This velvet-toned jazz baritone and sometime actor was (and
perhaps still is) virtually unknown to white audiences. Yet, back in the late
1930s and early 1940s, Herb Jeffries was very big...in black-cast films. Today
he is respected and remembered as a pioneer who broke down rusted-shut racial
doors in Hollywood and ultimately displayed a positive image as a black actor
The Detroit native was born Herbert Jeffrey on September 24,
1911 (some sources list 1914). His white Irish mother ran a rooming house, and
his father, whom he never knew, was of mixed ancestry and bore Sicilian,
Ethiopean, French, Italian and Moorish roots. Young Herb grew up in a mixed
neighborhood without experiencing severe racism as a child. He showed
definitive interest in singing during his formative teenage years and was often
found hanging out with the Howard Buntz Orchestra at various Detroit ballrooms.
After moving to Chicago, he performed in various clubs. One
of his first gigs was in a club allegedly owned by Al Capone. Erskine Tate
signed the 19-year-old Herb to a contract with his Orchestra at the Savoy Dance
Hall in Chicago. While there Herb was spotted by Earl 'Fatha' Hines, who hired
him in 1931 for a number of appearances and recordings. It was during the
band's excursions to the South that Jeffries first encountered blatant
segregation. He left the Hines band in 1934 and eventually planted roots in Los
Angeles after touring with Blanche Calloway's band. There he found employment
as a vocalist and emcee at the popular Club Alabam. And then came Duke
Ellington, staying with his outfit for ten years. Herb started his singing
career out as a lyrical tenor, but, on the advice of Duke Ellington's longtime
music arranger, Billy Strayhorn, he lowered his range.
The tall, debonair, mustachioed, blue-eyed,
light-complexioned man who had a handsome, matinée-styled Latin look, was a
suitable specimen for what was called "sepia movies" -- pictures that
played only in ghetto and/or segregated theaters and were advertised with an
all-black cast. Inspired by the success of Gene Autry, Herb made his debut as a
crooning cowboy with Harlem on the Prairie (1937), which was considered the
first black western following the inauguration of the talkies. Dark makeup was
applied to his light skin and he almost never took off his white stetson which
would have revealed naturally brown hair. A popular movie, Herb went on to sing
his own songs (to either his prairie flower and/or horse) in both The Bronze
Buckaroo (1939) and Harlem Rides the Range (1939). Outside the western venue,
he starred in the crimer Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938). As the whip-snapping,
pistol-toting, melody-gushing Bronze Buckaroo, Jeffries finally offered a
positive alternative to the demeaning stereotypes laid on black actors.
Moreover, he refused to appear in "white" films in which he would
have been forced to play in servile support.
In the midst of all this, Herb continued to impress as a singer
and made hit records of the singles "In My Solitude", "I Got It
Bad and That Ain't Good", "When I Write My Song", Duke
Ellington's "Jump for Joy" and his signature song
"Flamingo", which became a huge hit in 1941. Some of the songs he did
miss out on which could have furthered his name, were "Love Letters"
and "Native Boy". During the 1950s Herb worked constantly in Europe,
especially in France, where he owned his own Parisian nightclub for a time. He
also starred in the title film role of Calypso Joe (1957) co-starring Angie
Dickinson and later appeared on episodes of "I Dream of Jeannie",
"The Virginian" and "Hawaii Five-0".
Although he very well could have with his light skin tones,
the man dubbed "Mr. Flamingo" never tried to pass himself off as
white. He was proud of his heritage and always identified himself as black. In
the mid-1990s, westerns returned in vogue and Herb recorded a "comeback
album" ("The Bronze Buckaroo Rides Again") for Warner Western.
During this pleasant career renaissance he has also been asked to lecture at
colleges, headline concerts and record CDs. In 1999-2000, at age 88, he recorded
the CD "The Duke and I", recreating songs he did with Duke. It also
was a tribute honoring the great musician's 100th birthday.
His five marriages, including one to notorious exotic dancer
Tempest Storm, produced five children. At age 90-plus, Herb
"Flamingo" Jeffries, who lives in the Palm Springs area with
significant other (and later his fifth wife) Savannah Shippen, who is 45 years
his junior, remains one of the last of the original singing cowboys still alive
(along with Monte Hale) from Hollywood's early western days. In 2003 he was
inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame and was invited to sing for President
Bush at the White House. He is also the last surviving member of The Great Duke
Ellington Orchestra, and certainly deserves proper credit for his historic efforts
in films and music.
Signed in Black felt tip pen.