Herb Jeffries, as the first African-American cowboy
in the movies, was once
billed as "The Bronze Buckaroo." In the 1930s, he starred in all-black
westerns including "Two-Gun Man From Harlem" and "Harlem on the Prairie"
and "The Bronze Buckaroo." The future, for Herb Jeffries, a marvelous and
enduring singer, would bring a song called "Flamingo," which he recorded
with Duke Ellington. Rarely have a song and a singer formed such an
indelible unity in the public mind.
I asked Herb: "Do you still sing `Flamingo'?"
"I better," he said in his wonderfully rich baritone. "I do the `Mostly
Duke' concerts across the country. Once I left out `Flamingo' and the
audience raised the roof. `Flamingo' has been a part of my identity for
more than 50 years. I just signed a contract with Warner Bros.
country-and-western division. But I'll still sing `Flamingo.' I'll
always sing 'Flamingo.' "
You should know that Herb Jeffries is a young man of 82. He's in great
shape and in great voice and he has stories to tell. He sings "I'm a Happy
Cowboy" on "The Black West," a segment of Turner Broadcasting's
myth-shattering series, "The Untold West" at 8:05 p.m. tomorrow. (Over
three consecutive nights, the series begins at 8:05 tonight.)
"Altogether there were five all-black cowboy movies," he said. "I'd go out
to the little tin-roof theaters with the movies and a backup group. We'd
put on shows with the rope tricks. When that ended, I went home to Detroit
to show off my ego.
"One night Duke Ellington was playing in Detroit at Jean Goldkette's
Greystone Ballroom. I drive up in my big cowboy-hero Cadillac with the
steer horns. With my cowboy hat and all the regalia, I stuck out like a fly
in the buttermilk. Duke said: `Ladies and gentlemen, we have the Bronze
Buckaroo with us tonight. Buckaroo, will you sing us a song?' I sang and
Duke hired me as his first male singer."
Doorman wouldn't let him in
One time, Jeffries recalls, the Ellington band was playing at the Pearl
Theater in Philadelphia. "I was going out for dinner and this little guy
stops me at the stage door. He says, in a French accent, 'Monsieur
Jeffries, I am Ted Grouya. The doorman would not let me in. Pleez, show my
song to Monsieur Ellington?' I said, `All right,' and I put his music in
my pocket. Later, I set it on my dressing-room table.
"Swee'-Pea comes in -- that's Billy `Swee'-Pea' Strayhorn, Duke's
arranger-composer. He sees the music and we go to the piano onstage. Duke
hears us. `Swee'-Pea,' Duke says. `Whatever you're playing -- make a
chart of it.' That was `Flamingo.'
"On Dec. 28, 1940," Herb remembered, "I recorded `Flamingo' because Duke
needed one more song for an album. It was about then that the Ellington
band was hired for `Jump for Joy,' an all-black musical out in Hollywood.
But I was not hired and for this reason: They said I didn't look black
enough. But since `Flamingo' was such a hit, they reconsidered.
"One night during rehearsals, John `Julie' Garfield, the actor and a big
investor in the show, comes to my dressing room. I was due onstage to sing
'Brown Skin Gal in a Calico Gown' with Dorothy Dandridge. Garfield
hesitated. Then he blurted it out: `Mr. Jeffries, I don't know if you're
aware of this, but Miss Dandridge is dark-skinned and, uh, well, the truth
is, you look white. Would you mind if we darkened you up?' I said,
`Whatever you say, Julie.' They got some Egyptian 46 makeup and I got
"Now I'm onstage. Duke is furious. He says, `What are you trying to do --
an Al Jolson?' I tried to explain. But Duke stormed out and had a little
talk with the producers. I never darkened up again."
Worked for two peerless leaders
This distinction is owned by Herb Jeffries: He sang with Duke Ellington and
with Earl "Fatha" Hines, two peerless bandleaders. "When `Fatha' Hines
hired me, I was scuffling. He looked at my threadbare suit. `What're you
wearing -- two lead sheets?' My suit did look as thin as sheet music. He
pointed to his closet. `Pick out what you want,' he said. So I braved that
Chicago winter with a wraparound camel's-hair coat, courtesy of `Fatha'
"To us Duke was `Guv' or `Guvvy,' for `Governor.' He called me `Hobby'
for Herbie. Once I said to him, `Guv, I was just thinking how it must be
for you -- on top of the world.'
"The Duke sighed. `Yeah, Hobby,' said the Duke with a shrug. `But there's
no place to sit down.' "