Sept. 24, 1913 or 1914 – May 25, 2014
Herb Jeffries, who sang with Duke Ellington and starred in early black westerns as a singing cowboy known as “the Bronze Buckaroo”– a nickname that evoked his malleable racial identity – died on Sunday in West Hills, Calif. He was believed to be 100.
The cause was heart failure, said Raymond Strait, a writer who had worked on Jeffries’ autobiography with him.
Jeffries used to say: “I’m a chameleon.” The label applied on many levels.
Over the course of his century, he changed his name, altered his age, married five women and stretched his vocal range from near falsetto to something closer to a Bing Crosby baritone. He shifted from jazz to country and back again, and from concert stages to movie theaters to television sets and back again.
He sang with Earl Hines and his orchestra in the early 1930s. He starred in “Harlem on the Prairie,” a black western released in 1937, and its several sequels.
By 1940, he was singing with the Ellington orchestra and soon had a hit single, “Flamingo,” which sold more than 14 million copies after being released in 1941. (His name had been Herbert Jeffrey, but the credits on the record mistakenly called him Jeffries, so he renamed himself to match the typo.)
He moved to Europe and performed there for many years, including at nightclubs he owned.
He was back in America by the 1950s, recording jazz records again, including “Say It Isn’t So,” a highly regarded 1957 collection of ballads.
In the 1970s, he picked up roles on “Hawaii Five-O” and “I Dream of Jeannie.” In the 1990s, he performed at the Village Vanguard.
In the 2000s, he performed regularly at Café Aroma in Idyllwild, Calif.
Deep into his 90s, he was still swinging.
“He called me over once and said, ‘Is this your place, kid?’ ” recalled Frank Ferro, who runs Café Aroma. “He said, ‘I’ve had two nightclubs in Paris, and let me tell you, kid, you’re doing it all just right.’ ”
Ferro also recalled Jeffries saying: “You know, I’m colored. I’m just not the color you think I am.”
Jeffries’ racial and ethnic identity was itself something of a performance – and a moving target. His mother was white; his father was more of a mystery.
He told some people that his father was African-American, others that he was mixed race and still others that he was Ethiopian or Sicilian.
In the crude social math of his era, many people told Jeffries he could have “passed” for white. He told people he chose to be black – to the extent that a mixed-race person had a choice at the time.
– New York Times