Herb Jeffries is an amazing person. As I write this, he is 93 years old and still performing. He has had a successful career in the music industry: as a vocalist with Earl “Fatha” Hines and Duke Ellington in the 1930s and early ‘40s; as a solo performer who appeared on radio in the 1940s and on TV in the ‘50s and ‘60s; and as a recording artist who has continued to put out new records and get good reviews throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. He has also been an actor in TV westerns and he even did some directing. But to this day, there are old-time movie fans who still remember him as the first black singing cowboy. And although he only made four films in that era, he helped to change the way African-Americans were portrayed.
When Herb made his first western in 1937, America was still segregated and opportunities for black actors in Hollywood were limited. It was an era when black performers usually were relegated to stereotypic roles, often as buffoons or as domestics. But Herb Jeffries was nobody's fool and nobody's servant. He was a heroic figure, a black cowboy who was doing the same things that white cowboys like Tom Mix or Gene Autry did. He rescued people in trouble, defeated the bad guys, won the heart of the beautiful girl. And he brought his own unique style to the roles he played. The critics who wrote about him said he was “handsome and athletic,” and it is not surprising that young black movie fans of the 1930s adored him.
If you saw his movies, you know that his name was sometimes “Herbert Jeffrey.” But interestingly, advertisements for his first two movies, published in such black newspapers as the New York Age, never referred to him that way. Print journalists usually wrote about “Herbie Jeffries,” undoubtedly because that's what the music critics called him. In one of his first appearances in Harlem, where he sang vocals for Ralph Cooper's newly formed band in late April 1935, the New York Age reviewer headlined it “Herbie Jeffries Steals Show at Apollo Theatre.” But whether known as Herbert Jeffrey or Herbie Jeffries, or eventually Herb Jeffries, he was a light-skinned black man who rode a white horse named Stardusk and portrayed a good guy named Bob Blake. His movie theme song was “I'm a Happy Cowboy,” and that seemed to express his attitude. Over the years, he would tell many interviewers that the cowboy represented honesty, hard work, and ethics. And the cowboy didn't have time for prejudice - he treated others as equals. Jeffries starred in four black westerns: Harlem on the Prairie (1937), Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938), The Bronze Buckaroo (1938) and Harlem Rides the Range (1939). (It was customary during that era of so-called “race movies” to use coded language in the title; such words as “Sepia”, “Tan” and “Harlem” let fans know they would be seeing black entertainers.) He was also scheduled to appear in at least one other cowboy movie, Ten Notches to Tombstone. But although it was begun, it was never completed, probably due to the fact that by the end of 1939, Herb was singing with Duke Ellington's orchestra. He would have his first hit record in 1941, a song called “Flamingo,” which over the years, would sell a million copies.
While Herb Jeffries was undoubtedly the first black singing cowboy, he was not the first black actor to be in a western. During the silent era, there had been a handful of black westerns, such as a 1919 film from Oscar Micheaux called The Homesteader, and a 1921 film featuring rodeo cowboy Bill Pickett, The Crimson Skull. There was also a comedy short called A Chocolate Cowboy, from 1925. But fortunately for Herb Jeffries, by the time he made Harlem on the Prairie, talking pictures had long since worked out their technical problems. And although most critics regarded the black westerns as “B movies” (Jeffries himself joked that they were so low budget they might more accurately be called “C minus movies”), Jeffries soon proved that he could be a very competent actor.
Herb Jeffries was born in Detroit MI on 24 September 1911. His family tree was an interesting mix: his mother was of Irish descent, his father was Sicilian, and he had at least one great-grandparent who was Ethiopian. His family name was Balentino, and Herb was originally named Humberto. He told me he didn't really remember his dad, who died when Herb was very young. In some interviews, it was written that his father had abandoned the family. But in either case, there was little involvement. Herb's mother Millie supported her children by operating a rooming house, and her work ethic was an inspiration to him. He was also influenced by a grandfather who owned a dairy farm in Northern Michigan. His grandfather had some horses, and that's where Herb learned to ride, a skill that would eventually help him in his movie career.
