- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 25, 2003

As part of last weekend's Lincoln Theatre African American Film Feast, one of the Westerns starring Herb Jeffries, who broke the color line as a singing cowboy in the late 1930s, was screened.

Before his 1937-39 movie interlude, Mr. Jeffries (also billed as Herbert Jeffrey from time to time) was a band vocalist with Earl "Fatha" Hines, Duke Ellington and many jazz ensembles.

The Lincoln booked the Jeffries Western originally titled "The Bronze Buckaroo." Reflecting the passage of time, its billing has been changed to "The Black Buckaroo." Mr. Jeffries, who recently turned 90, agreed to talk about his remarkable career from his home in Idyllwild, Calif.

Mr. Jeffries grew up in the Detroit area but vacationed frequently at a grandfather's dairy farm in northern Michigan. That's where he first got comfortable on horseback. He never knew his father. He believes his father may not have survived World War I. His mother ran a boardinghouse that was patronized by many jazz musicians, including Duke Ellington, destined to hire Mr. Jeffries as a singer years later and facilitate his recording of the hit single "Flamingo" in 1940.

At the age of 20, Mr. Jeffries tried his luck as a performer in Chicago. While playing occasional dates with minor bands, he was seen and hired for a Southern tour by Mr. Hines. "I was on the road with Hines for most of 1933 and '34," Mr. Jeffries recalls. "I looked around and saw that discrimination confined the black folks to these little tin-roof movie theaters. There were thousands of them, and they played all-white cowboy pictures. That's all that was available and affordable. I said, 'Gee, somebody ought to make a black cowboy movie.' "

Mr. Jeffries had read a lot about blacks on the Western frontier. "I knew that there were numerous black cowboys and that they were pretty important in our history," he says. "Especially after the Civil War. There were great riders who came out of hiding from Indian reservations. Those accounts always fascinated me, and I thought someone should be creating Western hero images for dark-skinned children."

Pitching the idea to wealthy blacks he had met in Chicago proved fruitless. "It was too much of a risk for them," Mr. Jeffries explains. "Then I read a magazine article about a Poverty Row producer, Jed Buell, who was doing a Western called 'The Terror of Tiny Town,' with a cast of midgets. That was the term back then. What we would now call little people. I thought this might be the right guy to approach about a black Western."

It was. Mr. Jeffries even ended up with the director of "Tiny Town," Western stalwart Sam Newfield, for his own film debut.

Mr. Jeffries contacted Buell when a band excursion conveniently took him to Southern California. Buell knew the distributor who handled most of the cowboy films circulated in the South and Southwest Albert Sack of Dallas. He liked the idea of all-black cowboy pictures. A used script called "Sunset on the Prairie" was borrowed and fine-tuned into the first of the Jeffries Westerns, "Harlem on the Prairie," which debuted in 1937 at the Rialto Theatre on 42nd Street in Manhattan.

There was a slight complication. Mr. Jeffries hadn't planned to play the lead. He had organized casting calls in the Central Avenue district of Los Angeles and even had located a couple of working black cowboys in the Santa Barbara area. After testing 15 or 20 prospects, who had failed to measure up as singers or riders, Mr. Jeffries suggested himself. Jed Buell had two objections: Mr. Jeffries' skin was too light, and his hair was too wavy.

"Buell didn't think people would believe I was black," Mr. Jeffries reflects. "I asked him, 'What do you want, someone who can ride and sing and act, or a color? I had spent years with jazz bands in the South, and people didn't seem to have a lot of trouble accepting me as a light-skinned Negro, whatever … that is.

"I called Buell's attention to a picture called 'The Good Earth,' where Paul Muni and Luise Rainer had passed as Chinese peasants. I challenged him: 'Darken me up if you want to. And I'll keep my hat on tight so no one can see my hair.' In desperation, he said yes."

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