Sadness engulfed the Australian entertainment industry and indigenous community in April last year at the news that legendary singer Jimmy Little, who was recognised as a National Living Treasure and was affectionately known as "Gentleman Jim", had died at the age of 75 at his home in Dubbo, NSW.
The velvet-smooth singer, who arose out of the absolute depths of poverty to become one of the most loved and respected musicians of his generation, was farewelled at a State memorial service held at the Sydney Opera House on May 3. A celebration concert took place the same night, featuring artists such as Paul Kelly, Archie Roach, Col Joye, Dan Sultan, Don Walker and many others.
Warner Music and Festival Records have readied two new titles, curated by Little's former manager Graham "Buzz" Bidstrup - also the former drummer in the Angels, the Party Boys and GANGgajang - and his producer and friend Brendan Gallagher to celebrate his remarkable career.
A single-disc retrospective called Treasure: The Very Best of Jimmy Little 1956-2011 is now available, while Songman, a special three-disc set featuring his two acclaimed comeback albums Messenger (1999) and Life's What You Make It (2004), is released this week.
Songman includes unreleased tracks from the Messenger sessions, including covers of the Triffids' Wide Open Road and AC/DC's It's A Long Way to the Top, as well as a never-before-heard live recording from a 2001 concert at the Sydney Opera House.
"Messenger and Life's What You Make It are the two records that Brendan produced for Jimmy," says Bidstrup, who met the singer when he was asked to promote Messenger.
Bidstrup spent the past 13 years as manager of his music and business affairs. He's the chief executive of the Jimmy Little Foundation dedicated to providing a healthier future for indigenous Australians.
"Unfortunately, Life Is What You Make It, his 34th album, came out at the time when Festival Records was bought by Warner Music," Bidstrup says. "It got lost because there wasn't any promotion for it. As a result, it's been out of print for a long time."
Little's pioneering journey in music began more than 50 years ago. His biggest hit Royal Telephone was released in 1963 at a time when Aboriginals weren't included on the census, weren't welcome in hotels and were thrown out of public swimming pools.
He was one of the first acts to sign with Festival Records and with his frequent appearances on TV shows like Bandstand and Six O'Clock Rock and movies such as Shadow of the Boomerang (1960), he became Australia's first, and for a long time only, indigenous pop star.
Sydney-based producer, multi-instrumentalist and songwriter Gallagher was responsible for Little's career renaissance in the late 90s. At the time, he was looking for a singer to do an updated version of the Reels' song Quasimodo's Dream. "I've always been interested in doing cover versions where you change the time signature, add a new voice and it becomes a completely different song," he says.
Gallagher recalls that night back in 1996 when he saw Little performing for the first time in a small venue in East Sydney. He'd gone there to see a friend play and to check the place out as a possible venue for his band, Karma County.
"I'd just walked in as he started playing," he remembers. "I knew Jimmy from Royal Telephone when I was a kid but I'd lost track of him - I actually thought he was dead. I heard that voice and sat down and listened. I went 'Wow!' You know how you have one of those light-bulb moments? It got me thinking, how can we do this song? How can we do that song?"
It took three years for Little and Gallagher to select the songs and record Messenger, an album of mainly alternative and classic Australian rock songs from the 1980s. "I think that's why it worked, because there was no rush and no pressure."
Messenger, which included covers of Paul Kelly's Randwick Bells, the Church's Under the Milky Way, Crowded House's Into Temptation and the Go-Betweens' Cattle and Cane, was an immediate success when it was released in June, 1999.
"I remember Triple J loved it and it was on high rotation across the country," Gallagher says. In no time, the album climbed into the upper reaches of the alternative music charts and introduced the singer's exquisite phrasing and immense charisma to a new audience.
Messenger won the ARIA Award for adult contemporary album of the year in 1999, the same year Little was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame.
Just three years later, he was struck down with kidney failure and received a lifesaving transplant in 2004.
"I just happened to be in the right place in the right frame of mind," Gallagher says. "Jimmy just happened to be out of the spotlight long enough, still at the peak of his powers as a singer but just not having the opportunity. It was that confluence of events that brought Messenger about."
'I heard that voice and sat down and listened. I went "Wow!". You know how you have one of those light-bulb moments? It got me thinking, how can we do this song? How can we do that song?' Brendan Gallagher
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