Herb fell in love with music at a young age, and sang in a church choir. But he was especially attracted to jazz and blues. While he liked school, he was attending during the Depression, and money was scarce. He decided to quit high school and go to work. Years later, he would go back, graduate, and even get several degrees, but at that time, the goal was to earn enough money to help his family. Blessed with an excellent singing voice, he began performing locally in Detroit, and then made his way to Chicago. By 1934, he caught the eye of jazz great Earl “Fatha” Hines, and began doing some tours with Hines's band.
While on the road in the south, he tells the story of seeing a young black boy being made fun of by his white friends. They were all playing Cowboys and Indians, and the boy wanted to pretend he was a cowboy, but his friends told him he couldn't because there was no such thing as a black cowboy. The story may be apocryphal, but it exemplifies a very real problem black children had in those days of segregation. Few if any movies accurately portrayed the black experience in America, and even fewer showed black characters who were doctors or teachers or business executives, even though such people existed. The major movie studios would not challenge the social codes of the times, so even though there really had been black cowboys in the development of the west, their existence was totally ignored. Wanting to correct that, Jeffries decided the answer was to help make some black westerns. At first, he didn't plan to star in them; he intended to find some backers and get the pictures made. But soon, his plans would change.
Partially because of racism and partially because it was believed by white studio executives that the majority of black movie fans couldn't afford to attend many movies, the major studios were not eager to make films that catered to the minority audience. A lack of funding also limited the number of films that black studios could make. But Herb knew that a real demand existed for films that could both inspire and entertain black audiences. And despite segregation, there were plenty of available venues - one movie historian has estimated that there were about 430 “all negro” theaters in the late 1930s. Unfortunately, Herb's attempts to persuade wealthy businessmen to donate money for black films proved unsuccessful. So, he sought out a producer who might be able to get a cowboy movie made, someone who would not see the black audience as a liability. That led him to Jed Buell.
Buell was a veteran of the movie industry. He had gotten his start as a theater manager on the west coast, and then went to work for Mack Sennett, for whom he became director of publicity. Eventually, Buell became the Sennett Studios' assistant general manager. During the mid-30s, he went out on his own and set up an independent production company. He produced baritone Fred Scott in a couple of singing westerns (including The Roaming Cowboy and The Rangers' Roundup), and was also working with a former comedian from the silent era, Andy Clyde. By the late ‘30s, he would become known for taking chances on the unusual - he did an all-midget western, The Terror of Tiny Town, and was planning to do an all-female western (to be called Follies on Horseback). It was Buell who was willing to produce an all-black western.
What became Herb Jeffries' first movie began its life as a script originally called Sunset on the Prairie. When it was completed in the autumn of 1937, it had been renamed Harlem on the Prairie. (Variety noted in its review of the film that its original title was supposed to be Bad Man of Harlem; the name was changed so people would know it was a western.) The film was distributed by Associated Features, the company started by Buell, along with several other partners, including songwriter Lew Porter and Yale graduate and famous former athlete Sabin Carr. The 54-minute film was billed as the “first outdoor action adventure” to feature an “all negro cast.” Among the actors were Spencer Williams Jr. (who played “Doc Clayburn”, a former outlaw who had turned over a new leaf). The lone actress was Corrine Harris, who played Doc's daughter Carolina. Music was provided by the Four Tones, as well as by Jeffries, and comic relief came from Mantan Moreland. Sam Newfield was the director; he directed a large number of low budget “B movies” during the Golden Age.
