Monday, June 9, 2014

Herb Jeffries: In Memoriam

By Ed Garea

He sang with both Earl Hines and Duke Ellington. He gained popularity with African-American movie audiences as a singing cowboy billed as “The Bronze Buckaroo” in a series of Westerns.

But Jeffries, who died on May 25 in West Hills, California, from heart failure, was a mystery to fans and the press alike.

Over the course of his life he changed his name, altered his given age, and married five times, his second wife being famed stripper Tempest Storm. A naturally talented singer with a near falsetto singing voice, he worked on expanding his range until he could sing closer to a baritone. His choice of music was originally jazz, then on to country with the influence of his films, and back to jazz.

Born Umberto Alejandro Ballentino in Detroit on September 24, 1913 (or 1914), he was of Irish descent on his mother’s side, but his father’s side was a mystery. Over the years the story on his father’s background as Jeffries told it would change from African-American to mixed race, and eventually to Sicilian, Ethiopian, French, Italian, and Moorish descent. Late in life he switched gears again and said that his father, Howard Jeffrey, was actually his stepfather, and that his real father was Domenico Ballentino, a Sicilian man who died in World War I.

Jeffries grew up in a racially mixed neighborhood and took a strong interest in singing as a teenager, often found hanging out and occasionally singing with the Howard Buntz Orchestra at various Detroit clubs. He moved to Chicago, earning his living as a club singer, working for Al Capone among others. Erskine Tate signed the 19-year old Jeffries as a vocalist with his orchestra at Chicago’s Savoy Dance Hall. It was there Earl “Fatha” Hines spotted him and hired him in 1931 for a number of appearances and recordings.

He left Hines in 1934 and after touring with Blanche Calloway’s band, Jeffries settled in Los Angeles, where he found work as a vocalist and emcee at Club Alabam, where Duke Ellington spotted him, leading to a 10-year career as a vocalist for Ellington’s band. On the advice of Billy Strayhorn, Ellington’s long-time arranger, Jeffries lowered his range. He had several hits with "In My Solitude," "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good," "When I Write My Song," "Jump for Joy," and his signature song "Flamingo," which became a huge hit in 1941, selling more than 14 million copies. Because of this, Ellington’s studio, RCA, gave him carte blanche in the 1940s.

It was only a matter of time before Jeffries would make the transition to film. He was a tall (6’ 7”), debonair, light-complexioned man with blue eyes who projected a handsome Latin look. But because he was black - and furthermore identified himself as black - Hollywood had no room for him, unless he wanted to play the stereotyped “darkie.”

Notorious Poverty Row producer Sam Newfield (Samuel Neufeld) caught Jeffries’ singing act and signed him for what would be the first African-American Western of the talking era: Harlem on the Prairie (1937), with Herb in the Gene Autry mold as a singing cowboy. Given the production values and Newfield’s direction, the film looks amateurish, wasting the talents of not only Jeffries, but also those of Mantan Moreland and Spencer Williams, Jr. Jeffries had makeup applied to make him look even darker and almost never removed his white Stetson, lest the audience glimpse his light brown hair. The film was a hit, though, and led to more of the same, Two-Gun Man From Harlem (1938), Rhythm Rodeo (1938), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), and Harlem Rides the Range (1939). All were made on a shoestring and each returned a good-sized profit from an audience hungry for African-American entertainment.

Not that Jeffries passed totally unnoticed outside the African-American community. Cowboy star Buck Jones was highly impressed with Jeffries and wanted him to go to South America and immerse himself in both Spanish and the local culture. The idea was to give Jeffries a new name and identity when he returned so he could star in a series of Westerns produced by Jones for white audiences. Jeffries, however, turned the idea down flat, stating that he was what he was and nothing could change that.

Despite the wretched production values of his movies, the whip snapping, pistol-toting, melody-gushing Bronze Buckaroo still managed to come across as an alternative to the demeaning Hollywood image and one of the few positive role models available to the black America of the time.

Harlem Rides the Range would be the last film Jeffries made until 1951, when he took a supporting role in Allied Artists’ Disc Jockey, about a deejay fighting to prove that radio is just as popular as ever despite the incursion of television. He filled in the gap singing with Ellington, a high point of which was his appearance with Dorothy Dandridge, Big Joe Turner, and Ivie Anderson in Ellington’s all-black revue, “Jump for Joy,” in 1941.

In the 1950s, Jeffries worked in Europe, mainly in France, where he owned a couple of nightclubs. Returning to America, he recorded jazz records, including “Say It Isn’t So,” a critically-acclaimed collection of ballads from 1957. He also cashed in on the burgeoning calypso craze, starring (along with his Calypsomaniacs) in Allied Artists’ Calypso Joe (1957), with Angie Dickinson and Ed Kemmer.

Come the ‘60s and Jeffries became a guest star on television, appearing in such series as I Dream of JeannieThe VirginianHawaii Five-O, and a recurring role in Hanna-Barbera’s animated football sitcom, Where's Huddles? He also wrote and directed the nudie crime/comedy, Mundo Depravados, starring then-wife Tempest Storm, in 1967. Tempest stars as a stripper (what else?) whose coworkers are being murdered. Two goofy detectives are assigned to the case and eventually bring the killer to justice. The film is notable only for the talents of its star and her attempts to read her lines from cue cards. Other than that, the film makes little or no sense.

In the mid-1990s Westerns again became popular and Jeffries appeared as himself in the 1996 TV-movie, The Cherokee Kid, as well as recording “The Bronze Buckaroo Rides Again” for Warner Western. In 2003, he was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame and received an invitation to sing for President George W. Bush at the White House. Refusing to retire, he was also a regular performer at Café Aroma in Idyllwild, California.

Besides his wife, Savannah, daughters Romi West, Ferne Aycock, and Patricia Jeffries, sons Robert and Michael, and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren also survive Jeffries.

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