Vale Jimmy Little

I first heard Jimmy Little on the radio in 1963 singing Royal Telephone. I hated the song (which struck me as 3rd rate country gospel) but even then I recognised that Jimmy had a great voice. Royal Telephone wasn’t the first Jimmy Little song to be played on the radio. In NSW he had had several songs (including one written for the Billy Graham crusade) played on the radio, but in the 50s and 60s radio airplay policies differed markedly from state to state and I suspect Royal Telephone was the first song of Jimmy’s to be played on Victorian Radio.


Although Jimmy was always seen as a NSW musician he was raised at Cummeraganja on the NSW bank of the Murray but very much part of Victorian indigenous culture. Doug Nicholls came from Cummeraganja along with a long list of other sportspeople and community leaders.


Jimmy kept releasing albums throughout the rest of the century but I probably wasn’t aware of his work until he released Yorta Yorta Man in 1994. The title track was superb. Then, in 1999, well into his fifties, Jimmy Little released Messenger. I am sure many Knackers have this record. For those of you who don’t, it was a collection of contemporary Australian songs produced by Brendan Gallagher of Karma County.


It was an extraordinary record. The original styles of the songs varied across a wide spectrum but Jimmy reinterpreted them all and for the most part produced songs as good as or better than the originals. In the obituaries since Jimmy’s death on Monday both Steve Kilby and Paul Kelly are quoted as suggesting as much about Jimmy’s versions of their songs on Messenger.


The thing that impressed me on Messenger was Jimmy Little’s voice. It isn’t really possible to compare blues, country pop and rock voices because the demands of the genres are different, but it seems to me Jimmy Little had close to the best male voice in Australian popular music. I will miss hearing it.


  1. Well said, Dave. “Royal Telephone” had such banal lyrics, but the melody and the voice were so damn catchy. For decades I thought of Jimmy as a leagues club act. Then “Messenger” came along and he was one of the great honeyed tenors, and a wonderful reinterpreter of contemporary songs. After reading your piece I have both “Royal Telephone” and Paul Kelly’s “Randwick Bells” going around in my head. What a voice. What a trooper. What persistence. And what a gent. Vale Jimmy. Well played.

  2. His rendition of ‘Blackfella Whitefella’ is real cool swing stuff.

  3. looks like ’63 was a bad year all round for you Dave.

  4. Rick Kane says

    Thanks Dave, for your memories and thoughts. Jimmy Little was/is sensational. Royal Telephone still stops me in my tracks today, his voice is that beautiful and touching. As Clinton Walker captured in his music history project, Buried Country’ Jimmy Little will be remembered as a torch carrier of an unfortunately little known Australian music sub-genre, Aboriginal Country Music. And what a wild and innovative and engaging sub genre it is.


  5. Richard Naco says

    We’re losing too many of the really good ones too close together.

    As good as the voice was, the man was even better still.

    Enjoy the choir, Jimmy.

  6. Andrew Starkie says

    Dave, I’ve been meaning to contact you for a while regarding this piece. Thanks for recognising the impact JImmy had on Australian life.

    I had the pleasure of meeting him at Tamworth CMF last year. It was one of the thrills of my life. It’s weird, because I knew little of his music or life. I just knew he was an icon and considered a great man.

    He arrived four hours late to an outside radio interview, but still charmed the small audience with his beautiful voice and stories. He spoke about his career and work for Indigenous Australians. He sang a few songs on an out of tune and rattling guitar.

    Afterwards, I shoved my hand out as he walked past. He stopped, wrapped both his hands around mine and spoke quietly to me. I was giggling a bit so didn’t take it all in, but he said something along the lines of all people having greatness in them and it’s nice to meet new friends. i nearly wet myself.

    I honestly felt an energy or charge travel from his arm to mine. There was such a serenity to him. It was the day of his final ever Tamworth performance and he appeared very much at peace with the world.

    It was like meeting God.

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