Issue 282 — The Paregien Journal — May 29, 2014
Herb Jeffries, Cowboy Movie Star
by Stan Paregien
Copyrighted May 29, 2014
Official U.S. Census records from 1920 show actor and singer Herb Jeffries was born Umberto Alejandro Balentino on Sept. 24, 1914 in Detroit, Mich. His father was one Mr. Howard Jeffrey. Jeffries died at the age of 100 (or nearly so) on May 25, 2014 in a hospital in Los Angeles. The cause of death was listed as heart failure.
Jeffries often described his mother as “100% white and Irish.” However, the father he never knew he described as part Sicilian, part Irish, part French, part Italian and part Ethiopian (African), accounting for his being able to pass as a black man and, sometimes, as a white man. He was black enough (sometimes aided by dark makeup) to be hired by some of the best black bands and orchestras. He sometimes privately joked he was only “3/8’s black.”
He said that he chose to be identified as a black man, largely because a white man would not have been hired to play with the big-name black bands and orchestras of the day. Reverse discrimination, don’t you know? Ironically, on each of his four or five marriage certificates he listed his race as “Caucasian.” All of his wives were white women.
The charismatic Jeffries started out his career using the name “Herb Jeffrey,” the last name being that of his father. He moved to Chicago as a teenager and began by singing for Earl “Fatha” Hines and his orchestra. That was from 1931 to 1934. From there it was on to Los Angeles .
Then, blessed with a handsome face, a tall (6′ 2″) and muscular physique, and a robust baritone voice, Jeffries became the star of four Westerns movies between 1937 and 1939. He was a lover of the Old West stories and the popular white cowboy stars such as Tom Mix, Buck Jones and William S. Hart. It was his dream to create cowboy movies for black people, so he sought out someone to produce them.
He found a white man named Jed Buell, an independent producer of B-movies (the ones which received second billing at theaters). Jeffries saw Buell’s unusual movie, “The Terror of Tiny Town,” a Western spoof with a cast made up entirely of “height challenged” actors (little people). So he found Buell and made a deal.
For those low-budget films, Buell had Jeffries apply dark makeup to cover up his light complexion. That was to insure he would be accepted by black audiences, as the black cowboy films were only distributed to black movie theaters.
In those Westerns, Herb Jeffries (listed as Jeffrey) played a cowboy named “Bob Blake” and rode a horse named “Stardusk.” He was flanked by a singing group called “The Four Tones” and his comical pard was a black actor named Mantan Moreland. Jeffries was billed as “The Bronze Buckeroo” in the films named “Harlem Rides the Range (1939),” “The Bronze Buckaroo,” “Two-Gun Man from Harlem” and “Harlem on the Prairie.” That last film was actually a musical. Those films are now available on a DVD titled, “Treasures of Black Cinema.”
Or you may view some not-such-good-quality copies on YouTube such as:
(1) Harlem Rides the Range – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1lQFxvcr31Y’
(2) Two-Gun Man from Harlem – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4D96gvWk6lE
(3) The Bronze Buckeroo” (1939) – pretty good vocal quality with fair visuals.
Later in his life, Herb Jeffries is quoted was having said: “The word ‘black’ means ‘a void,’ so I have never seen a black man. The word ‘white’ means ‘lack of pigment,’ so I have never seen a white man either. There’s only one race: the human race.”
Jeffries quickly moved on to establish a solid career as a jazz and pop singer, mainly with black bands both in the United States and in France. He worked for famed black band leader Duke Ellington for ten years. In 1941 he had a big hit with the song, “Flamingo.” It became Herb Jeffries’ signature song, and eventually it sold over 14 million copies and gave him a steady stream of income.
He sometimes told interviewers, “Most people come to this world by stork. I came by Flamingo, and Duke Ellington delivered me.”
Other Jeffries hits included “You, You Darlin’,” “In My Solitude,” “When I Write My Song,” “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” and “There Shall Be No Night.”
It should be noted that this man’s stage name until 1941 was Herb Jeffrey, after his father Howard Jeffrey. Then a clerical error listed the singer on the smash hit “Flamingo” as “Herb Jeffries.” Rather than fight to get it corrected, Umberto Balentino (aka Herb Jeffrey) just went with the flow and adopted “Jeffries” as his new last name.
The actor and singer took a career detour when he served in the military during World War II. After that, he had hit songs with “Basin Street Blues” and with “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano.”
You may watch a nice film on YouTube of Jeffries singing several songs, including “Basin Street Blues,” “Baby, Come on Home,” “Night,” and “Solitude” at this location: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UHaCKPTIl90.
Try this little experiment: show the above clip to a few folks and ask them what they think his nationality is. I think most would be hard pressed to identify him as black.
