease with which he recounted the final verse that, on the Go-Betweens’ version, was originally performed by Robert Forster.
Little’s storied history prior to Messenger would have been incredible enough without this late-career revival. Australia’s first (and for a long time only) Aboriginal pop star, he made nearly three dozen albums, and also lent his talents to acting, landing a role in Wim Wenders’ Until The End Of The World in 1991. He was an indigenous ambassador for literacy and numeracy, and after a successful kidney transplant in 2004 he established the Jimmy Little Foundation, set up to assist other indigenous Australians, who suffer from End Stage Renal Disease at around nine times the rate of non-indigenous Australians. 2004 was an eventful year for Jimmy; he was made a companion of the Order of Australia that same year, and also named as a National Living Treasure. (The latter award makes the catty part of me wonder if Jimmy had been disturbed by the company he’d found himself keeping lately.)
In the end, though, it’s his singing for which Jimmy Little will be remembered. He was a gentle man – “Don’t mistake kindness and niceness for weakness,” he once said – and that gentility shone through his recordings, which are not easy listening so much as they are the humblest of peace offerings to the world. Jimmy’s gone now, but to listen to one of his albums – as I’m doing with Messenger – will always be like picking up the phone and hearing that voice from heaven at the other end.