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Farewell: Herb Jeffries (online exclusive)

9.24.13-5.25.14

Herb Jeffries
Herb Jeffries

I discovered Herb Jeffries at a very young age. The women in my family-my mother, my aunts, my great-aunts-were all mad for him. Why? Several reasons. He was Hollywood’s first black cowboy. And he was a jazz singer, who sang with Earl “Fatha” Hines and, later, with Duke Ellington. He and Ellington had a massive hit with “Flamingo” [in 1941].

Gene Autry prompted him to get into the movies, and after Autry and Roy Rogers had died, he was dubbed “the last of the singing cowboys.” For me, as a child of color, it was wonderful to see him onscreen. It gave me a real boost of confidence. He was the “bronze buckaroo” with an all-white outfit and a white horse, riding around the range. The films were wild, with titles like Harlem on the Prairie, which was billed as the first “all-colored” Western musical, Two-Gun Man From Harlem and Harlem Rides the Range. [In those early Westerns, from the mid- and late-1930s, he was billed as Herbert Jeffrey.] Everyone revered him because he was a screen idol at a time when there were no black movie stars. And he had this deep, resonant voice; a real masculine sound that Billy Eckstine and so many others [were influenced by]. And he was a double-edged sword, equally great at cowboy swing and jazz. He did four or five Western albums, a superb disc of jazz standards called Say It Isn’t So [in 1957], and also recorded wonderful tributes to Bing Crosby and Nat Cole.

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