One of the most intriguing personalities to come out of Detroit in the 1930s might just be Herb Jeffries. He also might be one of the most forgotten.
Jeffries sang with Earl “Fatha” Hines in the ’30s, and with the Duke Ellington Orchestra from 1939-42, his resonant baritone (that he could stretch up into a falsetto) made a hit out of the song “Flamingo” in 1941. Jeffries also appeared that year with Ellington in the stage musical “Jump for Joy.”
He wasn’t the first black cowboy in the movies — that was actor Bill Pickett. But he was the first black singing cowboy in films such as “Two Gun Man from Harlem” and “The Bronze Buckaroo.”
Jeffries died Sunday in California, at the age of 100 — perhaps.
The fact that the singer died Sunday, and his many entertainment credits — hit songs, stints with the era’s top orchestras and movies — are indisputable. But much of Jeffries’ life and identity, including his early time in Detroit, is shrouded in mystery.
Jeffries was born in an integrated neighborhood near Fourth in Detroit in 1911, or 1913, or 1916, either as Herbert Jeffrey, the son of an Irish-American mother and a black father (Herbert Jeffrey Sr.), or he was born Umberto Balentino to an Irish-American mother and a father of Sicilian-French-Moorish ancestry. Jeffries’ description of himself would differ depending on the circumstance.
Several of his ex-wives claimed that his real legal name was Herbert J. Ball. There were four Mrs. Jeffries over the years, one of them the burlesque queen Tempest Storm. On each of his marriage certificates, Jeffries reported himself to be white. When Jet Magazine asked him about it in 1959, Jeffries denied that he was “passing,” insisting that he was describing what he was. “Look at my blue eyes, my brown hair, my color,” Jeffries said. “What color do you see? My mother was 100% white. My father is Portugese, Spanish, American Indian and Negro.”
Early on, because the entertainment world was segregated, Jeffries found that his light skin led to some misunderstandings. Sometimes it was easier for him to pretend to be a Creole from New Orleans, a city where racial identity was more fluid.
That’s what he did when jazz legend Louis Armstrong happened to hear him sing as a teenager at Detroit’s “MDL Club” — the Michigan Democratic League — sometime in the early 1930s.
“The MDL Club was a black and tan,” Jeffries told interviewer Tad Calcara in 2010. “Black and tans” were clubs where blacks and whites mingled to hear jazz.
Armstrong called him over to his table and said he looked familiar. “He asked, ‘Was I from New Orleans?’ I said yes. He asked if I was a Creole, I said yes,” Jeffries said.
Armstrong told him he needed to go to Chicago — it was happening, with the World’s Fair — and join up with one of the big orchestras there. He wrote out a recommendation for the teenager on a bar napkin. “You want to hear this guy sing. You’ll love him. I do. — Pops.” Jeffries left for Chicago soon after and joined Erskine Tate’s orchestra.
He recalled that the orchestra leader asked if he was white — which at the time, meant that he couldn’t sing with a black orchestra. Jeffries said no, he was from New Orleans. The singer then was picked up by Earl “Fatha” Hines in 1933 (when he was either 17 or 19) for his Grand Terrace Orchestra.
Jeffries moved back and forth from Detroit to L.A. in the late ’30s, making the singing cowboy B-movies. “Harlem on the Prairie” came out in 1937, “The Bronze Buckaroo” in 1938 and “Harlem Rides the Range” in 1939.
For a while it appeared that black Westerns could be the next big thing. Jeffries rode around L.A. in a Cadillac with steer horns on the front and his name spelled out in rope lettering on the side. But there were fewer all-black theaters to show such films, so Jeffries packed his saddle away and moved on to Duke Ellington’s orchestra, where he made his name singing “Flamingo,” “Brown-skinned Girl,” “Jump for Joy” and other hit songs.
Jeffries’ racial identity caused an “incident” during his stint with Ellington, he said.
It seems that the actor John Garfield, who was one of the producers funding “Jump for Joy,” had visited Jeffries backstage and commented that his skin tone was notably lighter than Ellington and the rest of the orchestra. He asked, would Jeffries be offended if he wore some dark makeup? Jeffries agreed and he went out to perform without having seen how dark the makeup was, and he looked in the orchestra pit to see Ellington staring at him as he conducted, his mouth open.
“I thought I had my fly open or something,” Jeffries quipped to Calcara. Later Ellington collared him and said, “Who do you think you are, Al Jolson?” From then on, the makeup was left off.
Jeffries never lost his resonant baritone, recording an album of standards in the mid-’50s and continuing to perform in the ’80s and ’90s on cruises and in nightclubs. He also made appearances on TV shows including “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Hawaii Five-O” and “The Virginian.”