- Kathy Lynn Wills of "Cowboys
Bronze Buckaroo on VHS!
Bronze Buckaroo Movie Posters
'Bronze Buckaroo' Rides Again
'The Desert Sun'
'The Duke and I' on CD
Herb's Photo Gallery
Listen to some Classic Jeffries
MusicMan Len Triola
Reviews of Herb Jeffries
This History of Herb Jeffries
In fact, during his long career, Jeffries
was often assumed to be Italian, Latin African-American, Caucasian,
and even Jewish (Jeffries speaks Yiddish, among other languages).
But more important than how his vast audiences identified his
race was Jeffries' own decision on who to be - a choice he made
as the star of a series of all-black Westerns in 1937 and 1938.
For some it may be difficult to comprehend
what it meant to be a black man in 1930s America. At that time,
the choice of where to live, where to eat, or even which movie
to see were all dictated by the color of your skin. The impact
of his choice, perhaps small by today's standards, directed the
rest of the young singer's career and his life.
"I decided some time ago," Jeffries said in a 1951 interview
in Life magazine, "that the Negro people need all the good,
intelligent, unbelligerent representatives they can get in this
world, and I'm trying to be one." At the time, Jeffries'
nightclub shows were the hottest ticket on the French Riviera.
Jeffries' professional career began as
a teenager in his native Detroit. After he had success singing
with local groups, Jeffries set out in search of his fortune,
and during his career sang with the leading big jazz bands of
Earl "Fatha" Hines, Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington.
Jeffries recalls, "On a tour through
the South, I saw thousands and thousands of little tin roof Negro
There were thousands of theaters playing
white cowboy pictures." Why can't we make black cowboy pictures?
Jeffries remembers thinking. When a tour singing with the Blanche
Calloway orchestra ended in Los Angeles, a young Jeffries - still
in his 20s - began searching for financing to make the cowboy
serials he knew would be a hit.
In 1936 Jed Buell, an independent Hollywood
producer, finally gave him his first chance. "He bought my
story in 15 minutes," Jeffries explains. "He called
his distributor in Dallas, Albert Sack, who said he would take
all the black cowboy pictures we could make." And so began
a landmark in filmmaking that is now all but forgotten. The first
film produced was Harlem On The Prairie.
Widely experienced as a singer, Jeffries
never intended to star in this series of films. Buell thought
he was too light-skinned and said audiences wouldn't accept him
as a black man. But when the search for a leading man failed to
discover an actor who could ride, sing and act convincingly in
dramatic scenes, Jeffries, with make-up to darken his skin and
a hat tied on to hide his naturally wavy hair, won the part.
"The biggest actors we had all played subservient roles,"
Jeffries explains, commenting on the parts available for black
performers during his early time in Hollywood. "I was a hero.
There were no other heroes. Jeffries was, in fact, the first black
singing cowboywho played a hero in a dramatic, full-length feature
Jeffries was, however, not the first
black actor to ride across the silver screen. "Beginning
around World War I," according to John Langellier, director
of publications and productions for the Autry Museum of Western
Heritage in Los Angeles, "A few black Westerns (made by African-American
owned movie companies) had been produced chiefly for segregated