Tears and laughter for gentlest songman, Uncle Jimmy
On the line … Mary G and the Australian Girls Choir sing Royal Telephone at yesterday's memorial service in the Opera House Concert Hall for Jimmy Little. Photo: Peter Rae
JOY McKEAN, the widow of the country singer Slim Dusty, was wistfully nostalgic. "I was the first person to play Jimmy on radio," she recalled as she made her way to the Opera House Concert Hall for Jimmy Little's state memorial service.
"Someone brought him up from the south coast … this was back in 1953 or 1954 … he was only about 16 … we had a radio program, The McKean Sisters Melody Trail, on 2KY at 6.30, and we played his song. I can't remember what he sang … but it was his first time on radio."
McKean was just one of the many country music legends who came to pay homage to a man everyone remembered as ''Uncle Jimmy''. In the audience were McKean's daughter Anne Kirkpatrick; the Northern Territory Aboriginal country singer Warren HWilliams; and John Williamson. They all recalled "the gentlest Australian songman". Inevitably, there were tears and laughter but amid the songs and reminiscences there was a celebration of family ties and deep traditional roots.
State memorial for Jimmy Little
Lowitja "Lois" O'Donoghue signs the book of condolences. Photo: Peter Rae
Little's daughter Frances Peters-Little remembered her father for his "quiet and gentle ways". She demonstrated her musical heritage when, protesting that she was not the singer in the family, she confidently and beautifully sang Shadow of the Boomerang.
His grandson James Henry, showing that Little's silky smooth delivery has prospered through the generations, fronted the original Jimmy Little Trio (they have been together for more than 50 years) and delivered a fine version of Yorta Yorta Man.
And Little's niece, the opera singer Deborah Cheetham, sang a particularly funky version of Advance Australia Fair, complete with clap sticks and didgeridoo accompaniment.
Beyond Little's immediate family, speaker after speaker - the journalist Jeff McMullan; music producer Brendan Gallagher; manager Graham ''Buzz'' Bidstrup; actor and writer Rhoda Roberts - painted a warm, intimate portrait of a good, gentle man who was married for more than 50 years; who was always happy to pull out his guitar and sing a song; who, when it was needed, openly declared "don't confuse gentleness with weakness" as he championed reconciliation; and, as the Premier, Barry O'Farrell, pointed out, was "a passionate advocate for improved Aboriginal health".
During his eulogy, Mr O'Farrell announced that Little would be one of the recipients of this year's J.C. Williamson live performance award. Little had been told of the award before he died.
This was a celebration of the life of a remarkable singer and musician born in poverty and disadvantage on a mission in 1937 who, through sheer talent and decency, rose to be a role model for all Aboriginal people, was awarded two honorary doctorates and scored the first chart-topping hit by an indigenous performer.
It was appropriate that the memorial service ended with the audience singing along to Little's original recording of Royal Telephone, which was musically enriched by additional backing vocals from the Australian Girls Choir.