Today is the 98th birthday of actor/singer Herb Jeffries. Although not widely recognized today (especially among non-black audiences, during his heyday in the 1930s and ’40s he was an enormously popular singer and the first black actor to star in Westerns. I’d probably know nothing of him except for my tenure in the Black Cinema section at Amoeba, where elderly gentleman regularly treated me to their reminiscences about a black singing cowboy they’d idolized as kids.
Herber Jeffries was born 24 September 1913 in Detroit, Michigan to Afro-Sicilian pianist Umberto Balentino and his Irish–American wife, Mildred. He never knew his father and was raised by his single mother, who ran a boarding house. Although light-skinned and almost surely able to “pass,” he identified as black and associated himself with Detroit‘s Howard Buntz Orchestra, which brought him a measure of local fame.
At the urging of Louis Armstrong, Jeffries moved to Chicago and began first performing with Erskine Tate and his Vendome Orchestra. He performed with the Earl Hines Orchestra at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair where their performance at the Grand Terrace Cafe was broadcast nationally. His first recording with Hines was 1934’s “Just to be in Carolina.”
In 1934 he left Hines’s band and moved to Los Angeles, where he became a popular MC and singer at the famed Club Alabam, the hottest hot spot in South Central‘s then-renowned jazz and blues scene. In Hollywood, Jeffries encountered Jed Buell, a poverty row producer with a background in B-westerns. After his production company began work on an all-midget western, Terror comes to Tiny Town, he was approached by Jeffries about making a black western, since Buell was obviously openminded as far as unusual casting. After all, though almost completely absent from film, there were some 8,000 black cowboys and no recorded instances of cowboys with dwarfism.
Together they made Harlem on the prairie, The Bronze Buckaroo, Two-gun man from Harlem, Harlem rides the range and Rhythm rodeo, all of in which Jeffries treated audiences to performances of his songs. Their success on the black cinema circuit seemed to inspire the producer to change his track. He immediately abandoned his intention of filming an all midget (save the star) version of Paul Bunyan in favor of “race films” – often starring Mantan Moreland (who’d earlier co-starred in two of Jeffries’s westerns).
Jeffries went on to perform and record widely with Duke Ellington from 1940 to 1942. His most famous song, a 1940 recording of “Flamingo,” sold over 50 million copies, bringing him massive international exposure. He was replaced by Al Hibbler in 1943.
Jeffries returned to film and TV after several years’ absence. He notably starred with Angie Dickinson in Calypso Joe (1957) and directed cult-favorite Mundo Depravados, with his burlesque star/then-wife Tempest Storm. In 1968, he appeared in the western TV series The Virginian.
In 1995, aged 81, Herb Jeffries recorded an album in Nashville titled The Bronze Buckaroo (rides again). In 2008 he was the subject of the documentary, A colored life.
Today, lives with his fourth wife, Savannah, in Southern California. He is the father of five children, and his family tree includes numerous grand children, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren. He still regularly appears at jazz festivals. All of his westerns are available on DVD.
UPDATE: Herb Jeffries passed away 25 May 2014 of heart failure at at West Hills Hospital and Medical Center. He was 100 years old.