Jeffries moved to France in the late 1940s and remained there several years, appearing in many different clubs and actually owning at least two of them. He returned to the United States in the 1950s.
Jeffries liked diversity as a singer and performing. So he wrote a series of calypso songs which was produced by RKO as a record album titled, “Jamaica.”
And he was in a romantic musical film, “Calypso Joe,” with Angie Dickinson in 1957. He and his band were given credits as “Herb Jeffries and his Calypsomaniacs.”
In 1996 he played himself in “The Cherokee Kid,” a Western spoof. He also made brief appearances on such TV shows as “Hawaii Five-O,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” and “The Virginian.”
Herb Jeffries often told interviewers he didn’t believe age should be a factor in one’s career or personal life. He backed that up by marrying a series of five beautiful white women. His second wife was a well-known stripper with the stage name of Tempest Storm. And his last wife/significant other, Savannah Shippen, was a mere 45 years his junior. He was still touring and singing up to his early 90’s.
He returned to his early cowboy roots in 1995 when he released his Western CD, “The Bronze Buckaroo (Rides Again)” on the Warner Western label. He also recorded a duet in which he and folksinger and cowboy singer Michael Martin Murphy sang a catchy little song called, “Payday Blues.”
Jeffries was honored in 1997 by his induction into the Hall of Fame of the Western Music Association. And in 2001 he was inducted into the “Walk of Western Stars” at Newhall, California.
In the spring of 2004, Herb Jeffries attended the annual “Wrangler Awards” ceremony at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. He himself was inducted into the “Western Performers Hall of Fame” that night. And Peggy and I were there to see him receive it and to meet him.
Stan & Peggy Paregien with singer/movie star Herb Jeffries in 2004
Herb Jeffries, left, in 2004 as he was inducted into the “Western Performers Hall of Fame” in Oklahoma City. At right is Buck Taylor who played “Newly” on the TV Western series, “Gunsmoke.” Taylor is the son of the later Western comic and actor Dub “Cannonball” Taylor. [Photo by Stan Paregien]
At the age of 93, Herb Jeffries attended the formal celebration of the installation of his own “star” on the famous Hollywood Walk of Stars on a stretch of several blocks of sidewalks in Hollywood, Calif.
For several years, he and mate Savannah lived in Wichita, Kansas. Carl Brewer, the mayor of Wichita, issued a proclamation making September 13, 2012 as “Herb Jeffries Day” in that city. The local city/county museum celebrated his long career by hosting several events. He died at the West Hills Hospital & Medical Center in San Fernando, California, near his last home which was in Woodland Hills, California. He was the last surviving member of The Duke Ellington Orchestra.
Herb Jeffries was the Alpha and the Omega of black singing cowboy movie stars. He was fiercely proud of the fact that he was “the very first black singing cowboy on the face of this earth.” He probably would have also expressed deep satisfaction that he was also the very last of the early-day black singing cowboy movie stars. It is unlikely we will see a man quite like him again.
“A Colored Life: The Herb Jeffries Story.” A promotional clip by AMS Pictures Original Programming on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pkMSZJKmrek
Barnes, Mike. “Herb Jeffries, Pioneering Black Singing Cowboy of the Movies, Dies at 100.” The Hollywood Reporter (online version). May 25, 2014.
“Herb Jeffries’s Biography.” Internet Movie Data Base: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0420370/bio?ref_=nm_ov_bio_sm.
“Herb Jeffries, in Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia.
Herndon, Jessica. “African-American cowboy crooner Herb Jeffries dies.” Chron, the online version of the Houston Chronicle. May 26, 2014.
Jeffries, Herb. “Colored Life: The Herb Jeffries Story.” 52 min. DVD.
Released in 2007.
Jeffries, Herb. “Flamingo” with Duke Ellington in 1941. A film clip found at:
Jeffries, Herb. “Flamingo” performed on a tropical set. Undated. YouTube:
Jeffries, Herb. “I’m A Happy Cowboy.” Recording from 1938 posted on YouTube:
Jeffries, Herb and Michael Martin Murphey. “Payday Blues” recording posted on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bV_9jqZw1_c
Stedman, Alex. “Herb Jeffries, Star of Black Cowboy Films, Dies at 100.” Variety (online version), May 26, 2014.
“Wichitans remember cowboy actor, singer Herb Jeffries.” Staff report at Kansas.com, the online version of The Wichita (Kansas) Eagle. May 27, 2014.
Yardley, William. Herb Jeffries, “‘Bronze Buckaroo’ of Song and Screen, Dies at 100 (or So).” The New York Times (online version), May 26, 2014.