Obituaries

Herb Jeffries, jazz balladeer and hero of black cowboy movies

Courtesy of The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum

WASHINGTON — Herb Jeffries, a jazz balladeer whose matinee-idol looks won him fame in the late 1930s as the ‘‘Bronze Buckaroo’’ — the first singing star of all-black cowboy movies for segregated audiences — died Sunday at a hospital in West Hills, Calif. He was widely believed to be 100, but for years he insisted he was much older.

The cause was stomach and heart ailments, said Raymond Strait, a friend of 70 years who had been working with Mr. Jeffries on his autobiography. Mr. Jeffries liked to exaggerate his age to shock listeners. ‘‘He wanted people to say, ‘Wow, he can still sing pretty good for 111,’’’ Strait said.

Mr. Jeffries had a seven-decade career on film, television, record, and in nightclubs. His baritone voice — extraordinarily rich but delicate — was memorably captured on his greatest musical success, a 1941 hit recording of ‘‘Flamingo’’ with Duke Ellington’s big band.

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With a towering physique and a square jaw, he was perfectly suited to capitalize on the singing-cowboy movie craze that Gene Autry and Roy Rogers popularized in the 1930s.

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Black performers such as the rodeo star Bill Pickett had appeared in silent westerns, but the Stetson-sporting, six-gun-toting Mr. Jeffries inaugurated the concept of a black singer riding in the saddle as the hero.

Sometimes billed as Herbert Jeffrey, he starred in a cluster of low-budget ‘‘race’’ pictures in the late 1930s: ‘‘Harlem on the Prairie,’’ ‘‘Rhythm Rodeo,’’ ‘‘Two-Gun Man from Harlem,’’ ‘‘The Bronze Buckaroo,’’ and ‘‘Harlem Rides the Range.’’

His recurring character in several of the films was Bob Blake, a debonair man of the range with a passion for justice and song. His sidekicks included comedian Spencer Williams Jr., later known for his work as Andy on CBS’s ‘‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’’ television show. His backup singers were the Four Blackbirds, also known as the Four Tones. For background characters, he said, he borrowed black actors who had been ‘‘Tarzan’’ movie extras.

Mr. Jeffries learned to ride on his grandfather’s dairy farm in Port Huron, Mich., and he had grown up loving the cowboy films of Tom Mix and Buck Jones. He said the idea for an all-black cowboy picture came to him while touring the South as a singer in the mid-1930s and visiting tin-roof movie theaters meant for black audiences.

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He had spent fruitless years trying to convince black backers — including millionaire numbers runners — that African-Americans would spend money on cowboy pictures featuring people of their own color.

As a last resort, Mr. Jeffries persuaded producer Jed Buell — best known for making the all-midget western musical ‘‘The Terror of Tiny Town’’ (1938) — to finance the movies.

At first, he said, Buell was hesitant to cast Mr. Jeffries because of his light skin.

‘‘I asked him, ‘What do you want, someone who can ride and sing and act, or a color?’ ‘‘ Mr. Jeffries told the Washington Times in 2003. ‘‘I called Buell’s attention to a picture called ‘The Good Earth,’ where Paul Muni and Luise Rainer had passed as Chinese peasants.

‘‘I challenged him: ‘Darken me up if you want to. And I’ll keep my hat on tight so no one can see my hair.’ In desperation, he said yes.’’

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Neither had any illusion about the films’ quality. Many rehashed the plots of low-grade westerns starring white actors. Mr. Jeffries later called his movies, some filmed on a black dude ranch near Victorville, Calif., ‘‘the first bunch of C-minus westerns.’’

Yet he was sentimentally attached to them. Starting in the 1980s, they contributed to a revival of interest in his career.

In 1995, he sang on a CD called ‘‘The Bronze Buckaroo (Rides Again)’’ that reprised ‘‘I’m a Happy Cowboy’’ and other songs from his movies.

Mr. Jeffries was coy about his background. He claimed, at times, to have been born Umberto Alejandro Balentino to an Irish mother and Sicilian father of mixed race. Other sources say he was born Herbert Ironton Jeffries in Detroit, probably on Sept. 24, 1913 — the date Strait said was correct.

He told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2008 of his heritage: ‘‘I’m all colors, like everyone else. If we all go back 10 or 15 generations, we don’t know what we have in us. I don’t think there’s one person from around the Mediterranean who doesn’t have Moorish blood. I have Sicilian blood, and I have Moorish blood. I am colored, and I love it. I have a right to identify myself the way I do and if nobody likes it, what are they going to do? Kill my career?’’

He never knew his father. He was raised by his mother in a boardinghouse she ran and where many singers and actors stayed. It was this exposure to show business that led Mr. Jeffries to appear, as a young man, in Detroit nightclubs.

In 1933, he joined up with pianist Earl ‘‘Fatha’’ Hines’s orchestra at the Chicago World’s Fair and spent the next two years with the band on tour.

Mr. Jeffries said he was a devotee of Eastern religions and meditated every morning and night ‘‘to attune to the frequency.’’ He had five marriages, including one to exotic dancer Tempest Storm, whom he directed in a 1967 sexploitation horror film called ‘‘Mundo Depravados.’’ He leaves his wife, the former Sarah Lee ‘‘Savannah’’ Shippen, and five children.