Herb Jeffries, Pioneering Black Singing Cowboy of the Movies, Dies at 100

Herb Jeffries, the first black singing cowboy of the movies who starred in such 1930s films as Harlem on the Prairie and The Bronze Buckaroo, has died, the Los Angeles Times reported. He was 100.

Jeffries, who later became a recording star as a member of Duke Ellington's orchestra, died of heart failure Sunday at West Hills (Calif.) Hospital & Medical Center, Raymond Strait, who had been working with the actor on his autobiography, told the newspaper. 

Jeffries also had the title role in the 1957 film Calypso Joe, playing a singer who helps Angie Dickinson find the right man, and guest-starred on such 1960s TV series as I Dream of Jeannie, The Name of the Game, The Virginian and Hawaii Five-O.

A broad-shouldered man with a thin mustache, Jeffries wore a white Stetson as the good guy in five low-budget Westerns featuring all-black casts: Harlem on the Prairie (1937), Two-Gun Man From Harlem (1938), Rhythm Rodeo (1938), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939) and Harlem Rides the Range (1939).

Jeffries got the idea for an all-black Western after seeing a screening of The Terror of Tiny Town, a Western produced by Jed Buell featuring an entire cast of little people. He convinced Buell to make Harlem on the Prairie, the first sound Western with an all-black cast.

Jeffries wrote his own songs for the film, and the cast included Spencer Williams, who would later portray Andy on the TV show Amos 'n' Andy. 

Jeffries was born Umberto Valentino in Detroit on Sept. 24, 1913, to an Irish mother and mixed-race father. He learned to ride a horse on his grandfather's dairy farm in Northern Michigan. 

Jeffries started out as a singer, touring with Earl "Fatha" Hines. After joining Ellington's band, the baritone had such hits as "Flamingo," "In My Solitude" and "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good." He also appeared with Ellington, Joe Turner and a young Dorothy Dandridge in the bandleader's famed "Jump for Joy" revue that played L.A. in 1941.

After serving in the U.S. Army during World War II, Jeffries recorded such hits as "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano" and "Basin Street Blues." He moved to France in the early 1950s to open nightclubs.

In 1995, he recorded a well-received album of classic Western songs, "The Bronze Buckaroo Rides Again."

This article originally appeared in THR.com.


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