It's not often an artist is recognized for his collection of cover songs, but after a long and successful career in Australia, Aboriginal country singer Jimmy Little remade a name for himself singing distinctive versions of well-known hits.
Growing up on the Cummeragunja mission on the Murray River in Victoria, Little left for Sydney in 1955 to pursue his country music where his mellow style earned him the nicknames of the Balladeer, Gentleman Jim, and the Honey Voice. His first single, "Mysteries of Life"/"Heartbreak Waltz," was released in 1956, but his first hit didn't come until 1959 with "Danny Boy," which peaked at number nine in Sydney. It was followed by "El Paso," which reached number 12 in Sydney in February 1960. Little made his acting debut in the Billy Graham evangelical feature film Shadow of the Boomerang that same year.
After 17 previous singles, Little scored his biggest hit with "Royal Telephone," which peaked at number one in Sydney and number three in Melbourne (November 1963). The Barry Gibb-penned "One Road" reached number 19 in Sydney and number 30 in Melbourne in March 1964 and Everybody's Magazine named him Australian Pop Star of the Year. His final hit of the era came with "Baby Blue," which peaked at number eight in Melbourne and number 37 in Sydney (September 1974).
Little then turned to full-time acting, making his theater debut in Black Cockatoos before appearing in director Wim Wenders' 1991 film Until the End of the World. As well as appearing in Tracy Moffatt's The Night Cries and the opera Black River, his teaching and community work earned him the title of MAIDOC Aboriginal of the Year in 1989.
In 1992, he performed at the Tamworth on Parade and Kings of Country roadshows before releasing his 14th album, Yorta Yorta Man, in 1994. That same year, he was inducted into Tamworth's Country Music Roll of Renown, the highest honor an Australian country music artist can achieve.
Messenger, a collection of contemporary songs reinterpreted through Little's smooth vocals, was released in June 1999 and peaked at number 26 nationally, eventually selling over 20,000 copies. The album featured covers of well-known songs by artists such as Nick Cave, Ed Kuepper, and Paul Kelly. At 62 years of age, Jimmy Little had hit the big time again. A cover of Sunnyboys' "Alone with You" followed for the Timelines: The Intergenerational Music Project album in September, an album issued to celebrate the Year of Older People in 1999.
The 1999 Australian Record Industry Association (ARIA) Music Awards proved a bonanza for Little, where Messenger won the Best Country Album award (jointly with Kasey Chambers) and Best Adult Contemporary Album, before being inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame. At the 1999 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Music Awards (known as the Deadlys), he won Best Male Artist of the Year and Best Single Release of the Year.
Little returned in September 2001 with Resonate, a new album featuring songs written by Paul Kelly, Don Walker, Bernard Fanning (from Powderfinger), Brendan Gallagher (from Karma County), and Dave Graney. ~ Brendan Swift