Golden Buckaroo

David Davis last wrote for the magazine about sports team owner Casey Wasserman.

Herb Jeffries sits in the corner booth of the Red Kettle restaurant in Idyllwild, sipping lentil soup and regaling friends with stories from his colorful past. The nasty scar on his cheek? Plane crash. His marriage to burlesque legend Tempest Storm? An expensive mistake. Performing with Duke Ellington? A career-altering collaboration.

A man seated nearby overhears the tales and comes over to say hello before heading out the door. As he leaves, Jeffries wags a finger and calls out, “Remember, it was the tortoise who won the race.” It’s a line that also sums up Jeffries’ fabled life.

At age 91, Herb Jeffries is one of the last original singing cowboys from the early days of Hollywood Westerns. He is best remembered for his role as the Bronze Buckaroo--the whip-wielding, pistol-flashing, break-into-melody hero of four all-black musical Westerns from the late 1930s. But his fat resume dates back to the early 1930s, when he sang first with Erskine Tate and then with Earl “Fatha” Hines. Later he starred in films that featured Dorothy Dandridge and Angie Dickinson, married both Storm and a Rose Bowl princess, and owned jazz clubs in France.

In the days of the Bronze Buckaroo, Hollywood refused to cast black actors except as servants and nannies. From this void a shadow industry emerged: African American actors starred in “race films,” which were shown to black audiences hungry for heroes with whom they could relate. The light-skinned Jeffries, the product of a mixed marriage, could have passed for white if he had chosen. Instead he embraced his racial makeup and identified himself as black. The uplifting messages of his films, he says, countered Hollywood’s whitewashing of the silver screen.

“We had nobody representing us, least of all in the cowboy pictures,” he says. “All we had was Stepin Fetchit,” a black actor who played demeaning characters. “I felt that we could do better, that we could provide heroes for youngsters.”


Now, at a time when Hollywood is giving Oscars to Halle Berry and Denzel Washington, and may well be reviving the musical, Jeffries’ career serves as a testament to dogged survival. Still performing live, still singing Western and jazz classics to old and young alike, he’s in talks with producer Alan Sacks to make a film about his life.

“My ultimate reward is Denzel Washington,” he says. “He can play a submarine commander or a policeman or whatever. I’m one of the guys who made that possible, by some trick of fate.”

Jeffries’ cozy mountain-view home in this community above Palm Springs is identifiable by the pink neon flamingo figurine that stands sentry at the living room window. He moved to Idyllwild not long ago with his business partner and significant other, Savannah, who’s 45 years his junior, and a rambunctious French poodle named Cherie Amour. On one wall hangs a well-worn leather saddle; opposite is a full-color portrait of Paramahansa Yogananda, founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship.

Officially, Jeffries is on hiatus after knee-replacement surgery. He uses a cane to get around. But he has no plans to slow down, much less retire. He has five performances scheduled this month. In his basement recording studio, filled with tape decks and computers, he mixes the CDs he sells at live appearances. In between, he writes his memoirs, oversees his Web site (, drives a nifty Thunderbird and plays a near-scratch game of golf.

“I don’t like the word ‘old,’ ” he says, rubbing his beard, which gives him a resemblance to the late actor Vincent Price. “That implies we’re rundown and put out to pasture. I’m not 91 years old. I’m 91 years vintage.”

As he reminisces and morning makes way for evening, he never falters. Most of the stories he tells--about, say, singing with Ellington--are authentic. Others have passed from myth to “truth.”

Take, for instance, how he claims that he got his break in movies. Jeffries says that he had read a magazine article about “The Terror of Tiny Town,” a Western that featured an all-midget cast (and has been ranked as one of the “50 Worst Movies of All Time”). Jeffries says that he approached “Tiny Town” producer Jed Buell in his Gower Gulch office at Sunset Boulevard in 1937 and persuaded him to make an all-black version. Jeffries did, in fact, team with Buell on “Harlem on the Prairie” (1937), the first all-black Western of the sound era. But “Tiny Town” was produced in 1938, after “Harlem on the Prairie” was released.

The error doesn’t detract from Jeffries’ importance. After all, as it’s said in John Ford’s Western classic “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

The legend of Herb Jeffries begins in a Detroit ghetto in 1911 (according to him) or 1914 (according to Life magazine). His mother, who ran a rooming house, was of Irish descent; he says he never knew his father, a performer and “mongrel” with Sicilian and Moorish roots. Jeffries grew up in a mixed neighborhood and says he never experienced racism as a child.

