Herb Jeffries

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Herbert "Herb" Jeffries
Birth name Umberto Alexander Valentino (alt. Umberto Alejandro Ballentino)
Born (1913-09-24)September 24, 1913
Detroit, Michigan, US
Died May 25, 2014(2014-05-25) (aged 100)
Woodland Hills, California, US
Genres Jazz, popular
Occupation(s) Singer, actor
Years active 1933–1995
Labels Warner Bros. Records[1]

Herbert "Herb" Jeffries, born Umberto Alexander Valentino (September 24, 1913 – May 25, 2014), was an American jazz and popular singer and actor.

In the 1940s and 1950s Jeffries recorded for a number of labels, including RCA Victor, Exclusive, Coral, Decca, Bethlehem, Columbia, Mercury and Trend. His album Jamaica, recorded by RKO, is a concept album of self-composed calypso songs.

He starred in several Western feature films Harlem on the Prairie (1937), Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939) and Harlem Rides the Range (1939) and acted in several other films and television shows.[2]

Early life and ethnicity[edit]

Jeffries was born Umberto Alexander Valentino in Detroit to an Irish mother who ran a rooming house. His father, whom he never knew, was of mixed Sicilian, French, Italian and Moorish roots.[3][4][5][6] He also claimed that his paternal great-grandmother was an Ethiopian woman named Carey.[7]

Jeffries once characterized himself in an interview as "three-eighths Negro", claiming pride in an African-American heritage during a period when many light-skinned black performers were attempting "to pass" as all-white in an effort to broaden their commercial appeal. In marked contrast, Jeffries used make-up to darken his skin in order to pursue a career in jazz and to be seen as employable by the leading all-black musical ensembles of the day.[4]

However, much later in his career, Jeffries would assume the identify of a white citizen for economic or highly personal reasons. Jet reported that Jeffries identified himself as White and stated his "real" name as "Herbert Jeffrey Ball" on an application in order to marry Tempest Storm in 1959.[8] Jeffries told the reporter for Jet:

"... I'm not passing, I never have, I never will. For all these years I've been wavering about the color question on the blanks. Suddenly I decided to fill in the blank the way I look and feel.

Look at my blue eyes, look at my brown hair, look at my color. What color do you see?" he demand to know. "My mother was 100 per cent white," Jeffries said, his blue eyes glinting in the New York sun. "My father is Portuguese, Spanish, American Indian, and Negro. How in the hell can I identify myself as one race or another?"[8]

A 2007 documentary short describes Jeffries as "assuming the identity of a man of color" early in his career.[9] He is shown in Black/White & All That Jazz explaining that he was inspired by New Orleans-born musician Louis Armstrong to say falsely, at a job interview in Chicago, that he was "a Creole from Louisiana" when he was of Irish and Sicilian heritage, among other ethnic backgrounds.[9]


He began his career working with Erskine Tate and his Vendome Orchestra when he moved to Chicago from Detroit at the urging of Louis Armstrong. His break came during the 1933 Chicago World's Fair—Century of Progress Exposition singing with the Earl Hines Orchestra on Hines’ national broadcasts live from the Grand Terrace Cafe. His first recordings were with Hines in 1934, including "Just to be in Carolina". He then recorded with Duke Ellington from 1940 to 1942. His recording of "Flamingo" (1940) with Ellington was a best seller in its day. He was replaced in the Ellington band by Al Hibbler in 1943.[citation needed]

Jeffries starred as a singing cowboy in several all-black Western films, in which he sang his own western compositions. Jeffries obtained financing for the first black western film and hired Spencer Williams to appear with him. In addition to starring in the film, he sang and performed his own stunts as cowboy Bob Blake.

Playing a singing cowboy in low-budget films, Jeffries became known as the "Bronze Buckaroo" by his fans. In a time of American racial segregation, such "race movies" played mostly in theaters catering to African-American audiences.[10] The films include Harlem on the Prairie, The Bronze Buckaroo, Harlem Rides the Range and Two-Gun Man from Harlem. Jeffries went on to make other films, starring with Angie Dickinson in Calypso Joe (1957). He later directed and produced Mundo depravados, a cult film starring his wife, Tempest Storm. In 1968, Jeffries appeared in the long-running western TV series The Virginian playing a gunslinger who intimidated the town. In 1995, at age 81, he recorded The Bronze Buckaroo (Rides Again), a Nashville album of songs on the Warner Western label.[1]

Honors and legacy[edit]

For his contributions to the motion picture industry, Jeffries has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6672 Hollywood Boulevard. In 2004 he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In 1998 a Golden Palm Star on the Palm Springs, California, Walk of Stars was dedicated to him.[11]

Personal life[edit]

His four marriages (including one to exotic dancer Tempest Storm) produced five children.

