First thing, Herb Jeffries gives a history lesson. One in four American cowboys was black, he tells an audience at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage. Escaped slaves were often taken in by Native Americans and taught to ride horses. They became ranch-hands, trail drivers and scouts on the western frontier.
The Bronze Buckaroo should know.
Jeffries’ primary career has been singing jazz--with the likes of Earl “Fatha” Hines and Duke Ellington--but for a stint in the 1930s, Jeffries was America’s only black singing cowboy. In films like “Harlem on the Prairie” and “The Bronze Buckaroo,” he was the African American answer to Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.
Now 84, Jeffries is still singing, as he proved at the Autry and will demonstrate again this weekend at the Santa Clarita Cowboy Poetry and Music Festival. There is nothing frail about Jeffries, least of all his voice. Once a tenor, he’s settled into a baritone that’s as smooth as suede and deep as a Colorado mine.
Like cowboys, musicians care only if you can do the job, and Jeffries’ skill has earned him a reputation as a “singer’s singer.” “Herb has always been a most generous human being and one of the most fabulous entertainers in his field,” said fellow singing cowboy Monte Hale.
Frank Sinatra should be so lucky as to sound like Jeffries at 84. And be as busy. He spends about half the year singing concerts with orchestras and big bands. After being featured in an Autry tribute to singing cowboys, Jeffries was signed by Warner Western in 1993 and last year released “The Bronze Buckaroo (Rides Again).”
Jeffries grew up in an integrated neighborhood of Detroit and learned to ride a horse at his grandfather’s farm in Port Huron. “I always sang,” Jeffries says. “They even told me I was squawking when I came out of my mother’s womb.”
After singing with a combo as a teen, Jeffries set out for the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago, where he hooked up with bandleader Hines. It was on a tour of the South with the orchestra that Jeffries got his first dose of segregation. Rather than at Chicago’s Grand Terrace, the band played tobacco warehouses or the segregated tin-roof theaters where blacks were forced to see movies.
It was during a smoke break at a show in Cincinnati that Jeffries realized the need for black westerns. He saw a group of children running by, leaving behind a crying black boy. “I want to be Tom Mix and they won’t let me because Tom Mix isn’t black,” the boy told Jeffries. All those segregated movie theaters, Jeffries realized, were showing Buck Jones and Ken Maynard movies. There were no black cowboys in the movies.
Unable to raise money in Chicago, Jeffries got a $2-a-day job driving in a Studebaker caravan to California to search for film financing. He found it in Gower Gulch, birthplace of the B-western.
Though it wasn’t his plan to act, Jeffries became the singing gunslinger. Allotted a fraction of the budget of even B-westerns, Jeffries did his own stunts and wrote all the songs for “Harlem on the Prairie,” “Two Gun Man From Harlem,” “Harlem Rides the Range,” and “The Bronze Buckaroo” released between 1936 and 1938.
Truly, Jeffries made more money doing promotional appearances at movie theaters than he did making the films. It was at one of those performances in 1939 that Jeffries caught the eye of Duke Ellington, who made him an offer of $80 a week to sing. He recorded a number of songs with the orchestra into the early 1940s, including the hit record “Flamingo,” which sold a reported 14 million copies.
Segregated America never knew quite what to do with Jeffries. Though he identifies himself as black, his mother was Irish, his father was Ethiopian-Italian-Chippewa. Because of his unclassifiable features and complexion, Jeffries often was taken for Jewish or Italian. Once he was even told by a white producer to “darken up” with makeup for an all-black revue.
Ellington put a quick end to that. “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Al Jolson?” hollered Ellington at intermission. “Get that stuff off of you!”
In the 1990s he’d like to foster another type of integration: age. Retirement communities, rest homes, apartments that don’t allow children--all these things bother Jeffries. There is a danger, he said, in not thinking of yourself as useful once you pass age 65.
“We live in a social structure that keeps reminding us we are old: My little boy is 6 months old, 10 years old. . . . The word old subliminally makes us fear something that doesn’t exist. Why not use the word vintage? Everything seems to get better with vintage. Vintage wine is the best wine, vintage cheese is the best cheese,” he said. “I’m vintaging. Beautifully so.”
And actively so. The phone hardly stops ringing in the Toluca Lake apartment he shares with Regina, his wife of 13 years, who is 50 years less vintaged than he. He has five children--the youngest is 14--eight grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. He considers himself a philosopher and has studied Hinduism extensively.
“He’s wise and loving and he cares,” said Richard Helm, who brought Jeffries to the attention of Warner Western, a division of Warner Bros. Records a few years ago.
“He’s intuitive. He sees the things in life that only experience and age can bring. He understands not just singing in tune, but what the lyric is about and how to phrase it, how to sing it to people so that they understand it.”
Helms said Warner has plans to record a jazz album with Jeffries later this year. Jeffries is also writing his memoirs, shopping a sitcom idea, and has recently finished a book of prose and poetry. And, of course, he’s still singing.
At the end of the concert at the Autry, somewhere between “That Old Black Magic” and “Summertime,” Jeffries shared some of his philosophy and poetry. Like everything else about Jeffries, it seemed to straddle styles, part Shakespeare, part Baxter Black.
“It’s not the length of life, nor its height / It’s not the weight, nor it’s breadth,” he told the audience. “It’s better that thou knowest now / The truth is in its depth.”
* WHAT: “The Bronze Buckaroo: Herb Jeffries and the Sons of the San Joaquin” at the Santa Clarita Cowboy Music & Poetry Festival.
* WHERE: Melody Ranch Theater. Take a shuttle from Newhall Park, 24907 N. Newhall Ave.
* WHEN: 3 p.m. Sunday.
* HOW MUCH: $20.
* CALL: (800) 305-0755.
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