There has been some question about where Harlem on the Prairie was filmed. The most likely location was a dude ranch owned by husband and wife Nolie and Lela Murray, in Victorville, CA, a two hour drive from Los Angeles. Theirs was one of the few ranches that welcomed people of color, and several other black westerns were shot there, including The Bronze Buckaroo and Harlem on the Range. The total cost to make Harlem on the Prairie was estimated at about $50,000 (although one source says it may have cost as little as $20,000). Although Herb was the star, he was only paid about $5000 for his work, which included singing, acting, and doing his own stunts. Herb won the starring role after auditions of other black actors failed to find one who could do all the things that Herb could.
Unlike his other films, where his character was called “Bob Blake,” in this film, Herb played “Jeff Kincaid.” The bad guy in the film was “Wolf Cain,” played by Maceo B. Sheffield. Sheffield, when not working as an actor and a bad guy, was a night club owner, and a partner in Buell's Associates Features. Prior to his show biz career, Sheffield had been a Los Angeles police officer. The story goes that while Jed Buell was impressed with Herb Jeffries as a singer and believed he would be able to do the required riding and roping, there was one concern about using him as the leading man: Herb was very light-skinned, and Buell was worried that black audiences wouldn't believe that Herb was black, despite his having sung with several black jazz and dance bands by this time. Fortunately, it did not turn out to be a problem, although Herb notes with amusement that stage makeup was used to darken his skin tone a little.
In addition to being the first all-black singing cowboy film, Harlem on the Prairie was unique in several other ways. Black films of that era usually played in black theaters only. (One estimate stated that there were as many as 500 black theaters nation-wide around the time when Herb Jeffries' first movie came out.) But this movie was not just relegated to the segregated movie houses; it was also shown in a few East and West Coast theaters where the audiences were mainly white. Black films were frequently ignored by the white movie critics; Hollywood didn't consider these films for Oscars, and mainstream movie annuals of the day didn't even list them because they were made outside of the Hollywood studio system. But Harlem on the Prairie received more attention than many black films of that era. It got positive write-ups in Motion Picture Herald and Variety. And, proving that no publicity is bad publicity, it got nearly a full page write-up in Time magazine. Unfortunately, the review was often quite patronizing. The critic seemed surprised to see black actors doing a western, rather than a musical, for which he felt they were better suited. He praised Herb's voice and also liked the harmonizing of the Four Tones. But he believed that only a black audience would take a black western seriously, saying that white audiences would probably regard it as a parody.
Interestingly, the influential black newspaper the New York Age did not seem especially impressed with the movie, although their movie critic, William K. Clark, praised the comic skills of Mantan Moreland. Clark seemed more concerned that one of the songs, “Love in the Rain”, sounded very much like a recent Bobbie Breen song, “Love on the River.” In a somewhat scathing review, he implied that the songwriters for Harlem on the Prairie were guilty of plagiarism. This caused Bessie Miller, wife of veteran entertainer Flournoy Miller (and also a cast member in Harlem on the Prairie) to write a heated reply in which she took Clark to task for being negative and making unfair accusations. And Flournoy Miller himself took pen in hand to write to several other black newspapers. He basically asked them to be kind to the movie, saying that while it certainly could not match the big-budget Hollywood westerns, it still was worthwhile entertainment and deserved praise for calling attention to the existence of actual black cowboys such as Bill Pickett.
Whether the critics liked the film or not, Harlem on the Prairie seemed to find a niche, and it even made a profit, grossing over $50,000 in its first year. But unfortunately for film scholars and Herb Jeffries fans, today's viewers cannot see this film and draw their own conclusions, because no print of it has been found. It only lives on in the memories of those who saw it and those who were in it, as well as those who collect old movie posters.
But then, we are lucky to have any of Herb's films today. So many films from the early days of the industry never survived at all, and the same might have been true of Herb's output except for a very fortunate event. In August 1983, in a warehouse in Tyler TX, a stack of about 100 film cans was found. Included in the film cans were prints of about 30 “race movies”, many of which had been considered lost. Among them were two of Herb's cowboy films (although not Harlem on the Prairie). The fortuitous discovery was written about in national news magazines and film journals, and it brought about a renewed interest in early black films, including Herb's work as a singing cowboy in the 1930s. (For those who have never seen them, three of Herb's four cowboy films are also available on home video.)
