Sunday, June 8, 2014

HERB JEFFRIES (1913-2014) - A Tribute
When I saw the headlines that Herb Jeffries had died, I knew immediately who he was. I'm guessing that not a lot of people would have had that instant recognition of his name. But before I could get to a place of thinking, Aw, Herb Jeffries died!, first I had to go through a moment of, What? You mean Herb Jeffries was still alive?
Though Jeffries had a career that spanned over seventy years, and was woven through the film and music industries in various ways, he is certainly best remembered as the star of a handful of race films in the 1930s - in this case, a handful of all-black cast westerns. I've seen four of the five westerns he starred in, and what they lack in production values they more than make up for in uniqueness and historical significance.

Now, from all available articles, it's clear that Jeffries was somewhat unclear (intentionally, it would seem) about his ethnicity. From my perspective, it's simplest to say that he was of mixed heritage, but, when he made the western race films in the 1930s, he identified himself as being black. True or not, that was a claim that would stick, if only for the fact that, given the nature of race relations at the time, it probably never would have occurred to anyone that someone would say they were black if they weren't.

So, taking Jeffries claim at least somewhat at face value, and given the undeniable fact that he starred in five race film westerns, in my opinion, his place in American cinematic history is unique and worth noting. I mean, I can't think of any other singing black movie cowboys from the 1930s - can you?
But Herb Jeffries lived a life that was interesting even if you ignore the five westerns he starred in. He also appeared as a singer with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, scoring a hit with the song "Flamingo." Through his Ellington connection, he appeared in Jump for Joy, an all-black revue in 1941, which also featured Dorothy Dandridge and Big Joe Turner. Jeffries continued to record and tour well into his nineties!

His career in front of the camera, though sporadic, continued into the 1990s, with both film and TV work. Behind the camera, he directed a 1967 nudie movie, Mundo Depravados, which starred his the woman who was then his third wife, the iconic stripper and exotic dancer, Tempest Storm.

Circling back to the westerns again, in 2004, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as well.

When you look back at the 20th century, it's pretty easy to imagine that millions of little boys at some point said that they wanted to grow up to be a cowboy, and live to be one hundred years old. When a lot of those boys got a little older, more than a few of them probably fantasized about marrying a famous exotic dancer, too. Well, Herb Jeffries did all of that, and a lot more. Talk about living a full life!
In a few months, we'll see the release of the new James Brown biopic. Is it too much to hope that some day we might also see a film about the long and fascinating life of Herb Jeffries? His story is perfect material for the biopic treatment. Hopefully, someday, the Bronze Buckaroo will ride across movie screens again. In the meantime, I'm going to try and track down the 2008 documentary, A Colored Life: The Herb Jeffries Story.

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