Herb Jeffries – Centenarian

July 14, 2013

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Most people come to this world by stork. I came by Flamingo, and Duke Ellington delivered me. – Herb Jeffries

I met Herb Jeffries just once. He was physically, intellectually and vocally in excellent shape for a man of any age. Given that he was then 75 years old he was remarkable. Also remarkable is that our meeting took place 25 years ago, which means that he is now fast-approaching an age worthy of celebration. Hence this piece, although writing about Herb Jeffries is not a task for anyone interested in hard facts. The reason for this is the confusion, much of it created by the man himself, over matters as basic as the date of his birth. Even the spelling of his name changed over the years. Of considerably more importance is the confusion, again self-generated, over whether he was black or white. With these caveats in mind, this is an admittedly sketchy account of his life and career.

Herb Jeffries had an extraordinary career, as actor and singer, he lived a remarkable life, tackling racial discrimination head on, and he did it all with effortless charm. Consider, for example, his birth year. Various dates have been put forward for this, but it is now most probable that the year is 1913, which means that on 24 September this year Herb Jeffries will be 100. He was born in Detroit, MI, on 24 September 1913; his mother was Irish, his father, a man he never knew, was said to be Italian although there was also reputedly Sicilian and French blood as well as, significantly as it turned out, North African blood. His given names were Umberto Alejandro Ballentino, readily adapted to Herbert Alexander Valentine, and he later took the name Jeffries from a step-father. Possessing a fluid and very pleasing singing voice, he decided that this would be his career and in Chicago sang with Erskine Tate’s orchestra. He moved on to the Earl Hines band, gaining widespread exposure thanks to national radio broadcasts from the Grand Terrace Cafe and he also made his first records with Hines. This extensive recognition allowed him to take another step, this one not only important but also bold.

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After a spell singing with Blanche Calloway’s band he was in Los Angeles when he made contact with film producer Jed Beull to whom he pitched an idea for an all-black musical Western. The result was Harlem On The Prairie (1937), starring Herb, who was billed as Herbert Jeffrey. Reputedly, he wore dark make-up for the role and he also wrote some of the songs. Also featured in the film was popular entertainer Mantan Moreland. Although decidedly low-budget, the film was successful with black and white audiences and another producer, Richard C. Kahn, picked up both the idea and Herb and made three more films, Two-Gun Man From Harlem (1938), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), the title resulting in a long-lasting nickname for Herb, and Harlem Rides The Range (1939). Moreland and Spencer Williams were also in the first of this trio and Williams returned for the remaining two films.

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In 1941, Herb went back to music, joining Duke Ellington’s band. At this time an important change occurred when Herb adjusted his tenor voice to the fluid baritone that was to be so successful, a change reputedly a suggestion from Ellington’s young arranger Billy Strayhorn. Even so, his singing voice was light and for many years he retained the ability to sing in the tenor range. Herb appeared in Ellington’s only (and ground-breaking) stage musical, Jump For Joy, and he also sang on records of songs from the show. Among other records made with Ellington the most notable are (In My) Solitude, I Got It Bad (And That Ain’t Good), and a song that was to become his biggest hit, and which can be heard here, the multi-million-selling Flamingo.

 

 

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Leaving Ellington in 1943, Herb continued a busy professional life, principally as a singer although he did maintain his contact with the film world. This included a few acting roles in films and on television, and he also produced and directed a low-budget soft-porn film starring his third wife, exotic dancer Tempest Storm. This was Mundo Depravados (1967), a film that had little merit although it did later acquire a cult following.herb-6

Herb’s complexion was naturally dark, doubtless reflecting his father’s Mediterranean origins, added to which he had worked for several years with black musicians, and he now actively presented himself as being black. This was not beneficial to his career. Indeed, on occasions he insisted that he was black even when doing so was decidedly unlikely to do anything other than make his life hard. Interestingly (and adding to the air of confusion surrounding Herb), Jet magazine reported that when he and Tempest Storm married in 1959 he stated on the license application that his name was Herbert Jeffrey Ball and that he was white. To a Jet reporter Herb declared that he was not black passing for white: ‘My mother was 100 per cent white. My father is Portuguese, Spanish, American Indian, and Negro. How in the hell can I identify myself as one race or another?’

Herb’s later career found him playing engagements in various cities in the USA and in Europe. Among the engagements he fulfilled in Europe was a visit to the UK for the 1988 Duke Ellington Conference, held that year at Birch Hall, a large hotel complex outside Oldham, Lancashire. On the opening day of the conference I ran into him in the bar. He was with promoter-musician Ernie Garside who introduced us. Looking down at me (he is a very tall man), Herb said, ‘I know that name. I’ve just finished reading your book about jazz singers.’ That had to be The Jazz Singers: From Ragtime To The New Wave, written with Mike Pinfold and published two years earlier. I suffered immediate conflicting emotions. No one had ever recognized my name before (and never has since then) and I was understandably thrilled. Unfortunately, I couldn’t recall what (if anything) had been said in the book about him and experienced sudden panic; he could have easily picked me up and thrown me over the bar. But Herb hadn’t finished, adding, ‘Pretty good. You got most of it right.’ The momentary panic over I decided not to risk asking what Mike and I had got wrong and a pleasurable hour passed before the bar began to fill with others eager to spend time with this most sociable man. There were many fine musical performances that weekend, among them Herb’s emceeing of a Harlem evening, the highlight of which was his polished nightclub routine built around Flamingo. This was filled with wry remarks (including how, having learned that flamingos turn pink because they eat shrimp, he spent months standing on one leg up to the knee in water eating bowl after bowl of shrimp hoping that he would change color so that he could pass).

Later still, Herb continued to record, including 1995’s The Bronze Buckaroo Rides Again, an album that capitalized on a new generation’s interest in country music, and 1999’s The Duke And I, this one as its title implies revisiting the songs he sang with Ellington.

WEA Records

WEA Records

 

Park Hill Records

Park Hill Records

 

Goldenlane Records

Goldenlane Records

In 2007 a short film, A Colored Life, told Herb’s story and is available on DVD.

AMS Pictures

AMS Pictures

Over the years Herb has received a number of awards, among the most recent are induction into the Western Music Association Hall of Fame, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a Living Legacy Award from the Women’s International Center, the Congressional Lifetime Achievement Award, and his new home town of Wichita, Kansas, declared 24 September 2012 to be Herb Jeffries Day.

 

As for 24 September 2013, the day on which he will reach 100, this must surely be a day for celebration by all who have an interest in of jazz, popular music, movies and the politics of race. Herb Jeffries has touched all of these and all have benefited from his presence.

 

The CDs mentioned here and many others can be obtained through Amazon, as can most of those films of Herb Jeffries that have been released on DVD.

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