Herb Jeffries has moved on after one hundred years on this plane. Herb made a name for himself by creating and starring in (as The Bronze Buckaroo) a genre of cowboy movies with all-black casts, so that young blacks could have role models like the whites did in Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, and others. He was the first black “singing cowboy,” and as such, attracted the attention of band leader Edward “Duke” Ellington, who asked Herb to sing with his band. According to Dennis McLellan in the Los Angeles Times (Memorial Day, May 26, 2014), “Jeffries, who began singing with what has been described as a luscious tenor, followed the advice of Ellington's composer-arranger Billy Strayhorn and lowered his range to what music critic Jonny Whiteside later called a 'silken, lusty baritone.'”
I worked with Herb on several occasions, and he always proved to be a consummate gentleman. Most recently, I played in the band at Catalina Jazz Club in Hollywood for a celebration of his 95th birthday. He announced he had already booked an appearance in Las Vegas for his 100th birthday. He appeared in a wheelchair, but otherwise seemed to have all his faculties intact. One striking and memorable moment occurred when he recited his favorite poem, a rather lengthy tome, from memory.
Of course, he sang his biggest hit, “Flamingo,” which he recorded in the early 1940s with the Ellington band; it sold in the millions. Which brings me to a recording session I was doing with a Dixieland band: at one point Herb's name came up. The trombonist (I was playing tuba) inexplicably had no idea who Herb Jeffries was. We were puzzled, what with Herb's fame and the trombone player's extensive background in jazz; so we were trying to explain to him who Herb was, when the banjo player chimed in with, “You can count all of his hits on one leg.” (Thanks, Jon, for that memory.)
R.I.P. Herb Jeffries, 1913-2014