“Little Children of Dark Skin Had No Heroes in The Movies. I was so Glad to Give Them Something to Identify With “– Herb Jeffries, The Times, 1998
WEST HILLS, CA.– He was the African-American answer to Cowboy Roy Rogers and his “Happy Trails” and the “Singing Cowboy” Gene Autry.
Herb Jeffries, the pioneering black singing cowboy and jazz entertainer, known to many as the first African-American cowboy movie star, died at the age of 100.
He is a legend to many because of his singing and for making a handful of low-budget westerns in the 1930s. As America’s first African American movie hero, he provided encouragement and hope to countless thousands of children and adults of all colors during the early days of film.
He was born Umberto Valentino in Detroit on Sept. 24, 1913.
According to information from the Multicultural Western Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame and other news entertainment sites, Jeffries mother was Irish, his father was Sicilian, and one of his great-grandparents was Ethiopian.
According to Jeffries, he took his stepfather’s last name and that Ethiopian family connection enabled him to get work with Black orchestras.
He began singing locally as a teenager before heading to Chicago, where he started touring as a singer with Earl “Fatha” Hines. In the deep South, he was struck by the number of black movie audiences viewing white cowboy pictures.
“Harlem on the Prairie,” billed as “the first all-Negro musical western,” was released in 1937. Among the all-black cast members were Spencer Williams, who later portrayed Andy on “Amos ‘n’ Andy” on television, and comedian Mantan Moreland, who provided comic relief.
He was considered a tall, handsome, wavy-haired singer with a Clark Gable mustache and white hat. The good guy wearing a white hat and a black western outfit.
The idea of making movies and westerns with all-black casts was Jeffries’ main M-O.
“Little children of dark skin — not just Negroes, but Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, everybody of color — had no heroes in the movies,” he told The Times in 1998. “I was so glad to give them something to identify with.
Three more musical westerns starring Jeffries were released over the next two years, “Two-Gun Man from Harlem,” “The Bronze Buckaroo” and “Harlem Rides the Range.”
Jeffries played singing cowboy character “Bob Blake” and rode a white horse named “Star Dusk.”
He made four films between 1937 and 1939 . While in Detroit in 1939, Jeffries showed up at a performance by the Duke Ellington Orchestra and was invited to sing. Ellington later asked Jeffries to join his orchestra on tour.
After Ellington hired him, “Flamingo” became a nickname for him because of his rendition of that song. He was also closely associated with “Satin Doll,” and he introduced “Angel Eyes” with the band.
In 1941 he appeared in the stage show Jump for Joy. Jeffries rich baritone and huge range made him a popular singer. He stayed with the band until 1943.
Drafted into the Army during World War II, Jeffries sang in a Special Services company entertaining troops. After the war, he had a number of hit records, including “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano” and “Basin Street Blues.”
By the early ’50s, he had moved to France and opened a popular jazz club in Paris called the Flamingo and another club in southern France. He continued to perform both in Europe and the United States and played the title role in the 1957 film “Calypso Joe,” costarring Angie Dickinson.
After returning to the U.S. he was in a plane accident. Pain from his injuries led him to study with the Indian spiritualist who founded the Self-Realization Fellowship and who taught him yoga and healing practices.
In the 1960s, he settled in the Los Angeles area, and made guest appearances on a number of television series over the next two decades.
In 1992, a tribute to the singing cowboys at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum and discovery of some of his lost cowboy pictures sparked new interest in his movie career.
He was recognized for his role in breaking Hollywood race barriers on screen in the 1930s. He was featured in a segment of Turner Broadcasting’s “The Untold West” and scenes from his westerns appeared in Mario Van Peebles’ 1993 movie “Posse.”
The renewed interest also led him to Nashville, where he recorded “The Bronze Buckaroo (Rides Again)” for the Warner Western label in 1995.
In 2003, he was inducted into the Multicultural Western Heritage Museum Hall of Fame in Fort Worth.
Jeffries stayed busy living an active life often making public appearances to support school music programs and raise money for band instruments.
Jeffries, whose marriages included one to burlesque legend Tempest Storm, is survived by his fifth wife, Savannah; three daughters; and two sons.
– Darwin Campbell, African-American News&Issues
Information from the Multicultural Western Heritage Museum and Hall of Fame and Writer Dennis MClellan contributed to this story.