Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Bronze Buckaroo

Herb Jeffries turned 100 today. He's remarkable for many other achievements besides that one.

Here he is with the Duke Ellington orchestra singing "Flamingo". This song, which has sold an estimated 14 million copies over its lifespan, established Jeffries as a singer.

Looking at the video, I'm struck by how much he and Billy Eckstine sound alike. Also it's notable that there's a certain look that white audiences found palatable with these two singers as well as with the Duke: snappy dresser, copper-toned, gelled hair, and a mustache.

Except, as this promo makes clear, Herb Jeffries had trouble at first finding an audience. Turns out that he was too white for black audiences, and too black for white listeners.

After passing himself off as a Creole and finding an audience with Ellington, Herb Jeffries did something even more remarkable: he became the world's first and only black-singing cowboy, starring in five westerns in the late '30s.

Here he is as a cowboy in a 1938 short. Terrific song, wonderful harmonizing: man, I am a sucker for that lone guitar and a song on the prairie!

I found out about Herb Jeffries in my usual way, by rifling through CDs in a used music shop and taking a chance on a release entitled Herb Jeffries: The Bronze Buckaroo (Rides Again). It must have paid $3 for it, and I haven't listened to it much, but in honor of him I'll listen to it now.

You might want to check this recording out: backup singers for this recording include Take 6, Sons of the San Joaquin, and the Mills Brothers. Herb (who's 84 at the time) duets with Michael Martin Murphey (remember "Wildfire"?) and a host of other singers.

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