BP wrote this article in 2011 for ICON Magazine, and wanted to share it again now in memory of Mr. Jeffries, who passed away on May 25, 2014 at age 100.
If you have high mileage on your odometer, and over the years have been in tune with standard popular music and jazz, you may have heard the name Herb Jeffries, and perhaps even know something about the singer/actor. He sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the early 1940s, and scored a hit with his rendition of “Flamingo.”
His story is quite interesting and reveals that he was a survivor who bucked more than a few odds to remain, not only active as a singer/actor since the early ‘40s, but one whose dual careers at times have thrived, despite some stumbling blocks—some of which revolved around his ancestry.
Herb Jeffries was born Herbert Jeffrey in Detroit, Michigan in 1913. His father, Umberto Balentino, was a pianist of African-American and Sicilian descent. Jeffries’s mother was of Irish descent. And somewhere in his heritage, there are said to be links to Ethiopian and French Canadian forebears.
Like his father, Jeffries turned to show business and began to sing, landing jobs with several popular bands in the early 1930s, including that of Cab Calloway’s sister, Blanche. He also had a short stint with the Earl Hines Band.
He somehow got financing to produce several low-budget cowboy films, in which he starred as “Bob Blake, the Singing Cowboy.” The films used African-American actors,and played in theaters which catered to African-American audiences. There were few films produced for and by African-Americans in the 1930s, and even though they were low-budget, the films drew large black audiences. Jeffries—a heroic figure in the films—became a hero in real life for his film work, and earned the handle “The Bronze Buckaroo.” His groundbreaking films are sought even today by collectors and movie historians.
Ironically, this film adoration did not carry over into Jeffries’s singing career. He was never quite popular with blacks in this arena, because many were not sure he was black: His fair skin, wavy black hair and good looks also confused white audiences, who were not sure of his ethnicity. This ambivalence seemed to dog Jeffries throughout his career, despite the fact that he possessed one of the most beautiful baritone voices in popular music. He could go through a song in his deep baritone and end it, if he chose, in an effortless and sustained falsetto, worthy of the best high tenor.
Jeffries became a member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1940 after Ellington heard him sing at the famed Apollo Theater. That same year he and the band recorded “Flamingo.” “Herb Jeffries was a kid we knew around Detroit,“ recalled Ellington. “We knew his family, and one day we agreed that he would come with us for the fun of it, with expenses and a little plus.” The stay lasted almost three years.
Recordings by Jeffries are scarce as hen’s teeth. He recorded some albums for Mercury and a few other labels, but there were no long-term contracts. Over the years, however, he always found different ways to make a living, like moving to Paris in the mid 1940s where he opened a nightclub. Upon returning to the States, he continued his singing career, and now and then got parts in motion pictures and on TV. From time to time he appeared in episodes of Hawaii Five-O, and was a popular attraction aboard cruise ships that featured jazz.
Jeffries’s marriage to the famous exotic dancer Tempest Storm in 1957, caused quite a stir in show business, because of its interracial significance. The union lasted until 1970 and produced five children.
Jeffries let no grass grow under his feet. He was always on the move with some enterprise, and he seemed to make a good living. Today, at the age of 97, he lives in the Southern California mountains with his wife, Savannah. A popular nearby eatery has a room named in his honor.
For his contribution to the motion picture industry, Jeffries has a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. In 2004, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Jeffries does not perform as regularly as he once did, which is understandable given his age.
The Ellington CD, The Blanton-Webster Years, includes Jeffries’s rendition of “Flamingo.” Also still available is Say it Isn’t So, a 1957 Jeffries recording filled with tender ballads. Should you come by the disc, you may notice that the pretty lady on the front of the CD insert is the then Hollywood starlet, Barbara Eden, of I Dream of Jeannie fame. “Many people come into this world by stork,” Jeffries said. “I came by ‘Flamingo,’ and Duke Ellington delivered me.”
This article is from a 2011 edition of ICON Magazine, the only publication in the Greater Delaware Valley and beyond solely devoted to coverage of music, fine and performing arts, pop culture, and entertainment. More Information.