Monday, March 1, 2010
This is Herb Jeffries singing “Flamingo”, in his silky baritone as only he can do it.
Mr. Jeffries, still with us at 98 years of age, holds a unique place in film history. He is considered the first black singing cowboy. He rode fences on a most curious range, an industry sitting on the fence about a nation divided by race.
Born Herbert Jeffrey of mixed-race African and European ancestry, he was a band vocalist with Duke Ellington in the 1940s. In “Bright Boulevards, Bold Dreams - the Story of Black Hollywood” by Donald Bogle (One World-Ballantine Books, NY, c. 2005), he is described as a bit of a nightclub heartthrob who headed to Gower Gulch like so many others looking for a back door into Hollywood (see this previous post on Gower Gulch), and the B-westerns.
His “Harlem on the Prairie”, shot in ten days, was touted by Variety as having much “box office promise… as a novelty, for the colored theaters, it’s surefire.” It was called the first Negro musical western, and that would launch a new genre. Below, we have Herb Jeffries from “Harlem Rides the Range”.
A strange, surreal prairie it was for a light-skinned mixed race man, the forerunner of a new genre that was meant to play only to what Variety called “colored theaters”. Black audiences were given a singing cowboy hero at last. He sang better than Gene Autry, but would not reach Autry’s iconic and financial stature.
There were few blacks in the other B-westerns that played to mainstream (non-segregated theaters), though as mentioned in this previous post on Autry’s “The Singing Cowboy”, the blacks in his movies were usually not demeaned by stereotype. However, seeing few African-Americans in westerns may have left audiences of the day, and for a generation afterward, with the impression that the Old West was a homogenous place, as segregated a place as the schools in Little Rock before the showdown of 1957.
In her memoir “To See the Dream” (Harcourt, Brace and Company, NY, 1957) by Jessamyn West on the filming of “Friendly Persuasion” (which was discussed in this previous post on books on movies), the author ponders the reaction of a little white girl about black cowboys. When two teenaged boys, one white and one black, visit Miss West and excitedly discuss their future dreams, the black teen declares he wants to be a cowboy.
Miss West is especially interested in the reaction of the little girl, who is her neighbor. The child dismisses this young man’s goal in life as silly because, as she declares with authority, there are no Negro cowboys. Jessamyn West gently plays devil’s advocate and ruminates that cows do not care about the color of the skin of whoever rides herd. But, the little girl is adamant. It makes no sense to her. There just are no Negro cowboys.
Will Rogers, famed “Ziegfeld Follies” self-styled cowboy comedian and folk hero, and movie star in his own set of B-films, was taught how to be a ranch hand by a former slave. The little girl, and much of America, probably didn’t know that.
At that time, tales of African-American pioneers in the west, and the Buffalo Soldiers in the U.S. Cavalry got little play in the history books, and not a much of even a footnote in the movies.
But, Herb Jeffries, called The Bronze Buckaroo after the title of one of his films, represented the possibility of there being such a thing as a black hero in the wild west, if only to segregated audiences.
When he was in his 80s, Mr. Jeffries recorded an album of cowboy songs in Nashville, called “The Bronze Buckaroo (Rides Again)”, and continued to perform live even into his 90s at jazz festivals, and at benefits to raise money for autism research. That surely makes him a hero.
In 2004, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
Below, we have the Bronze Buckaroo singing “Payday Blues” from “The Bronze Buckaroo” (1939). For more on Herb Jeffries, have a look here at his website.