Date of Birth
24 September 1913, Detroit, Michigan, USA
Umberto Alejandro Ballentino
The Sepia Singing Cowboy
6′ 2″ (1.88 m)
This velvet-toned jazz baritone and sometime actor was (and perhaps still is) virtually unknown to white audiences. Yet, back in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Herb Jeffries was very big…in black-cast films. Today he is respected and remembered as a pioneer who broke down rusted-shut racial doors in Hollywood and ultimately displayed a positive image as a black actor on celluloid.
The Detroit native was born Herbert Jeffrey on September 24, 1911 (some sources list 1914). His white Irish mother ran a rooming house, and his father, whom he never knew, was of mixed ancestry and bore Sicilian, Ethiopean, French, Italian and Moorish roots. Young Herb grew up in a mixed neighborhood without experiencing severe racism as a child. He showed definitive interest in singing during his formative teenage years and was often found hanging out with the Howard Buntz Orchestra at various Detroit ballrooms.
After moving to Chicago, he performed in various clubs. One of his first gigs was in a club allegedly owned by Al Capone. Erskine Tate signed the 19-year-old Herb to a contract with his Orchestra at the Savoy Dance Hall in Chicago. While there Herb was spotted by ‘Earl ‘Fatha’ Hines‘, who hired him in 1931 for a number of appearances and recordings. It was during the band’s excursions to the South that Jeffries first encountered blatant segregation. He left the Hines band in 1934 and eventually planted roots in Los Angeles after touring with Blanche Calloway’s band. There he found employment as a vocalist and emcee at the popular Club Alabam. And then came Duke Ellington, staying with his outfit for ten years. Herb started his singing career out as a lyrical tenor, but, on the advice of Duke Ellington‘s longtime music arranger, Billy Strayhorn, he lowered his range.
The tall, debonair, mustachioed, blue-eyed, light-complexioned man who had a handsome, matinée-styled Latin look, was a suitable specimen for what was called “sepia movies” — pictures that played only in ghetto and/or segregated theaters and were advertised with an all-black cast. Inspired by the success of Gene Autry, Herb made his debut as a crooning cowboy with Harlem on the Prairie (1937), which was considered the first black western following the inauguration of the talkies. Dark makeup was applied to his light skin and he almost never took off his white stetson which would have revealed naturally brown hair. A popular movie, Herb went on to sing his own songs (to either his prairie flower and/or horse) in both The Bronze Buckaroo (1939) and Harlem Rides the Range (1939). Outside the western venue, he starred in the crimer Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938). As the whip-snapping, pistol-toting, melody-gushing Bronze Buckaroo, Jeffries finally offered a positive alternative to the demeaning stereotypes laid on black actors. Moreover, he refused to appear in “white” films in which he would have been forced to play in servile support.
In the midst of all this, Herb continued to impress as a singer and made hit records of the singles “In My Solitude”, “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good“, “When I Write My Song“, Duke Ellington‘s “Jump for Joy” and his signature song “Flamingo”, which became a huge hit in 1941. Some of the songs he did miss out on which could have furthered his name, were “Love Letters” and “Native Boy”. During the 1950s Herb worked constantly in Europe, especially in France, where he owned his own Parisian nightclub for a time. He also starred in the title film role of Calypso Joe (1957) co-starring Angie Dickinson and later appeared on episodes of “I Dream of Jeannie”, “The Virginian” and “Hawaii Five-0”.
Although he very well could have with his light skin tones, the man dubbed “Mr. Flamingo” never tried to pass himself off as white. He was proud of his heritage and always identified himself as black. In the mid-1990s, westerns returned in vogue and Herb recorded a “comeback album” (“The Bronze Buckaroo Rides Again”) for Warner Western. During this pleasant career renaissance he has also been asked to lecture at colleges, headline concerts and record CDs. In 1999-2000, at age 88, he recorded the CD “The Duke and I”, recreating songs he did with Duke. It also was a tribute honoring the great musician’s 100th birthday.
His four marriages, including one to notorious exotic dancer Tempest Storm, produced five children. At age 90-plus, Herb “Flamingo” Jeffries, who lives in the Palm Springs area with significant other Savannah Shippen, who is 45 years his junior, remains one of the last of the original singing cowboys still alive (along with Monte Hale) from Hollywood’s early western days. In 2003 he was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame and was invited to sing for President Bush at the White House. He is also the last surviving member of The Great Duke Ellington Orchestra, and certainly deserves proper credit for his historic efforts in films and music.
IMDb Mini Biography By: Gary Brumburgh / email@example.com
|Sarah Lee Shippen
||(2008 – present)
|Regina Rose Rochin
||(1989 – ?) 1 child
||(1959 – 1967) (divorced)
||(? – ?) (divorced) 1 child
||(? – ?) (divorced) 2 children
He is of Ethiopian-French Canadian-Italian & Irish descent.
His wife, Tempest Storm, was a famous stripper.
He appeared with Dorothy Dandridge, Big Joe Turner and Ivie Anderson in Duke Ellington‘s all-black revue “Jump for Joy,” which was staged at the Mayan Theater in 1941.
He directed and produced Mundo depravados (1967), a cult classic nudie mystery comedy starring his then voluptuous, exotic dancing wife, Tempest Storm. Married in 1959, they divorced not long after the movie was released. They had a daughter Patty. Another of Herb’s ex-wives, Betty Allensworth, was a one-time Rose Bowl princess.
Herb’s cowboy wore all-black duds and white stetson, and rode the handsome steed Stardusk.
Cowboy star Buck Jones, very impressed with Jeffries, once tried to send him to South America and have him learn Spanish. His idea was for Jeffries to acquire a new name and identity while there in order for Jones to produce a series of “white” film westerns for him back in Hollywood. Jeffries refused.
Is a yogi and student of Eastern philosophies. One concert he used to do was called “The Guru” in which he blended classical and jazz with soft rock music.
“The word ‘black’ means ‘a void,’ so I have never seen a black man. The word ‘white’ means ‘lack of pigment,’ so I have never seen a white man either. There’s only one race: the human race.”
Most people come to this world by stork. I came by Flamingo, and Duke Ellington delivered me.”
Where Are They Now
(February 2005) Currently living in Idyllwild, California.
(August 2008) Currently living in Idyllwild, California.
Eric Galletta & Herb Jeffries
Thanks Eric for sharing this important information with WCN Transmedia Group and allowing us to lift up this incredible National Treasure. I hope the Presidential Citizen Award Committee Agrees and honors this great man.