Mainstream movie audiences associate singing cowboys with such luminaries Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Ken Maynard, Tex Ritter and even John Wayne in his Monogram Pictures period in the early 1930s.
But Herb Jeffries (pictured above in mufti and in costume below)?
Hello, everybody, Mr. Joe Morella and Mr. Frank Segers, your Classic Movie Guys. Mrs. Norman Maine is downstairs at the piano singing “The Man That Got Away” over and over. Driving us to distraction.
Today we’re musing about the curious career of Herb Jeffries, who is considered America’s first black singing cowboy. Depending on the source, he was born 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. Nonetheless, 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. But 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 movie, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, 1938’s “Harlem Rides The Range.” Curiously 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 then gets on with the action sans songs but with comic overtones. Included in the cast is veteran character actor Mantan Moreland, whose onscreen antics are too often dismissed today — unfairly, in our view — as un-PC.
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 Nineties. You have to hand it to Jeffries. He’s led an interesting life. He moved to Europe in the Fifties, and ran a Parisian night club for a while. He’s been married four times, once (for eight years) to legendary stripper Tempest Storm. The 90-something Jeffries is still alive, living near Palm Springs, California. He still makes appearances as The Bronze Buckaroo, perhaps the last of the singing cowboys.