Herb Jeffries created a storied career singing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and making cowboy movies during the Great Depression for black audiences such as “Harlem Rides the Range.”
He played a leading role in helping to break Hollywood’s racial barriers by becoming the silver screen’s first black singing cowboy. In more recent years, Mr. Jeffries – who died Sunday – lived in Wichita with his wife, Savannah.
“The movies he made, such as ‘Harlem Rides Again,’ they all had people who were African-American in them – African-American good guys, bad guys, comedy guys and straight guys,” said friend Orin Friesen, operations manager at the Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper near Benton.
“He was a wonderful man to be around,” Friesen said. “He was so friendly. I wish I had known him longer.”
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Mr. Jeffries was born Umberto Valentino in Detroit on Sept. 24, 1913. He died Sunday at the West Hills Hospital and Medical Center in San Fernando Valley, Calif., from heart failure while working on his autobiography. Mr. Jeffries was 100.
In an interview with the Oklahoman published in 2004, Mr. Jeffries told a reporter: “My mother was Irish, my father was Sicilian, and one of my great-grandparents was Ethiopian. So I’m an Italian-looking mongrel with a percentage of Ethiopian blood, which enabled me to get work with black orchestras.”
Mayor Carl Brewer proclaimed Sept. 13, 2012, as Herb Jeffries Day, while the Wichita/Sedgwick County Historical Museum hosted events celebrating his career.
Friesen recalled one of the first times he met Mr. Jeffries. The singing cowboy was in the audience as the Prairie Rose Wranglers were singing at Old Cowtown Museum.
“I went out and talked with him and asked if he would sing a song with us,” Friesen said. “He told me, ‘I don’t do that anymore.’ But during the middle of the show, he wheeled up in his chair and said, ‘I’m ready to sing now.’
“So we shoved a microphone at him and sang ‘Back in the Saddle’ with him. It was the only time I ever sang with him.”
Mr. Jeffries sang his biggest hit, “Flamingo,” in the 1940s with the Duke Ellington Orchestra.
During the 1930s, he made a series of low-budget films for black audiences. He was tall, handsome, had wavy-hair, wore a white hat, a black western outfit and rode a white horse named Stardusk.
Realizing the size of the potential market for such films, he talked Jed Buell – a white, independent B-movie producer in Hollywood – into helping out, telling Buell he could ride a horse, sing and act.
“No way. They’ll never buy you; you’re not black enough,” the light-skinned Mr. Jeffries remembered Buell saying. Mr. Jeffries said Buell finally agreed to let him play the part but insisted that Mr. Jeffries wear makeup to darken his skin.
“To say I was the first black singing cowboy on the face of this earth is a great satisfaction,” Mr. Jeffries told American Visions in 1997.
“He knew so many important people of the past century,” said Eric Cale, director of the Wichita/Sedgwick County Historical Museum. “He was an amazing link to all of that.”
Contributing: Beccy Tanner of The Eagle, Los Angeles Times