Singer-Actor Herb Jeffries Dies in California

Starred in Western Movies Aimed at Black Audiences, Recorded High-Profile Country Album

Singer and actor Herb Jeffries, who made a high-profile foray into country music in 1995 with the album The Bronze Buckaroo (Rides Again) died Sunday (May 25) in West Hills, Calif.

Although his exact date of birth is in dispute, he is thought to have been at least 100 at the time of his death.

For most of his long career, Jeffries was regarded as biracial and presented himself as such. In later years, however, he declared that his mother was Irish and his father Sicilian and that his birth name was Umberto Valentino.

While still in his teens, Jeffries began touring as a singer with Earl “Fatha” Hines and went on to fame in the 1940s singing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra. His hit records included “Flamingo,” “When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano” and “Basin Street Blues.”

Touring in the segregated South in the 1930s, Jeffries recalled that he was struck by how popular cowboy movies — then a basically white art form — were with black audiences. This led him to propose making Western movies with black heroes.

With no black actors readily available for that duty, Jeffries undertook it himself, agreeing to have his light skin darkened. He wound up starring in four such films in the late 1930s: Harlem on the Prairie, Two-Gun Man From Harlem, The Bronze Buckaroo and Harlem Rides the Range.

Warner Bros Records signed Jeffries in early 1995, during a period when the label had devoted a separate imprint to Western music. At the time, Jeffries listed his age as 83. The upshot was a collection of new and classic cowboy tunes called The Bronze Buckaroo (Rides Again).

Although the album yielded no single hits, respect for Jeffries lured an array of country artists to make guest appearances, including Michael Martin Murphey, Little Texas, Rex Allen Jr., Cleve Francis and Sons of the San Joaquin.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.