Jimmy Little, one of Australia’s most famous Aboriginal musicians, died Monday after a long illness, his family said. He was 75. The iconic artist died at his home in the city of Dubbo, about 250 miles west of Sydney, after a long struggle with diabetes, kidney problems and a heart condition, his family said in a statement.
Little was one of the first indigenous artists to win mainstream success in Australia, playing everything from country to reggae across a nearly 60-year career. “He was a true pioneer,” said his manager, Graham “Buzz” Bidstrup, recalling the days in the late 1950s and early 1960s when Little was often forced by nightclub owners to use the back door of a venue because of his dark skin. Very often, Bidstrup said, the white musicians would stand up for Little and refuse to play until he was allowed through the front door. “All the way through his life, he was always looking for a way to unite people without preaching at them – he just did it in a beautiful, soft way,” Bidstrup said. “I don’t think I’ll ever meet anybody else like him.”
Little strongly supported Aboriginal education and served as a mentor for many indigenous children. The Jimmy Little Foundation works to combat high rates of kidney disease and diabetes in Aboriginal communities.
Little’s family said his love for music never wavered, and that he began taking piano lessons at age 75.
A public vote dubbed him a National Living Treasure in 2004. Indigenous Affairs Minister Jenny Macklin called Little a role model for Aboriginal youth, and a “tireless advocate” for improvements to indigenous health. Little is survived by his daughter, Frances Claire Peters-Little, and his grandson, James Henry Little.