Herb Jeffries' next film, from Merit Pictures, was Two Gun Man from Harlem, which was originally titled New Trail Ahead. It featured many of the same cast members as his first one, including music by the Four Tones (who were compared by several critics to a black version of the Sons of the Pioneers). The movie was directed by another white director who had done his share of B movies, Richard C. Kahn. In this 1938 film, Herb played good guy Bob Blake, framed for a murder he didn't commit. The plot alternated between Harlem and Wyoming, but again, the evidence is that the movie was shot at the Murray family's dude ranch in California. As he had done previously, Mantan Moreland provided some of the comedy; this time, he played a character named “Mistletoe”, who loved to brag about his cooking skills. There was also an appearance by Matthew “Stymie” Beard of the “Our Gang” series. Spencer Williams Jr, who would appear in all of the Herb Jeffries movies, played “Butch Carter” in this one, and Margaret Whitten played Herb's love interest, “Sally Thompson.”
Bob Blake's theme song was “I'm a Happy Cowboy,” and this song expressed the love that Herb Jeffries had for the western genre. (“With my rope and my saddle and my horse and my gun, I'm a happy cowboy . . .”) Herb had grown up watching Tom Mix and others, and he seemed to genuinely enjoy portraying a western hero. He said in many interviews that for him, the cowboy represented honesty, hard work and fair play. Cowboys didn't discriminate and they judged people by the way they acted, rather than by their ethnic background. While this may be an idealized view, the western hero certainly struck a chord with audiences, perhaps because in a complicated world, the cowboy stood for what was good and always triumphed over what was evil. And in an era when the black characters were seldom heroes, Herb adopted the symbols that were familiar to any movie audience: to make sure people knew he was the good guy, he too wore a white hat. As for critics who said that he was just imitating the white cowboys, he would explain that while he admired Tom Mix, Gene Autry and other Hollywood cowboy stars, he always tried to make his own character unique.
The other two western films that Herb starred in were The Bronze Buckaroo and Harlem Rides the Range. In both of these films, Herb's sidekick and comic relief was Lucius Brooks, who played the character of “Dusty”. Both films came from Hollywood Productions and were directed by Richard C. Kahn, who also wrote the screenplay for The Bronze Buckaroo. Spencer Williams Jr. and Flournoy Miller wrote the screenplay for Harlem Rides the Range. Williams, who is a story himself, played the villainous “Pete” in The Bronze Buckaroo and the ranch-owner “Mr. Watson” who hires Bob Blake in Harlem Rides the Range. He had worked in vaudeville, and was a sound technician at Christie Studios during the late ‘20s, where he helped to write several screenplays. After his roles in the Herb Jeffries movies, Spencer Williams starred in and directed a number of low-budget films during the ‘40s. He is also known for playing the role of Andy Brown when Amos ‘n' Andy had a short-lived run on early ‘50s television.
One interesting cameo in The Bronze Buckaroo is that of Earl J. Morris, the drama editor of the Pittsburgh Courier, an influential black newspaper. His columns also appeared in the Chicago Defender. Morris noted in one of his columns in late October 1938 that Spencer Williams was now an executive at Hollywood Productions and very much involved in the decision-making process. He also praised the Murrays dude ranch as the ideal location for shooting westerns, noting that the horses used in both The Bronze Buckaroo and Harlem Rides the Range came from the Murrays ranch, which also had plenty of cattle and barnyard animals that could make a western more realistic.
