Herb Jeffries performs at White House
By Gabrielle Lennon
Herb Jeffries thought the phone call from the White House was a prank at first. "I've been in this country for so many years and no ones ever called from the White House."
Jeffries, nearly 92, had just returned from Fort Worth, Texas, where he was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame, when he was invited to sing on June 24 for President Bush.
Jeffries' career has been full. He spent 10 years singing with Duke Ellington's band and turning out numerous hits, including Flamingo, which has sold more than 14 million copies.
Hits led the way to Jeffries' lucrative nightclub career.
He moved to France, became a singing sensation and opened his own nightclub in Paris, entertaining many celebrities including Orson Welles, Ali Khan and King Farouk of Egypt.
But before he was a world-famous big band vocalist, Jeffries, now an Idyllwild resident, was "The Bronze Buckaroo," a singing cowboy hero.
The movies became hugely popular in black theaters nationwide and made Jeffries a movie star. Black children finally had a Western star they could look up to.In addition to being a film actor and singer, Jeffries has acted on stage and TV. He's also a writer and is working on his autobiography, "Skin Deep," which he hopes to finish by March or April of next year.
Jeffries also entertained GIs in Korea and recorded jazz, popular, Western and Jamaican folk songs he wrote and composed for several motion pictures.
At the White House, Jeffries' audience included President Bush, his wife, Laura, Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Education Secretary Rod Paige, President of Panama Mireya Moscoso, the Mayor of New York, senators, dignitaries and several sports figures. Everyone was there but Cheyney," Jeffries said. "About 300 people were in the audience."
Bush traced the history of Negro artists' musical performances at the White House remembering Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton, Hank Jones, Billy Taylor, Marion Anderson and others. In 1969, Ellington performed in the East Room of the White House, where Jeffries also performed.
Writer and jazz critic Stanley Crouch introduced the show. Loren Schoenberg conducted and arranged for the band that played for Jeffries, the "Harlem Jazz Museum in Harlem All Stars."
The performances saluted Ellington in Black Music Month.
When Jeffries and his significant other, Savannah Shippen, arrived at the White House, they had to pass five or six guards before going in, "including one with dogs who sniffed all over the car," said Jeffries. "The security was unbelievable."
Then they went through six gates and another inspection, which everyone goes through.
"At the first gate, they asked for our ID," Jeffries said. "They were very nice about it. I didn't have anything in my tuxedo pockets, though, because I wanted them to look smooth.
"Savanna had a little photo on a credit card but that was it. "Then I couldn't believe it. I felt something in my tuxedo shirt, and found a Department of Defense card from when I was in Korea. Isn't fate strange?
"I thought Id have to go back to the hotel and get my passport."
Once inside the White House, Jeffries and Shippen were told what they could do and where they could go.
"It was a dream come true," Jeffries said. "Not politically, but we walked through the halls other presidents walked through, like Washington and Lincoln. It was historical. We were intoxicated by that environment.
"The Bushes were very down-to-earth, warm, humorous I tell you, I was in shock. I have a different perspective altogether. You figure a guy is at the top of the country, his ego would be popping out all over the place, but he has no ego."
Jeffries was also excited to see pictures of all the presidents pets. "Abe Lincoln had a black potbellied pig and a goat."
In Bush's introductory speech he said, "The artists with us today are known and admired for high achievement in many musical forms. And the commemoration of this month expresses our nation's pride in the music that black Americans have created and have shared with the world.
"These White House performances were moments of triumph for artists who loved this country, even when this country did not make them feel fully welcomed."
After his performance, when he got up to bow, there was a standing ovation started by the President.
Jeffries said, "Bush bolted onto stage during the ovation and hugged me."
He then helped Jeffries offstage saying, "I got cha, Herb. Welcome to the White House. What an honor it is to have you here."
President Bush then made a speech, after which Jeffries said Bush asked his wife how it was, looking for approval. "It was so nice to see them a couple. You get a different perspective on TV of what these people are like.
"Colin Powell always has a scowl on TV, but that night he was smiling.
"It was so sweet," Jeffries said. "The whole thing was a dream."
Then the First Lady walked toward him. "Oh, Mr. Jeffries, your voice is so wonderful," she said. "You havent lost a thing." Shippen also met Laura Bush at this time.
Jeffries and Shippen were then taken to the Blue Room to prepare him to greet the President, who wanted a picture with them. Jeffries said, "They were down to earth, as amicable as anyone you'd meet at Cafe Aroma."
Shippen chimed in, "When we went to get the picture, Bush looked at me, smiled, and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I said, Oh my goodness, may I kiss you back? He said, Sure," and I kissed him on both sides.
"Earlier, we had walked down a red carpet. I felt like I was riding Herbs coattails, like riding a magic carpet."
Jeffries said, "Im not a republican, but decided to accept him because whether you like your captain or not you are on that boat and going where he takes you.
"Bush sincerely feels hes doing the right thing, doing his best to make it work in the best way he knows how.
Jeffries continued, "Hes an amicable, humorous, precocious, go-get-em dude a real cowboy who knows how to ride the bull. Not afraid hes going to get hurt, but knows the risk hes taking.
"It's not glamorous because you have your neck stuck out there for any type of criticism. I wouldnt want to ride that bull."
"He's a man who's not a movie star, but who's out there to do one thing kick butt."
'You make so many judgments," said Jeffries. "The public is swayed by the media. The American public gets a jolt from sensationalism.
"I don't like papers other than the Town Crier because Im sick of plane crashes, rapes, boats bombed and children killed. The Town Crier is honest and sincere. Theres a softness, spirituality and homeyness about it. I dont feel like buying 25, 30 cents of antagonism."
Jeffries told the Town Crier he asked for funds to help our trees and fire hazard problem. He said Bush said it would be taken care of.
Colin Powell then said, "Herb Ive been watching you since I was about this high [he indicated a childs shortness with his hand], and Im proud of you."
Jeffries replied, "Ive been watching you since I was [indicated an adult height] this big and Im proud of you."
When they were ready to leave, Shippen and Jeffries were escorted through the hallways with staff and military following them. "Beautiful, big hallways with high ceilings," said Jeffries.
Since these staff and military personnel hadnt gotten to hear Jeffries sing, he sang for them in the hallway. "It was echoing great acoustics.
"It was an experience," Jeffries said, of looking from the inside out. And we, as residents of Idyllwild, are able to give our town the dignity of having a resident visit the White House. Because to me Idyllwild has been the most comfortable and amicable.
"Were so interracial here," Jeffries continued. "People dont look at what their epidermis is. They stop to talk. And the other famous people who live here can walk around and not be picked out. Theres a freedom, a spirituality here I havent found anywhere else."
Jeffries said that in social structure, celebrities must carry themselves in a certain way, but in Idyllwild, "you throw that away.
"We sit on the porch, listen to birds sing, watch squirrels, drive cautiously because we dont want to hit a squirrel, a fawn will dart across the road this is a spirituality created by nature. Idyllwild is wonderland for me."