Herb Jeffries, whose multi-decade career took him from stardom as the first African-American “singing cowboy” to singing with Duke Ellington, died in Los Angeles May 25. The cause was heart failure. Jeffries was 100.
Known in the acting days as the “Bronze Buckaroo,” Jeffries found fame beginning in the 1930s as the star in a series of all-black Western films during a time when segregation still ruled Hollywood.
Born Umberto Alexander Valentino to mixed race parents on September 24, 1913, and because of his light skin he identified at various points in his career as either black or white.
At the same time that Jeffries-who also used the name Herbert Jeffrey at times-was making a name for himself in film, he began working as a singer, singing with Earl Hines’ orchestra, Sidney Bechet and, from 1940-42, with Ellington. Jeffries’ vocal performance of the song “Flamingo” with the Ellington orchestra became a major hit in 1940. Other songs he performed with Ellington were “There Shall Be No Night” and “You, You Darlin’.”
Jeffries went on to make other films, worked in TV and continued his singing career into his 80s.