America's first black singing movie cowboy
At 94, Herb Jeffries still knows the tricks of his trade. "I still have a four-and-a-half octave range," asserts the robust singer, minutes after performing classic jazz tunes at the 2005 Sweet & Hot Music Festival in Los Angeles.
Jeffries received rousing applause after he sang gems such as "It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing)" and "Flamingo," which he originally performed in the 1930s and ’40s as a jazz singer in the band of the legendary Duke Ellington.
But it was a career detour from jazz in the ’30s that most defines Jeffries’ place in history. Billed as America’s first black singing movie cowboy, he made four Westerns as the Bronze Buckaroo, a character who blazed a new trail for people of color in Hollywood.
Jeffries recalls taking a break from a musical performance in Cincinnati in 1934 and seeing a black child crying in an alley because a group of white children wouldn’t let him play cowboys with them. The white kids were the child’s friends, not neighborhood bullies. They simply thought cowboys couldn’t be black.
After all, who could blame them? Hollywood’s portrayal of cowboys was all-white, despite the fact that, historically, blacks played a major role in domesticating the Western frontier.
"That really hit me hard," Jeffries says. "I wanted to do something I thought would benefit everyone, not just dark-skinned children. Something to provide a little education. So I became the Bronze Buckaroo."
Jeffries’ ethnicity is a smooth, blended cocktail mix of Italian, Irish, Ethiopian and French Canadian. The tan tone of his skin always made it fairly easy to label him "black," a designation he never shunned—but never wholly embraced, either.
"I have never seen a white man, and I have never seen a black man. We’re all human beings," he says. "We all have the same two ears, hair on our head, two eyes, a nose and mouth, ten fingers and ten toes, and we all go to the bathroom."
He persuaded a Hollywood producer to back him, learned some horse-riding stunts and starred in the first singing Western with an all-black cast. "I picked up one script that said Sunset on the Prairie," Jeffries recalls. "I said, ‘Why not use this and call it Harlem on the Prairie?"
The movie was a hit, so Jeffries made four more. As his films played the big screens across America, black children could look up to a cowboy who looked more like them.
"I liked Gene Autry and Hopalong Cassidy," says blues guitarist B.B. King, recalling his own fondness for cowboys as a youngster. "But [Herb] happened to be a black one, and that made it very good." Today, King has Jeffries’ movies in his home-video collection.
After making the Bronze Buckaroo films, Jeffries went back to jazz, becoming the first permanent male vocalist in Ellington’s band. After Pearl Harbor was attacked, he joined the Army’s Special Services unit and entertained troops during World War II and the Korean War. Returning to civilian life, he recorded several albums, guest-starred on TV programs such as Hawaii 5-O and I Dream of Jeannie, appeared in several made-for-TV movies and became a popular nightclub singer . . . again.
Last year, on his 93rd birthday, he got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He has been inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City and honored at Los Angeles’ (Gene) Autry National Center museum, which is named after Jeffries’ late friend and fellow singing cowboy. And in 2003, Jeffries was invited for the first time to perform at the White House, where President George W. Bush hugged him onstage and then-Secretary of State Colin Powell told Jeffries how much the Bronze Buckaroo films meant to him as a child.
Jeffries, who lives in Idyllwild, Calif. (pop. 3,504), still honors both his Western and musical heritages. His most recent album is a collection of Western tunes, The Bronze Buckaroo Rides Again.
Currently at work on his autobiography, Jefferies insists he is not old, just "vintage." Before his performance at the Sweet & Hot Festival, he playfully addressed his audience. "How would you like to have a bottle of 94-year-old vintage wine?" he asked.
Judging from the applause, they liked it just fine.