What he did have, from birth, was a voice that made women’s knees buckle and men want to order another round of martinis. He started as a luscious tenor. Later, on the advice of Ellington’s longtime music arranger Billy Strayhorn, he lowered his range to mimic the vocal stylings of crooner Bing Crosby. Just like that he became a “silken, lusty baritone,” according to music critic Jonny Whiteside.

In 1933, Jeffries moved to Chicago. There he landed a vocalist gig with Tate’s band. He attracted the attention of Hines, who hired him away at a higher salary. During the band’s trips to the South, Jeffries first encountered discrimination. “I saw there were hundreds of tin-roofed theaters, segregated for blacks only,” he says. “They played white cowboy pictures because there were no black cowboys in the movies.”

Jeffries vowed to correct this inequity via “race films"--movies acted by and produced for African Americans. Many film historians credit D.W. Griffith’s Civil War epic, “The Birth of a Nation” (1915), with giving birth to this niche industry, as black filmmakers sought to counter Griffith’s destructive stereotypes. Independent, black-owned film companies, such as L.A.'s Lincoln Motion Picture Co., flourished in the 1920s. These pioneers made films that “addressed the negative images of black culture and presented the reality of black life,” says film historian Pearl Bowser, who also directed the documentary “Midnight Ramble.” (The movie title refers to the hours that blacks were permitted to watch movies at white theaters--after midnight.)

“Hollywood’s portrayal of African Americans were the ‘bug-eye’ and the muggings of comic servants,” says New York University film professor Donald Bogle, author of “Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks,” a history of black films. “The race films, despite their technical shortcomings, said that African Americans can do more than carry a tray and grin.”

Scholars estimate that 500 of these films were produced through 1950. They were shown to black audiences in urban theaters in the North and in segregated theaters throughout the South. (Sadly, many of these works have been lost.)

By the mid-1930s, as the Great Depression deepened and sound technology grew more expensive, many black-owned film companies closed. White producers stepped in to make all-black-cast films that were “low-budget knockoffs of white commercial fare,” primarily escapist entertainment in the form of light comedies, horror films and Westerns, says Larry Richards, author of the filmography “African American Films Through 1959.”

With the screen debut of Gene Autry, “Oklahoma’s Yodeling Cowboy,” in 1934, a new frontier hero rode onto the screen. Breaking into song at the drop of a horseshoe, Autry tamed the Wild West through his golden voice. His genial presence and “cowboy code"--including never shoot first and avoid alcohol--spawned numerous imitators, from Roy Rogers to Tex Ritter.

The films, which the trades dubbed “horse operas,” were lighter-than-marshmallow fare. “Virtually every studio, major or minor, had a singing cowboy in the 1930s,” says musician Douglas B. Green, author of “Singing in the Saddle.” Green estimates that 47 of the roughly 110 Westerns released in 1938 were singing-cowboy features.

After Jeffries arrived in Los Angeles, he played gigs at Club Alabam and other hot spots. Whatever the circumstances of how Jeffries and Buell actually met, they agreed that an all-black-cast Western would make money. “Harlem on the Prairie” began shooting that fall at N.B. Murray’s dude ranch near Victorville. The budget was probably less than $25,000. Cameraman Frank Terry recalls that the lack of financing during the weeklong shoot created unique challenges. “We used the same actors as the good guys and the bad guys,” he says. “We just switched their costumes and hats.”

Billed as “A Gene Autry Epic Under Cork,” the film featured comic Mantan Moreland, who later starred in the Charlie Chan mystery series, and the versatile writer-director Spencer Williams, best known for his role as Andy in the “Amos ‘n’ Andy” TV show. According to John Mosher’s 1938 review in the New Yorker, “The Negroes have turned out what they think a Western ought to be, with lots of music and lots of shooting.”

Buell thought Jeffries’ skin was too light, so he made him apply dark makeup. “I looked like I had a good suntan,” Jeffries says. He also never removed his Stetson, hiding his brown hair from the audience.

But in his all-white duds, astride the handsome steed Stardusk, the 6-foot-3 Jeffries looked every inch the matinee idol. When he broke into song, crooning “I’m a Happy Cowboy,” his presence filled the screen. “Herb was unique because he played a hero role,” says Agnes Cross-White, executive director of the “Midnight Ramble” film festival. Other black actors played subservient roles in movies, such as Bill ‘Bojangles’ Robinson in Shirley Temple films. “Herb never did that,” Cross-White says. “He was always a man. That was what black people needed to see.”

