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EXCLUSIVE: Frances Peters-Little shares her fondest memories of her dad Jimmy Little

He was a gentleman, a giant in music, and in his own quiet way, Jimmy Little encouraged Australia to become a more tolerant place.

Content warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains images of people who have died. This article also touches on the topic of sexual assault which may be triggering for some readers.

Frances Peters-Little was never happier than when she was on the road. Some nights, when she was small, her mum and dad would make up a bed in a suitcase backstage, tuck her in, and she’d fall asleep as her father’s clear, sweet voice and the gentle patter of applause drifted over her.

“I lived on the road with my parents. We’d travel from town to town,” she remembers. “You’d meet other kids and know them for a day or two and then move on to the next town. I look back now and think it was pretty special. I was loved and looked after by my parents, and that’s all I felt. I think about those early days with a lot of happiness.”

Frances’ father was the legendary singer, Jimmy Little, and back then, in the 1960s, he was a sensation. “He was our first Aboriginal pop star,” says fellow Golden Guitar winner, Troy Cassar-Daley, “the glue between black and white Australia.”

A regular on Brian Henderson’s Bandstand and Johnny O’Keefe’s Six O’Clock Rock, Jimmy had already scored his first hit with a cover of Danny Boy, and The Weekly‘s music columnist Bob Rogers noted his “perfectionism”, his “melodious voice” and the “warm sincerity” of his delivery.

It’s no wonder Bob was impressed. The young Yorta Yorta singer was descended from three generations of accomplished musicians. Frances, who grew up to become an historian and has spent more than 10 years researching her own family history for a book about her famous dad, traces the musical seam back to her great-grandfather.

John Edward (better known as Jack) Little was just a toddler when all the adults in the Aboriginal camp where he and his family lived were massacred sometime in the mid 1870s. Jack was found hiding in a hollow log, removed from the bloody site (probably by native mounted police) and taken in by a white family in Charleville, Queensland, for whom he spent his childhood performing unpaid labour.

As an adult, he moved south to NSW, became an expert tracker (he was sent to hunt down “Jimmy Blacksmith”) and remarkably for the time, also played violin. “Back before television,” says Frances, “a lot of people played instruments, but it was very unusual that an Aboriginal kid would learn violin in the 1800s.”

Jimmy and his daughter Frances, who spent her young life touring the country with her parents.

Jack met and married a south coast girl, Eliza Brierley, and they raised their sons in a musical household. So it was no surprise that their eldest, James (better known as Kunkus), grew up to become a musician, vaudevillian and core member of the Wallaga Lake Gumleaf Band, which played clubs and dances all along the NSW south coast.

On the road between gigs, Kunkus met Frances McGee, a pretty young member of the famous Cummeragunja Choir. They married and settled down on the Cummeragunja Mission, so their first son, Jimmy, was born in 1937 on Yorta Yorta Country along the Murray River. He spent his earliest years there, surrounded by family, love and music.

Frances joined the Gumleaf Band and when Jimmy was seven, the family moved across to the coast. But six years later, his mother died from tetanus, and Jimmy’s childhood came abruptly to an end.

“Kunkus had always travelled to find extra work,” Frances explains, “bean picking, dairy farming, timber work.” Aboriginal children were still regularly being stolen by the authorities. “And suddenly you’ve got a man there with five children, constantly under threat of the welfare taking them away. Kunkus needed to work, but he also had to find a way to give the kids a stable life. So he moved four of them in with his step-sister, and the eldest, Jimmy, left school and worked with him up and down the coast.”

“There’s a tendency for people to look back at their childhoods with rose-coloured glasses,” Frances adds. “And it was Dad’s nature to never complain. I think he had a pretty tough life growing up, but when I asked him about it, he’d talk about swimming and fishing. He saw it as very happy.”

It was also when he turned 13 that Jimmy first picked up a guitar. Within a year, he was playing local concerts and talent contests. At 16, he moved to Sydney, determined to work hard and send money home, but also to take the first steps in a musical career.

Jimmy was just 17 when he met a beautiful, determined Yuwaalaraay/Gamilaraay woman, Marjorie Rose Peters, at a barn dance at the Waterloo Town Hall. For Jimmy, it was love at first sight, though Marj took a little wooing.

Marj was a descendant of a respected Yuwaalaraay clever man and, way back, of the bushranger Captain Thunderbolt. “We’re kind of illegitimate descendants,” Frances chuckles. “Captain Thunderbolt had a lot of descendants. They didn’t call him thunderbolt for nothing.”

Jimmy performing circa 2008.

More soberingly, at 18, Marj’s maternal grandmother, Clara, had been abducted and raped by a white man. Charges were laid but he was acquitted by an all-white male jury. “Instead, the court punished Clara,” Frances adds, “by sending her away to work on a station, an impossible distance – 300kms – from her parents, and she had a baby from the rape.”

In part as a result of that history, both Marj’s parents had an active interest in civil rights, and they’d bred a feisty, loyal, big-hearted daughter. It was three years before she and Jimmy wed, but once they did, she was a force at his side.

