Singer and Western star Herb Jeffries died 25 May 2014 at the age of 100.
Herb Jeffries was born Umberto Alexander Valentino in Detroit on 24 September 2013. His mother was of Irish descent. While he never knew his father, his father was of Sicilian, French, Italian, Ethiopian, and Moorish descent. Mr. Jeffries began his career singing around Detroit before moving to Chicago. It was there that he started singing with the Earl Hines Orchestra. It was in 1934 with the Earl Hines Orchestra that Mr. Jeffries made his first records.
It was while the band was touring the South that Herb Jeffries noticed the popularity of Westerns with African American audiences. It occurred to Mr. Jeffries that African Americans were an untapped market for Westerns. He then enlisted independent, B movie producer Jed Buell to make Westerns with a nearly all African American cast. Unable to find a suitable leading man Herb Jeffries ultimately took the role himself, even though Jed Buell worried that he was too light complexioned. The resulting film was Harlem on the Prairie, released in 1937. Billed as the "the first all-Negro musical western," Harlem on the Prairie proved successful enough to warrant further films. It was followed by Rhythm Rodeo (1938), Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), and Harlem Rides the Range (1939). In 1940 Herb Jeffries recorded with saxophonist Sidney Bechet. He later preformed with Duke Ellington and His Orchestra. During World War II Mr. Jeffries served in the United States Army.
Starting in 1950 Herb Jeffries began released albums under his own name, including Magenta Moods (1950), Time on My Hands (1951), Just Jeffries (1951), and Say It Isn't So (1957). Alongside such other musical artists as Tommy Dorsey and Sarah Vaughan, Herb Jeffries appeared in the film Disc Jockey in 1951. In 1957 he starred in the musical Calypso Joe opposite Angie Dickinson.
In the Sixties Herb Jeffries guest starred on such shows as I Dream of Jeannie, The Name of the Game, The Virginian, and Hawaii Five-O. He was the voice of Freight Train on the short lived, prime time, animated series Where's Huddles. In the Seventies he appeared in the films Chrome and Hot Leather (1971) and Portrait of a Hitman (1979), as well as the TV films Jarrett and Twice in a Lifetime.
Mr. Jeffries continued to record throughout the Eighties, Nineties, and Naughts. Among the albums he recorded were The Bronze Buckaroo (Rides Again) in 1995, Jamaica in 1998, and he Duke and I in 2005. At age 96 he performed a benefit concert for the Oceansid, California Unified School District's music program. Over the years he also performed at benefits for autism and other developmental disorders.
Herb Jeffries was an excellent singer. He had a rich, full baritone suited to both jazz and Western songs. What is more, he was equally at home in both genres. He was also certainly a pioneer. He was the first singing cowboy who was African American in descent. His "race" Westerns provided African Americans with films in which African Americans were portrayed as more than domestic help or railway porters, and in which African Americans were not portrayed as stereotypes. Mr. Jeffries was a great singer who truly broke new ground.