In 2007, while assembling material for the producers of a documentary film about him (A Colored Life), Jeffries found his birth certificate; this reminded him that he actually was born in 1913 and that he had misrepresented his age after he left home to look for a job.

He appeared at jazz festivals and events benefiting autism and other developmental problems and lectured at colleges and universities. He supported music education in schools. In June 2010, aged 96, Jeffries performed to raise funds for the Oceanside (California) Unified School District's music program, accompanied by the Big Band Jazz Hall of Fame Orchestra under the direction of clarinetist Tad Calcara. This benefit concert was his second (the previous concert was in 2001).[citation needed]

In later years, he resided in Wichita, Kansas.[5] He died of heart failure at a California hospital on May 25, 2014.[12]

Selected filmography[2][edit]


  • Sidney Bechet: 1940-1941 (Classics)
  • Earl Hines: 1932–1934 (Classics)
  • Duke Ellington:The Blanton–Webster Band (RCA, 1940–42)
  • Michael Martin Murphey: Sagebrush Symphony
  • Jamaica (RKO Records ULP - 128) all songs composed by Jeffries
  • Passion (Brunswick, BL 54028) Coral singles compiled on 12" LP
  • Say it Isn't So (Bethlehem BCP 72) with the Russ Garcia Orchestra
  • Herb Jeffries (Harmony HL 7048) Columbia singles LP
  • Magenta Moods (Mercury 2589 10") LP transfer of Exclusive label album
  • Herb Jeffries Sings (Mercury 2590 10") more Exclusive singles with the Buddy Baker Orchestra
  • Herb Jeffries and his Orchestra (Mercury 2591 10") Exclusive label singles
  • Songs by Herb Jeffries (Mercury 2592 10") Exclusive label singles
  • I Remember the Bing (Dobre Records 1047)
  • Play and Sing the Duke (Dobre Records 1053)
  • The King and Me (Dobre Records 1059)


  1. ^ a b Warner Bros. Records. "Promotional image of Herb Jeffries". Internet Archive Wayback Machine. Retrieved 2012-03-26. 
  2. ^ a b Herb Jeffries at the Internet Movie Database
  3. ^ Feather, Leonard. "Jeffries, Herb" profile, Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz (Oxford UP, 1999). p. 354.
  4. ^ a b Manzoor, Sarfraz. "From Our Own Correspondent – The Black Cowboy." BBC Radio 4. First aired on March 21, 2013. Segment on Jeffries begins at 22:10. Accessed March 22, 2013.
  5. ^ a b Fessier, Bruce (2013-09-24). "Bruce Fessier: At 100, age is just a number for jazz legend Herb Jeffries". The Desert Sun (Gannett Company). Retrieved 2013-09-25. 
  6. ^ "Jeffries, Herb" profile at Biography and Genealogy Master Index (Gale, Cengage Learning, 2013); accessed March 23, 2013.
  7. ^ "The Bronze Buckaroo Rides Off Into The Sunset". WMRA. Retrieved 2 June 2014. 
  8. ^ a b Johnson, John H., ed. "Herb Jeffries Lists Self 'White'". Jet. June 11, 1959. pp. 48–49; accessed March 22, 2013.
  9. ^ a b Bailey, Betty; Lynde, Carol (2007). "Black/White & All That Jazz". Tall Paul Productions. Retrieved 22 March 2013. 
  10. ^ Halper, Donna L. "Hats off to a Happy Cowboy: A Salute to Herb Jeffries". Classic Images. Retrieved 2010-07-04. In addition to being the first all-black singing cowboy film, Harlem on the Prairie was unique in other ways. Black films usually played in black theaters only. (One estimate is that there were as many as 500 black theaters nation-wide at the time when Herb Jeffries' first movie came out.) This film was not only shown in segregated movie houses; it was also shown in East and West Coast theaters where the audiences were mainly white. 
  11. ^ Palm Springs Walk of Stars by date dedicated
  12. ^ McLellan, Dennis (26 May 2014). "Herb Jeffries dies at 100; Hollywood's first black singing cowboy". Los Angeles Times. 

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