“Herb was a sex symbol,” says film professor Bogle. “With his wavy hair and Clark Gable mustache, he might have been a different kind of star had America been a different kind of place.”

As a child, Henry Sampson went to the movies every Sunday in Jackson, Miss. To him, Jeffries’ cowboy films were a revelation. “In the Tom Mix cowboy films, the African American actors played comic foils--they were scared of ghosts and lost their money playing craps,” says Sampson, author of “Blacks in Black and White.” “It was a welcome experience to see blacks playing sheriffs and ranch owners.”

The films made another point. With the exception of a few features, including “Sergeant Rutledge,” “Buck and the Preacher” and “Blazing Saddles,” Hollywood has ignored the contributions of African Americans and other minorities on the frontier. The quintessential American genre about the quintessential American experience has always maintained the myth that the West was settled by whites only. “History books don’t mention black cowboys and how they helped, but there were lots of them, including former slaves,” Jeffries says. “James Beckwourth was one of the greatest scouts in history. Bill Pickett invented ‘bull-dogging,’ ” a rodeo trick.

Jeffries starred in three other singing-cowboy features in the late 1930s. After World War II, however, demand for these B-pictures fell. The last such film was released in 1954. The race films, too, would disappear. Television entered American homes, signaling the demise of black theaters, while movie production costs soared. And, glacially, Hollywood began to embrace black talent. “With the rise of Sidney Poitier and Dorothy Dandridge, Hollywood starts to pick up on and deal with race issues,” says Bogle. “There was no room for race films.”

Jeffries went on to make other films. He starred with Angie Dickinson in “Calypso Joe” (1957). He later directed and produced “Mundo Depravados,” a cult classic starring his voluptuous wife, Storm, whom comedians Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin joked had “the two best props in show business.”

Over the years, unable to find a permanent niche in Hollywood, Jeffries continued working on his singing. His brief collaboration with Ellington spawned two career highlights. In 1940, he recorded “Flamingo,” which sold millions of records and became his calling card. The following year, he appeared with Dandridge, Big Joe Turner and Ivie Anderson in Ellington’s all-black revue “Jump for Joy,” which was staged at the Mayan Theater.

Again, Jeffries encountered a racial divide. He says that one “Jump for Joy” producer, actor John Garfield, urged him to “darken up.” Says Jeffries: “Garfield told me, ‘You don’t look part of the show. You look Caucasian and this is a colored show.’ ” Jefferson went onstage in makeup, only to be bawled out by a horrified Ellington.

“Duke said, ‘Who do you think you are--Al Jolson?’ ” Jeffries says with a laugh. He never wore black face again. “Later on, I talked with Garfield,” he says. “I explained to him that black people come in different flavors. There is no typical-looking black person.”

After World War II, as he played Vegas and other hot spots, Jeffries studied with Self-Realization Fellowship guru Paramahansa Yogananda at the group’s headquarters in Mount Washington. His teachings influenced Jeffries greatly, helping him come to terms with the world’s obsession with race. It was no easy feat. As he was quoted in Life magazine in 1951: “In white places, I’m a nigger. In Negro places, I’m a Negro who wants to be a white man.”

In those years he also abandoned the States for a more tolerant Europe. He owned nightclubs in Paris and the south of France and continued to sing. He moved back to the United States in the 1960s, making appearances on the television shows “Hawaii Five-O” and “The Virginian.” He married four times, including Rose Bowl princess Betty Allensworth, and admits to “five kids, seven grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren.” Gradually, he fell off the media radar.

Then something happened. In the 1980s, caches of long-lost race films were discovered. Scholars such as Bowser, Sampson and Bogle have written books, produced documentaries and organized festivals. In the mid-1990s, as cowboy songs returned in vogue, Jeffries recorded a comeback album for Warner Western. The Bronze Buckaroo says that he’s now busier than ever, lecturing at colleges, headlining concerts, recording CDs and, like the tortoise, taking it one day at a time. With the deaths of Autry and Rogers, both in 1998, Jeffries and Monte Hale are the last of the singing cowboys.

Jeffries says he’s content that his cultural significance has been acknowledged. But he vows never to stop preaching about the misconceptions concerning race and the dangers of separatism.

“The word ‘black’ means ‘a void,’ so I have never seen a black man,” he says, sipping water from a cup enlivened by plastic flamingos. “The word ‘white’ means ‘lack of pigment,’ so I have never seen a white man either. There’s only one race: the human race.”