We usually associate singing movie cowboys with such luminaries Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Ken Maynard, and Tex Ritter.
Herb Jeffries (pictured above and in costume below) isn’t thought of that way. Yet he was exactly that. Jeffries is considered America’s first black singing cowboy.
Depending on the source, he was born Umberto Alexander Valentino in Detroit either in 1909, 1911, 1913 or 1916, of a mixed-race marriage. His white Irish mother operated a rooming house. Jeffries never knew his father, said to be an Ethiopian. Jeffries presented himself professionally as a black performer.
He was not an actor at first, but a jazz singer. At 19, he joined the Erskin Tate Orchestra at the Savoy Ballroom in Chicago. In 1931, he was hired away by Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines, and then shifted to Blanche Calloway’s band (she is Cab’s older sister) before installing himself in Los Angeles as vocalist-MC at popular watering hole known as Club Alabam.
Jeffries was a looker — tall, slender but muscular with a Latin look complete with pencil-line mustache.
It was in the late Thirties that movies beckoned — and such curious movies. There were five in all (one titled The Bronze Buckaroo) each a western starring Jeffries as the good guy dressed in black who sang from time to time.
The production values were rudimentary, the cast was all Afro-American. To say that budgets were minimal would be an exaggeration.
Frank recently sampled one of the five movies, 1938′s Harlem Rides The Range. Billed as “Herbert Jeffrey,” Jeffries stars as “Bob Blake,” a straight-shooting Lone Ranger type who extricates a virtuous maiden’s family from the clutches of a greedy landlord and his libidinous wife.
The Merit Pictures production (Merit Pictures?) opens with Jeffries vocalizing with a backup quartet, but quickly gets on with the action sans songs albeit with comic overtones often provided by veteran character actor Mantan Moreland.
When initially released, these westerns were probably never seen by white audiences. Instead, they played the black theater circuits back in those segregated times.
Jeffries made his mark as a singer when he joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the early 1940′s, becoming identified with his interpretation of a signature Ellington tune, “Flamingo.” And from this period on through the late Fifties, Jeffries concentrated on his musical career.
(Interestingly, Ellington encouraged Jeffries to lower his natural tenor voice to sound more like Bing Crosby. Recalled Jeffries, Duke thought Bing was one of the greatest baritones of all time.)
From the late Fifties on, Jeffries returned to Hollywood, working extensively in television right into the mid 1990s. He led a long and interesting life. He moved to Europe in the Fifties, and ran a Parisian night club for a while. He was married four times, once (for eight years) to legendary stripper Tempest Storm.
‘The Bronze Buckaroo’ died in May of last year, having just about reached — or surpassed, again depending on the source — the century mark.