a/k/a Herbert Jeffery
a/k/a The Bronze Buckaroo
Update: On May 26, 2014, Variety reported that a pioneer in African American-targeted Western movies and jazz singer Herb Jeffries, a/k/a the “Bronze Buckaroo,” died. He was 100. Jeffries died of heart failure in West Hills, California on Sunday, May 25, 2014, according to the LA Times. His health had been declining for some time. His survivors include his wife Savannah and his five children.
Herb Jeffries (billed as Herbert Jeffrey) was born Umberto Alejandro Ballentino in Detroit, Michigan in 1913 (some modern sources cite the year as 1911) to an Irish mother and mixed-race father. He grew up watching silent screen cowboys at local movie theatres and learning to ride on his grandfather’s dairy farm in Northern Michigan. Herb fell in love with music at a young age, and sang in a church choir, but he was especially attracted to jazz and blues. He attended school during the Depression and since money was scarce, decided to quit high school and go to work. Years later, he would go back, graduate, and even get several degrees, but at that time, the goal was to earn enough money to help his family. Blessed with an excellent singing voice, he began performing locally in Detroit.
One night in 1933, Jeffries was singing in a small nightclub when jazz icon Louis Armstrong walked through the door. In an interview by amateur jazz historian Tad Calcara, Jeffries says Armstrong heard him sing, pulled him aside, and changed his life. Jeffries took the Armstrong’s advice and headed for Chicago where he joined a band led by Erskine Tate and was soon spotted by Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines. Hines featured Jeffries in concerts and recordings, and on a national radio broadcast from the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 that brought him national attention.
While in his twenties, Jeffries pitched the idea for an all-black Western to producer Jed Buell, leading to one of the most enduring genres of the race movie movement. Jeffries traveled to Buell’s offices in Gower Gulch, California, and convinced him to take a chance on Harlem on the Prairie (1937), the first sound Western with an all-black cast. Harlem on the Prairie was a rarity in that it also secured bookings in white theatres on both East and West Coasts, thanks largely to Gene Autry, who helped Jeffries and Buell get a distribution deal with Sack Amusement.
With the film’s success, producer Richard C. Kahn approached Jeffries about making follow-up films. With Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938), Jeffries introduced the character of Bob Blake, whom he would play in two other films, The Bronze Buckaroo (1939) and Harlem Rides the Range (1939). With his long frame, rakish mustache and exotic good looks, Jeffries was able to capitalize on two unique styles of films at the time race films and singing cowboy pictures. And although he only made four films in that era, he helped to change the way African-Americans were portrayed in the movies.
Because of his mixed racial heritage, Jeffries had to use make-up to darken his complexion. He rarely took off his white Stetson, which he wore with an otherwise all-black outfit, so as not to reveal his lighter brown hair. The success of Jeffries’ Westerns did not escape Hollywood’s notice, but he turned down offers to join the major studios, not wanting to play stereotyped domestic roles.
Other films were in the planning stages, but never made because any chances to continue the series ended when Jeffries decided to accept a prestigious singing engagement with Duke Ellington. This led to his greatest recording success. In 1941, when another singer was unavailable, Jeffries stepped into the studio at the last minute to record “Flamingo,” which would become his signature song.
In the ’50s, Jeffries headlined in Europe and ran his own nightclub in Paris. He also starred in one more film, Calypso Joe (1957). He made several television guest appearances, including playing a black cowboy on The Virginian and had multiple guest roles on “Hawaii Five-O” as well as a run on the animated sitcom “Where’s Huddles?” Jeffries also wrote and directed the nudie classic Mundo Depravados (1967), starring his wife at the time, stripper Tempest Storm.
Through the years Herb remained active on the lecture circuit and performed benefits for autism and music education. In 1995, he recorded an album of Western songs entitled “The Bronze Buckaroo Rides Again,” which was well received by critics. In 1999, at 88, he released The Duke and I, a CD of songs he performed with Ellington in tribute to Ellington’s 100th birthday. Jeffries was a recipient of a Golden Boot award in 1996 and was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in 2003.
Herb Jeffries Filmography
Calypso Joe (1957)
Harlem Rides the Range (1939)
The Bronze Buckaroo (1939)
Rhythm Rodeo (1938)
Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938)
Harlem on the Prairie (1937)
Source(s): Turner Classic Movies, B-Westerns.com, Voice of America, classicimages.com, IMDB, Variety.