NATIONAL: Flags flew at half-mast on the Sydney Harbour Bridge as mourners filed into the Opera House for the memorial service for acclaimed Australian singer Jimmy Little.
A smoking ceremony was held outside the Opera House to honour the Aboriginal artist who died on April 2, aged 75.
Among the mourners was musical historian Glenn A. Baker, who described Mr Little as an “absolute delightful human being”.
“He was one of the gentlest, warmest, most sincere men I have ever met, (with) a voice of pure velvet,” he said.
Little made Australian history in 1963 when he had a number one hit with his song Royal Telephone, which Baker said was a rarity amongst Indigenous artists in that era.
“Back then, to make headlines, that an Aboriginal boy, a Koori, had actually topped the chart and beaten out white performers was a rarity,” Baker said.
“I wondered whether Jimmy ever saw it that way.
“I’m sure he was just a man who played music because he loved it.”
NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell and deputy opposition leader Linda Burney are among mourners.
Prominent journalist Jeff McMullen was the MC.
Mr McMullen said the service honoured the gentlest Australian songman.
“He was great man but he was always humble, a great elder, a great entertainer, a great role model for everyone,” he told the gathering.
“Jimmy’s family urges you to see this as a celebration of the legacy and the ongoing beauty of that marvellous voice and music that will be with us forever.”
Mr O’Farrell said he was paying tribute to Little’s life and extraordinary achievements.
“He was an ambassador for Aboriginal culture and a passionate advocate for improved Aboriginal health,” he said.
“Jimmy Little was a man of soul, he had his country in him and he shared that with all Australians.
“He disarmed us, he charmed us and encouraged us to think beyond ourselves.
“When Jimmy spoke people listened, recognising truth in his words and humility in his life.”
Mr O’Farrell described Little as a “straight-up man of action”.
“He sought solutions for difficult problems so that future generations didn’t have to endure the problems and difficulties that he’s had,” he said.
The premier said Little had taught and mentored Aboriginal music students in Redfern since 1985, and he acknowledged the establishment of Little’s not-for-profit foundation that aimed to increase the life expectancy of Aboriginal people.
“In all his work, Jimmy put others before himself and opened up opportunities for others to take,” he said.
Mr O’Farrell announced on Thursday that Little had been named recipient of the 2012 JC Williamson Award.
“The award recognises individuals who have made an outstanding contribution to the Australian live entertainment and performing arts industry and shaped the future of the industry for the better,” the premier said.
Only 27 people have won the award since its inception in 1998, including Michael Gudinski, Ruth Cracknell, John Farnham, Joan Sutherland, Graham Murphy and Barry Humphries.
Little was delighted when he was told earlier this year that he had won the award, Mr O’Farrell said.
Jimmy’s daughter, Frances Peters-Little, thanked all those who attended Thursday’s service.
She recounted the poor conditions into which her father was born but said he was raised to believe in the good in all people.
“His capacity to constantly see the good in all people sometimes came under heavy criticism and his unfailing optimism in human nature was something that was not always understood,” she said, holding back tears.
“My dad, I believe, had values that were irreplaceable and undeniably his own.
“His quiet and gentle ways, I think, are still yet to be fully recognised for the strength that they hold.”
She said Little constantly pushed the boundaries both musically and for the Aboriginal community.
“Just when they thought his era had come to an end, he would reinvent himself right in front of the public eye for yet another generation of music lovers,” she said.
Ms Peters-Little said her father became known as Australia’s “Uncle Jimmy” and she was proud to have shared him with everyone.
“I hope that we may all learn from him and follow his lead and strengthen our own faith in the goodness of human kind.”