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Singing Cowboys - Star of the Month
Remind Me

Herb Jeffries
2 Films - Friday, July 29

The screen's first black cowboy, Herb Jeffries (billed Herbert Jeffrey) was a pioneer in many ways and still is. As a young singer in his twenties, he pitched the idea for an all-black Western to producer Jed Buell, leading to one of the most enduring favorites of the race movie movement. In later years, he would flourish as a popular jazz singer, and even in retirement continues to devote his time to music and the charities that are closest to his heart.

Herbert Jeffrey was born in Detroit in 1913 to an Irish mother and mixed-race father. Growing up in a racially mixed neighborhood, he rarely experienced racism growing up. Instead, he lived many a child's dream, watching silent screen cowboy stars at local movie theatres and learning to ride on his grandfather's dairy farm in Northern Michigan. He also started hanging around local musical groups, adding two years to his age so he could land singing jobs. While performing at the Savoy Dance Hall in Chicago, he was spotted by Earl "Fatha" Hines in 1931. Hines featured him in concerts and recordings, and on a national radio broadcast from the Chicago Worlds Fair in 1933 that brought him national attention. It wasn't until he toured the South with Hines, that Jeffries realized how deeply seated racism was in certain parts of the U.S. He then settled in Los Angeles, with an engagement at the Club Alabam.

While singing in Los Angeles, he caught a screening of The Terror of Tiny Town (1938), a Western produced by Beull featuring a cast entirely made up of little people. That inspired his idea for an all-black Western, a film that would give young African-Americans heroes to emulate just as he had idolized Tom Mix as a child. Jeffries traveled to Buell's offices in Gower Gulch, California, and convinced him to take a chance on Harlem on the Prairie (1937), the first sound Western with an all-black cast. Jeffrey wrote his own songs for the film and helped Buell with the casting, which included Spencer Williams as comic relief and The Four Tones to provide musical backup.

At the time, all-black productions, called "race movies," provided the only alternative to the marginalized, stereotyped roles available to African-American actors in Hollywood films. Pictures like Harlem on the Prairie provided black audiences the rare chance to see African-Americans doing more than cleaning, cooking and serving meals to white movie stars. Many, like Oscar Micheaux's pioneering films, captured a sense of life in the thriving black communities of America's largest cities. Most of the race films were confined to about 500 all-black theatres around the nation. Harlem on the Prairie was a rarity in that it also secured bookings in white theatres on both East and West Coasts, thanks largely to Gene Autry, who helped Jeffries and Buell get a distribution deal with Dallas-based Sack Amusement.

With the film's success, producer Richard C. Kahn approached Jeffries about making some follow-ups. Since Buell owned the first film, they needed a new name. With Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938), Jeffries introduced the character of Bob Blake, whom he would play in two other films. Unlike his other Westerns, Two-Gun Man from Harlem only started in the West. Partway through the action, Blake moves to Harlem, where he gets mixed up with organized crime. That did well enough to merit two more films, The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), which provided Jeffries with his nickname as a Western star, and Harlem Rides the Range (1939).

Because of his mixed racial heritage, Jeffries had to use makeup to darken his complexion. He also rarely took off his white Stetson, the top of an otherwise all-black outfit, so as not to reveal his lighter brown hair. The Four Tones continued as Jeffries' back-up group, with Williams along as the comic relief. With the Kahn films, Jeffries also acquired the horse Stardusk.

The success of Jeffries' Westerns did not escape Hollywood's notice, but he turned down offers to join the major studios, not wanting to play stereotyped domestic roles. He also turned down an offer from cowboy star Buck Jones, who wanted to send him to South America to learn Spanish. On his return, Jones wanted to star him in a series of Westerns, passing him as a white man. Jeffries had more Westerns planned when he decided instead to accept a prestigious singing engagement with Duke Ellington, which led to his greatest recording success. Ellington's arranger, Billy Strayhorn, convinced Jeffries to switch from tenor to baritone, giving him a mellower sound that increased his popularity. In 1941, when another singer was unavailable, Jeffries stepped into the studio at the last minute to record "Flamingo," which would become his signature song. Although the recording did not impress RCA Victor executives, they finally released it in 1943, by which time Jeffries had left Ellington for military service in World War II. When it sold over 14-million records, he came out of the service a major singing star. Other hit recordings released during his Ellington days included "In My Solitude" and "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good."

In the '50s, Jeffries headlined in Europe and ran his own nightclub in Paris. He also starred in one more film, Calypso Joe (1957), playing a singing star who helps Angie Dickinson in choosing the ideal mate. He also made television guest appearances, playing a black cowboy on The Virginian, and wrote and directed the nudie classic Mundo Depravados (1967), starring his wife at the time, stripper Tempest Storm.

With the returning popularity of the Western in the '90s, Jeffreys recorded a comeback album of Western songs, The Bronze Buckaroo Rides Again. In 1999, at 88, he released The Duke and I, a CD of songs he performed with Ellington in tribute to the man's 100th birthday.

Jeffries currently lives in Idyllwild, California, with his fifth wife, Sarah Lee Shippen. He remains active on the lecture circuit and also performs benefits for autism and music education, singing as recently as June 2010 to help raise money for music education in Oceanside, California. He has also been feted as the last surviving member of both Earl "Fatha" Hines' Orchestra and The Great Duke Ellington Orchestra. He was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2003.

by Frank Miller