When Jimmy Little passed away last year Australia not only lost one of its finest indigenous artists but also a veteran singer who had managed to reinvent himself –  something that so many of his contemporaries had not managed to do.

While he enjoyed his biggest hit single success with ‘Royal Telephone’ in 1963, Little achieved his greatest artistic acclaim 36 years later with the Messenger album – a record that put him firmly back on the scene for young and old audiences alike.

Now, nearly a year after Little’s passing, two new titles are being released to celebrate his memory. The single disc collection Treasure: The Very Best of Jimmy Little 1956-2011 spans his recordings from the ‘50’s onwards with 15 selections including his own ‘Yorta Yorta Man,’ Paul Kelly’s ‘Randwick Bells,’ The Church’s ‘Under The Milky Way,’ and, of course, and ‘Royal Telephone.’

Songman is a 3-disc set that collects re-mastered versions of the landmark comeback ARIA Award-winning album Messenger, its follow-up Life’s What You Make It and material from the archives, including 2004’s Life’s What You Make It (with songs by PJ Harvey, Nick Lowe, Bruce Springsteen and others) as well as the never before released concert recording Live at the Studio, Sydney Opera House, 2001.

Producer/musician Brendan Gallagher of Karma County was largely responsible for initiating Little’s ‘comeback’ and he has been vitally involved in the recent releases.

Of course, like many singers of his ilk Little could have continued to make a tidy living appearing at RSL and Leagues clubs but he did not want to do that.

“Jimmy was older and wiser than me,” says Gallagher when I ask about how he helped Little re-invent his career with Messenger. “He used to always say when things went well that the time was right. You can do things and either hit a wall or the road rises up to meet you. It was one of those moments where I just happened along at the right time. Jimmy was at a loose end.”

“You have to remember,” he continues, “that Jimmy had built up a rather large reservoir of goodwill when I met him in 1996. You can’t make that shit up. You can go on talent shows and have a meteoric rise but it’s hard to maintain that. Jimmy was always a great singer but people just had to be reminded, and the way that was achieved was to give him a bunch of different songs, good songs.”

Gallagher recalls vividly the first time he met Little. A friend was doing a gig at a new Sydney venue in Little Italy and invited Gallagher along and, because his band Karma County was always looking for new places to play, he agreed. In fact, it was the start of an indigenous music night and Little had been invited to open the evening.

Gallagher instantly recognised Little’s voice. “I sat down and copped the full blast of Jimmy’s charisma. He was exceptional: he just had a stage persona and a beautiful voice. I thought, ‘Man, I want to work with this guy’. I had always wanted to do [the Reel’s]‘Quasimdo’s Dream’ as a waltz and I thought, that’s the guy to do it.”

“I was sitting there and I was looking over my shoulder thinking, ‘Can anyoe else hear how great this guy is?”

“Actually, I thought he had died,” confesses Gallagher at his surprise that he was actually watching a legend perform. “I hadn’t heard of him for years. He’d be in your consciousness, you’d see him on Bandstand or maybe an ad here and there in the paper. But I had really lost track of him. It was a real surprise.”

From that happy accidental meeting Gallagher and Little struck up an association that was to bear some astonishing results. It might seem commonplace now for veteran artists to work with young musicians – just last year we had Dr John and Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, as well as Justin Townes Earle and Wanda Jackson – but back in the mid-‘90s it was a rarer occurrence.

“When we started it was kind of newish,” says Gallagher. “The only other instance I can think of at the time was Rick Rubin and Johnny Cash.”

Gallagher also points out that at the time in Australia we were in the grips of Hanson-ism, the xenophia and racism ignited by Pauline Hanson and fuelled by the Howard Government.

“I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if a younger white bloke and an older black bloke did something positive?” explains Gallagher, “and reintroduce Jimmy, not only as a great singer and a great entertained but also as a really great Australian who happened to be an Aborigine.

Treasure and Songman are available via Warner Music/Festival records now.

Brian Wise

Brian Wise was the Editor of Addicted To Noise‘s Australian site from 1997 – 2002. The site won two ONYA Awards as Best Online Music Magazine in 1999 & 2000. He has also been Editor since its reincarnation in 2013. He also presents the weekly music interview program Off The Record on 102.7 Triple R-FM (rrr.org.au) in Melbourne. It is networked to 45+ stations across Australia on the Community Radio Network and is a four-time winner of the Best Music Program Award from the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia. In 2012, it was nominated as a finalist in the Excellence in Music Programming category. Brian was also the Founding Editor & Publisher of Rhythms Magazine and is now its Senior Contributing Editor.

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