Performance costume, consisting of safari suit and shirt, polyester / rayon / cotton / plastic / synthetic triacetate fibre, made by Stafford-Ellinson / Paramount, worn by Jimmy Little, Australia, 1973-1978
This costume has significance because the Indigenous entertainer Jimmy Little wore it on stage during performances. A singer of country, pop and gospel, Little became the first Aboriginal star of Australian popular music. During the 1960s, his unique interpretations of songs like 'Royal Telephone', 'Old Man River' and 'That Lucky Old Sun' became pop hits. He made regular appearances in clubs and on television.
Jimmy Little was born in 1937 on the Cummeragunga reserve on the Murray River. He followed in the footsteps of his father, Jimmy Little Snr, a vaudeville entertainer who knew hundreds of songs - hymns, hillbilly songs, Tin Pan Alley, music-hall, bush ballads and traditional tribal songs.
Attracted to the country and western music he heard on the radio, Little learnt to play the guitar at the age of 13 and developed a repertoire that included songs recorded by Hank Snow. He cited Nat King Cole and Jim Reeves as major influences on the soft and gentle singing style that became his hallmark.
Little went to Sydney as a teenager in the early 1950s and recorded 'Mysteries of Life' for Regal Zonophone, who released it in 1956 as the first of six Jimmy Little 78rpm discs. As Clinton Walker has written, 'If at first his appeal as a black kid was a novelty to white Australia, the simplicity, sincerity and understated elegance of his artistry has seen him through to this day' ('Real Wild Child' CD-ROM, 1997).
Little then recorded a song by his father, 'Give the Coloured Boy a Go', which was released on EMI's Columbia label. In 1959 he signed with Festival Records, where he remained for over 40 years. Late in 1963 he recorded Tommy Tycho's arrangement of Frederick M. Lehman's old gospel song 'Royal Telephone', which was released as a single on the Festival label. With its religious message delivered in Little's gentle voice, it became a huge hit on the pop charts, selling more than 75,000 copies. 'I was happy to put my voice to that brassy choral sound. It established me as a gospel singer' (Jimmy Little in conversation with Peter Cox, 26 February 2008). 'Royal Telephone' remained his signature tune. He received the 1964 Everybody's magazine Pop Star of the Year award. He toured constantly, received radio airplay and made regular TV appearances on shows like 'Teen Time', 'Sing Sing Sing' and 'Bandstand'.
'Baby Blue' was a hit in 1974, although Little had more success with albums rather than singles. In fact Festival Records released at least 27 Jimmy Little albums. He continued to tour and record until the end of the 1970s, when he decided to spend more time with his family and to work in education. He was named Aboriginal of the Year in 1989. He appeared in the Wim Wenders film 'Until the End of the World' in 1990 and later had a non-singing part in the Aboriginal opera 'Black River'.
In 1994 Little was inducted into the Tamworth Country Music Hall of Fame as a Living Legend. In 1995 came the release of his first new album in 15 years, 'Yorta Yorta Man'. His 1999 'Messenger' album of contemporary classic Australian songs was a powerful return to the charts by a much-loved performer. It was followed by 'Resonate' (2001), an album of new songs written for Little by contemporary songwriters.
In 1999 Little was inducted into the ARIA Australian Music Hall of Fame. In 2004 a public vote named him a National Living Treasure and he received an Order of Australia award for his life in the entertainment industry and his ongoing work with Indigenous education and health.
Little was struck down with renal failure in 2004 and received a kidney transplant two years later. In 2006 he launched the Jimmy Little Foundation to help improve renal health in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities in regional and remote Australia. He passed away in his sleep on the morning of 2 April 2012.
Jimmy Little was blessed with a voice that was soft, sweet and delicate, yet immensely powerful. Despite his modesty, he displayed the confidence and charisma to communicate through song for over 50 years.
The safari suit was a phenomenon of 1970s Australian male attire. It consisted of a lightweight, military-style jacket and slacks, often in beige, cream, khaki, powder blue or pale green. The slacks were sometimes flared. The jacket typically had four tabbed patch pockets, prominent buttons, wide lapel collars and sometimes epaulettes. The jackets were often short-sleeved and some safari suits even had short pants.
Made in practical, washable, 'versatile and wrinkle free' polyester, this was semi-casual, comfortable business wear that required no ironing, was suitable for the warm Australian climate and lasted forever. As a male business uniform, it was in the vanguard of a failed revolution in corporate dress as an alternative to the lounge suit. In 1975 Jack Melloy, Labor deputy leader in the Queensland parliament, was thrown out of the house and derided as a 'hippie' for wearing a short-sleeved safari suit made on the Gold Coast. Favoured by middle-aged men, the safari suit was famously worn on television by Bernard King, in politics by Don Dunstan, and on the big screen by John Meillon in 'Crocodile Dundee'. By the time the 1980s dawned, Australian men had retreated to the conventional lounge suit. The safari suit had gone out of fashion.
The Australian entertainer Jimmy Little bought this costume in the mid-1970s and wore it on stage many times over the next few years. He had three safari suits, in dark blue, sky blue and this pale green one. He wore platform shoes with the suits, 'keeping up with the fashion' (Jimmy Little in conversation with Peter Cox, 26 February 2008). He is pictured wearing one of these safari suits on the cover of an album from this period. He wore the shirt with this and other suits. As Jimmy explained, 'I wanted to look good, not overdressed, playing in open-air festivals. The safari suit was cool, casual and relaxed, with a level of sophistication. I developed a Jimmy Little style in the visual, the sound and the overall presentation. While trying to keep up with fashion, I was the only one wearing certain fashions, like pink shirts and white ties, which looked good against my skin. Somehow I wasn't in uniform with the mainstream artists ' (Jimmy Little in conversation with Peter Cox, 26 February 2008). He lent the costume to the Powerhouse Museum for display in the exhibition 'Spinning Around: 50 Years of Festival Records', and subsequently donated it to the Museum.