Herb Jeffries is one man who should not be forgotten. His contributions to cinema as the first Black cowboy helped pave the way for many African-Americans performers and his contributions to music cover almost 80 years. In film he is best known as "The Bronze Buckaroo", the first singing cowboy of color. In music he is probably best known for his time with Duke Ellington and his recording of "Flamingo", which sold over 50 million copies.
Jeffries always considered himself a man of color although his mother was Irish and his father was Sicilian. (His grandmother was part Ethiopian, however, so there was a strain of Negro heritage.) With his light skin he could easily have passed for Mexican. He had to apply makeup to darken himself for his movie roles. (He also did not remove his white hat because it would reveal his smooth brown hair.)
He (at various times) claimed he was born Herbert Jeffrey, Umberto Alejandro Ballentino, or Balintino, or Valentino. He was born in Detroit in 1913, although he also at times claimed 1911 or 1914. Legend has it that Louis Armstrong noticed his singing talent and urged Jeffries to move from Detroit to Chicago in pursuit of a singing career. Once in Chicago, he claimed the 1911 birthdate in order to be old enough to join Erskine Tate and His Vendome Orchesta in Chicago; he also claimed to be a Creole so he coulod be eligible to join an all-Black band.
In 1933 Jeffries joined the Earl Hines orchestra and from 1940 to 1940 he sang with the Duke Ellington orchestra. He spent the Fifties in Europe, owning a Parisian nightclub for a while. He was still performing occasionally a year ago at age 96.
In the late 1930s Jeffries began starring in a string of "sepia" movies, all-Black films made to be shown in the 500 or so theaters catering to an African American audience. The first of these, Harlem on the Prairie (1937) featured Jeffries in the lead as a singing cowboy. The movie was inspired by the success of Gene Autrey's films before a white audience. Jeffries became the first "Black" western hero.
He then appeared in the western musical movie revue Rhythm Rodeo, his role billed only as "Singing Cowboy", followed by the lead role in Two-Gun Man from Harlem. In 1939 Jeffries appeared in Harlem Rides the Range and in The Bronze Buckaroo, movies that forever cemented his reputation as a cowboy star. Herb Jeffries left the movies then to concentrate on his singing career, returning as the title character in Calypso Joe, a 1957 romance with 14 musical munbers. He made two theatrical releases after that: Chrome and Hot Leather, a 1971 action film in which he had a small role (along with Ann Marie, Cheryl Ladd, Marvin Gaye, Bobby Pickett, and Peter Brown, among others), and Potrait of a Hitman, a 1979 actioner in which he also had a small part.
Television beckoned in the 1960s, with roles on I Dream of Genie, The Name of the Game, The Virginian, Where's Huddles?, Hawaii Five-0, and an appearance on The American Experience. He also appeared in the television movies Jarrett, Twice in a Lifetime, and The Cherokee Kid. Along the way he also produced and directed a "nudie mystery movie" starring stripper Tempest Storm, his then-wife --the third (or fourth) of his four (or five) wives. In 2008, Jeffries married his current wife, 45 years his junior. The man likes his women.
From Harlem Rides the Range, here's Jeffries with The Four Tones singing "Prairie Flower":
Here he joins up with The Cats and the Fiddle to sing "I'm a Happy Cowboy" from Two Gun Man From Harlem:
From The Bronze Buckaroo, Jeffries has "Got the Pay Day Blues" with The Four Tones:
This next song appears to be untitled. I'd probably title it "Call Him Home" or "The Cowboy's Life (Is the Only Life for Me)". Again, from The Bronze Buckaroo:
Moving away from the movies, here's Herb Jeffries with Joe Liggins & His Honey Drippers doing "Left a Good Deal in Mobile":
From 1940, Side A of a recording with Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra, "The Girl in My Dreams":
And Side B, "Flamingo":
Moving forward to May,1989 from the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee, "Poinciana":
And a cover of an old standard:
And just a year ago, Herb Jeffries appeared with his son Robert to sing "Summertime":
And finally, here's a tribute to Jeffries, his horse Stardusk, and the Black western, written and performed by Damon Leigh: