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Herb Jefferies: The Bronze Buckeroo Rides Again

Okay, so what’s a record on the Warner Western label with a Buckaroo moniker doing between the pages of this respectable jazz magazine? If you don’t know Herb Jeffries, then you should. His limpid vocal tones graced many a jazz bandstand, including most notably that of Duke Ellington, years ago. In the late ’30s-that’s right, I said ’30s – he found a niche as sort of a sepia Gene Autry in a series of cowboy movies aimed at the “race” audience. These were C movies according to Jeffries’ recent accounts, however they gave him a certain cachet, and now nearly 50 years later some quirky exec at Warners has shown fit to resurrect this cornerstone of Jeffries’ career on disc.

Herb Jeffries’ rich, clear baritone pipes belie the fact that he is 83 years young. He is possessed of extraordinary vocal control for a man of any age. No, this is not a jazz album; the pedal steel guitar is in place, the cowboy designation on the cover is for real, and the Nashvillian backing vocals mark this for just what it is-a set of old prairie songs. But they are not without quirks, some of which are derivatives from Herb’s background, perhaps just to make that connection. These include Take 6’s backing vocals on “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” and Hal Linden’s jazzy clarinet break on “Pay Day Blues” (though Linden’s contribution is mis-labeled), as well as the spare jazz feel of the general instrumental accompaniment. One is forgiven if one takes these sounds for some sort of Bizzaro World Hee Haw session, but Jeffries’ voice and its remarkable longevity is the focal point of this release. Two smacks on Warners wrists for the stingy recording time however. – Willard Jenkins

Originally Published