He was the last of the “B-western” cowboy heroes of Hollywood’s Golden Age, although his relatively brief time in the saddle went unnoticed by the majority of mainstream (i.e., white) moviegoers. Herb Jeffries, the star of four all-black sagebrush dramas in the late 1930s, died earlier this week of heart failure at the age of 100.
Born Umberto Alexander Valentino in Detroit in 1913 to a white mother and a father–whom he never knew–of mixed European and North African heritage, Jeffrey started his entertainment career as a jazz singer in clubs in Detroit and Chicago (“My mother was Irish, my father was Sicilian, and one of my great-grandparents was Ethiopian,” he once said, “so I’m an Italian-looking mongrel with a percentage of Ethiopian blood, which enabled me to get work with black orchestras.”). Now going by the stage name Herbert Jeffrey (eventually Jeffries, courtesy of a misprint on a record label), he would hit the road as a crooner with Earl “Fatha” Hines’ band. It was while he was on tour with Hines in the Jim Crow-era South that Jeffries first encountered the bitter segregation that was mostly absent from the racially-mixed Detroit neighborhood where he grew up. Another thing he noticed was African-Americans going to “blacks only” theaters and, along with seeing what were known as “race pictures,” cheering for white cowboy stars.
Traveling to Hollywood in the mid-1930s, Jeffries worked with producer Jed Buell to put together an all-black western feature. Unable to find a leading man who could act, sing and ride a horse, Herb decided to fill the boots of gunslinging troubadour Jeff Kincaid himself…but not without first darkening his light-skinned complexion with makeup (“They’ll never buy you,” Buell told him. “You’re not black enough.”). The result was 1937’s Harlem on the Prairie, billed as the first “all-colored western musical” (there had been several black-cast silent westerns). Shot in five days by director Sam Newfield–who the following year made another “novelty” picture for Buell, the infamous all-midget The Terror of Tiny Town–Harlem on the Prairie found hero Kincaid coming to the aid of a medicine show barker who’s been mortally wounded by outlaws seeking a hidden fortune in gold. Along the way Jeff also manages to romance the showman’s daughter, Carolina (Connie Harris); gets some comedy relief help from his pals Mistletoe (famed Scene Stealer Mantan Moreland) and Crawfish (co-scripter Flournoy Miller); and croons several songs.
Save for the “novelty” of the cast, the movie is a fairly run-of-the-mill “B” oater, and watching it today one cannot help but notice that the good guys seem to all have lighter skin tone (even with Jeffrey’s makeup) than the film’s antagonists. While its release was pretty much ignored by the public and media of the day (a Time Magazine reviewer snarkily commented, “No attempt is made to explain how so much pigment got all over the open spaces,” apparently unaware of the many black settlers and cowboys who played a role in “taming” the American West), Harlem on the Prairie did manage to do considerable business in the segregated Southern theater circuit as well as up north, including a Broadway showing in New York (the film’s national distribution was in part thanks to the support of Jeffries’ fellow screen good guy, Gene Autry). It was later reported that the movie was the most financially successful all-black film to date.
When plans for a series of black westerns starring Jeffries as Jeff Kincaid fell through due to a copyright tussle, the actor moseyed over to other B studios and, changing the name of his character to Bob Blake, rode his trusty horse Stardusk in three more sagebrush sagas: Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939) and Harlem Rides the Range (also ’39), working alongside such notable performers as Clarence Brooks, actor/writer/producer Spencer Williams and Our Gang alum Matthew “Stymie” Beard. “Little children of dark skin — not just Negroes, but Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, everybody of color — had no heroes in the movies,” he said in a 1998 L.A. Times interview. “I was so glad to give them something to identify with.”
As the onset of World War II put several of Hollywood’s “Poverty Row” outfits out of business, Herb left the movies behind and went back to music. Performing with Duke Ellington’s orchestra, Jeffries was featured in such popular records as “In My Solitude,” “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” “Jump for Joy,” and the hit “Flamingo.” He went into the Army during the war and was part of a Special Service company that put on entertainment revues for his fellow soldiers.
The post-WWII years found Jeffries in singing roles in a couple of minor musical/dramas, Disc Jockey (1951) and Calypso Joe (1957), while he opened jazz clubs in France in the late ’50s. Returning to the U.S., Herb made appearances in such TV shows as I Dream of Jeannie, The Virginian and Hawaii Five-O, and even supplied the voice of football player “Freight Train” in the 1970 Hanna-Barbera cartoon series Where’s Huddles? His final big-screen turn came in Portrait of a Hitman, a 1979 crime drama starring Jack Palance, with a cameo in the 1996 made-for-TV western The Cherokee Kid. But music still played a key part in his life. He sang in clubs like New York’s Village Vanguard well into the 1990s and recorded a country-flavored album, “The Bronze Buckaroo (Rides Again),” in 1995. In 2004 Herb was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and he was also the subject of a 2008 documentary, A Colored Life: The Herb Jeffries Story.
The question of Jeffries’ true ethnic background was the subject of much speculation. He listed his race as white on his marriage licenses (he was wed five times, including once to famed stripper Tempest Storm), perhaps due to bans on interracial couples tying the knot, but otherwise tended to identify himself as African-American. While his light complexion, blue eyes and brown hair might have allowed him to “pass” as white, Herb once said “I knew that my life would be more interesting as a black guy”…and interesting it certainly was. Like his on-screen persona, Herb Jeffries was a true pioneer.