“This was Australia in the 1960s,” Frances explains, “when many people were unaccustomed to seeing a forthright Aboriginal woman in charge, but Dad saw Mum as a business partner as well as a life partner. They fit like a glove. My mum was very strong and businesslike, whereas Dad was this artist. He would have done anything for anybody at the drop of a hat, But Mum was able to stand her ground amongst white men in the music business. She had no qualms about saying, ‘Well, this is what we want,’ or, ‘He’s not doing that.’ She knew how to stand up for him.”

“We were like two bookends,” Jimmy once told Frances. “In fact, I think we were a formidable team who were put together as part of destiny…”

Jimmy had a contract with the fledgling Aussie label, Festival Records. Influenced by his favourite acts – Jim Reeves, Sam Cooke, Nat King Cole – Jimmy released country, pop and even reggae records. His biggest hit was a gospel song, Royal Telephone Line. When it rocketed to Number One, Jimmy was mobbed in the streets, and Frances remembers pouring great sacks of fan mail onto the living room floor for the three of them to read.

Jimmy struck up a friendship with the rocker, Col Joye, and they toured all over Australia: sometimes just the two of them and their bands; other times as part of the Col Joye Show which included acts like Judy Stone, Sandy Scott, Little Pattie.

“I remember Col being around a lot when I was a kid,” Frances says. “But I didn’t realise until later that they were going out and doing charity fundraising and visiting homes where Aboriginal kids were kept. They were entering towns where there was segregation. They were touring around even before the freedom rides, consciously going out there and breaking barriers through music.

Jimmy and his wife Marjorie.

“Their relationship was very strong and my dad loved those years with the Col Joye tours. On occasion, Col tells the story, they would go to a pub or venue and the guy on the door would say, ‘He’s not coming in here. He has to go through the back door.’ And Col would say, ‘Well, if he goes through the back door, we’re not playing.’ Col said, ‘We weren’t going to let anything get in our way.'”

Jimmy also used his fame to boost other First Nations artists. With his manager, Ted Quigg, he co-founded the All Coloured Show, which featured half a dozen Indigenous artists, including his brother Fred Little. They toured regional pubs and clubs, many of which otherwise banned or segregated Aboriginal patrons. Their shows changed attitudes and drew sell-out crowds.

Jimmy’s musical career languished somewhat in the late ’70s and ’80s but he found work as an actor, taught young musicians at the Eora Aboriginal College in Sydney and was joint artistic director of the Festival of Pacific Arts. He and Marj were also very active and much-loved grandparents to Frances’ son, James Henry.

Then in the ’90s Jimmy was rediscovered by a whole new generation, released two of the most successful albums of his career, Yorta Yorta Man and Messenger, picked up two Deadly Awards, an ARIA Award, and was inducted into the ARIA Hall of Fame.

Jimmy copped some criticism over the years for being both too black and too white. Frances admits there were those who – particularly after Royal Telephone – “had this view of Jimmy as an assimilated Aboriginal man, whitewashed by Christianity”. But, she insists, “those people misunderstood him”.

“Dad saw a different way in which black and white relations could work together,” she explains. “Because Dad had a gentle nature, some people saw that as weakness, but it wasn’t that he was weak or unconscious of injustice or selling out. He just had a different way and [those critics] didn’t get what he was on about. It’s something we still have a problem with today. We value warriors, but we don’t think about peacemakers. If we talk about our Aboriginal heroes, we’ll mention someone like Pemulwuy, who was a warrior, but for a long time we ridiculed Bennelong, who was trying to make peace. I think we still have some way to go to understand that peacemakers are actually very strong people.”

In the last decade of his life, Jimmy was struck down by kidney disease. He lived for two years on dialysis before receiving a kidney transplant, and out of the experience he launched the Jimmy Little Foundation to support better health outcomes in First Nations communities.

Jimmy and Marjorie with duaghter Frances, and grandson James Henry.

After a decades-long battle with diabetes and asthma, Marj died in 2011 of pneumonia. Jimmy described her as “my soul mate and my dear love and my best friend … the great love of my life”.

In his final months, Frances took Jimmy driving “back to Yorta Yorta Country – to Cummeragunja, where he was born – and then to the south coast of NSW, to Yuin-Monaro Country, where he grew up.”

Not long after they returned home to Dubbo, Jimmy followed Marj, dying peacefully in his sleep on April 2, 2012. There was a family funeral and then a state memorial at the Opera House, where the Jimmy Little Trio played for the last time with Jimmy’s grandson on vocals.

People approached Jimmy often about writing a memoir, but self-effacing as ever, he wasn’t sure. Then finally he asked Frances to do it.

“I didn’t want to be the person to write his biography,” she confesses. Part of that was Little family modesty, and also, as an historian, she thought the writer should have some distance. But her parents wouldn’t take no for an answer. “Mum and Dad said, ‘Who will know us as well as you do?'”

Ultimately though, the quote in the book that Frances likes best isn’t one Jimmy told her. “It comes from an interview with Peter Thompson on the ABC,” she admits.

“He asked Dad how he’d like to be remembered. And Dad said: ‘I just want people to remember me as a nice person who was fair minded, had a bit of talent and put it to good use.’ I loved my dad and that to me sums him up.”

The inaugural Jimmy Little Music & Arts Festival will be held June 10-11 at the Lightning Ridge Sportsground in NSW.

Jimmy Little, a Yorta Yorta Man, by Frances Peters-Little, Hardie Grant, is on sale now.

If you or someone you know has been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, help is always available. Call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

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