For the most part, the critics were kind to The Bronze Buckaroo, noting that it was entertaining and fun, with good cinematography, although Film Daily expressed the prevailing view of the mainstream press that it would only be popular with “colored” audiences. Harlem Rides the Range was the last of the films that Herb made, and Film Daily thought it was the best of the series, saying it was “exceptionally good” high praise for a black film of that era. By 1939, when the movie came out, Herb had made a number of appearances dressed up in character and signed countless autographs. But it was becoming obvious that being a black film star was not especially lucrative, even if it was rewarding. Herb had never entirely abandoned his musical career. In mid December of 1938, he made history in Long Beach CA when he was among the stars of the first all-black produced and directed radio show, which was broadcast from the new Bill Robinson Theater in Los Angeles via station KFOX. Herb was identified in the newspaper publicity for the radio show as “America's Number One Negro Singing Cowboy.”
In early January of 1939, The Chicago Defender wrote that Herb Jeffries had signed a five-year managerial contract with John Levy, identified as a “prominent New York sportsman.” The article noted that Jeffries was “loved by children throughout America as their gallant singing cowboy hero . . .” By the end of February, black newspapers were reporting that Herb would soon begin an extensive tour, making personal appearances throughout the country in support of his movies. But at some point, things changed. While making an appearance in Detroit, he met the great Duke Ellington, and the rest is history. Herb would win millions of fans during the years that he was Ellington's vocalist; and if you are a record collector, perhaps you have the original of his biggest hit, “Flamingo”, which was released in late December of 1940 on the Victor label.
While the black westerns were ground-breaking, modern critics have remarked about something troubling in them. Although they were well-intentioned, they seemed to make use of the common racial stereotypes of the era. For example, Herb, a light skinned man, was the hero; and his love interest was usually an actress with light skin. Meanwhile, the darker skinned black actors were relegated to familiar roles as buffoons or villains. And the darker skinned characters, no matter how educated they were in real life, tended to speak “black English”, whereas Herb's English was (and is) flawless. In fairness, it has also been pointed out that there is a big difference between seeing stereotypic black characters being humiliated by whites in a Hollywood film and seeing black characters playing the comic roles in a film where there are also black heroes, black good guys, and black villains. And while the darker skinned characters were often comedians, that didn't mean they were depicted as stupid. Bob Blake's sidekick Dusty may have been perpetually hungry and often tried to avoid doing any work, but he also helped our hero to defeat the villain - in fact, in a shoot-out during the climactic scene of The Bronze Buckaroo, it was Dusty who killed the bad guy. Perhaps black audiences felt more comfortable with the stereotyped characters because they were balanced off by more positive portrayals.
These days, Herb Jeffries continues to record, perform and give interviews. He has kept up with the trends in communication: he had his own radio show, then acted in a number of TV shows, did voice-overs for cartoons, and these days, he has his own web-site (www.herbjeffries.com). He was the subject of tabloid gossip when in the late ‘50s, he married an exotic dancer named Tempest Storm, from whom he eventually got divorced in 1969. These days, there isn't much gossip. He lives on the west coast with his wife Savannah, and makes a lot of personal appearances, talking about his long career.
You may have seen him in a Turner Home Video documentary from 1994 called The Black West, narrated by Danny Glover, in which Herb discussed the importance of the black cowboys and why he wanted to make films that honored their legacy. He has not only made appearances throughout the USA but in Europe and Australia. “I've performed for kings, and for presidents,” he told me, “and I still get letters from fans all over the world. But the one thing I don't understand is that these days, most of my fans are white. The young black audiences these days don't seem very interested in movie history or the black films [of the Golden Age].” But Herb is glad he participated in those films, and so are the fans who have rediscovered them. Black historian Robert J. Booker, a columnist for the Knoxville, TN News agrees that these movies deserve to be remembered, despite their flaws. Booker saw some of these movies when he was a kid, and recalls them fondly. “ . . . [Although] many of these films were done on the cheap . . . I didn't realize it. I was too busy rooting for the good guy and watching how he treated his horse. I have learned to watch The Bronze Buckaroo and other early black movies with that same attitude.”