The smooth baritone Herb Jeffries, who recorded the 1940 hit "Flamingo" with the Duke Ellington orchestra, was also the first black singing cowboy on the silver screen, nicknamed the Bronze Buckaroo. Herb Jeffries died Sunday at age of about 100. His exact age is uncertain. Terry Gross spoke with Herb Jeffries in 1995.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Herb Jeffries, the smooth baritone who recorded the 1940 hit "Flamingo" with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, was also the movies' first black, singing cowboy. He was nicknamed the Bronze Buckaroo. Jeffries died Sunday at the age of about 100. His exact age is uncertain. He made for Westerns the 1930s - "Harlem Rides The Range," "Harlem On The Prairie," "Two-Gun Man From Harlem" and "The Bronze Buckaroo." And he created the character of Bob Blake.
In each of those films, he sang his theme song, "I'm A Happy Cowboy." Jeffries had wanted to be a cowboy ever since he was a kid. He grew up in Detroit, but he learned to ride a horse at his grandfather's and uncle's farms. It wasn't until he was touring the South with the Earl Hines Orchestra that he saw segregated movie theaters and thought about the need for black cowboy films.
I spoke with Herb Jeffries in 1995. We started with his 1930 a recording of "I'm A Happy Cowboy."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
HERB JEFFRIES: (Singing) With my rope and my saddle and my horse and my gun, I'm a happy cowboy. If I'm riding with my cattle, and I'm always on the run, I'm a happy cowboy. You can bet your bottom dollar that you'll never hear me holler 'bout the word on the range. And I love to hit the leather in any sort of weather. And I know I'll never change. With my rope and my saddle and my horse and my gun, I'm a happy cowboy. So when the day is ending 'neath the setting sun, a happy cowboy's work is fun.
GROSS: Tell us about your character. What kind of a cowboy was he?
JEFFRIES: Well, my character, Terry, was not a unique idea. It was that in most of the cowboy pictures that were being made at that time - which were the Roy Rogers, Ken Maynard, Gene Autry, Duke Wayne - those pictures that were being made at that time were five-day quickies. They were made in five to seven days. And they were a C-class picture - a, rather, B-class picture. Mine was C because we didn't have the money. I guess they classified it on how much it cost for your production. Ours were very cheap. I think our pictures ran somewhere between $65,000 to $70,000 to make.
And of course we couldn't afford stuntmen. We couldn't afford a lot of the unique ideas that other production companies were doing. So the idea of these pictures and the character in the picture was just more or less copied after the other characters. We had a high morale, our principles of being moral about it. We didn't do anything that we would want to be - not proper for children to look at, such as drinking. I didn't drink in the picture. I didn't smoke in the picture. It was a sort of a formula that was being used. Bob Blake did not ever use his guns against anyone unless it was in self-defense. So this was a formula that was set up by other cowboys.
GROSS: Now, although you were the only singing black cowboy, it sounds from what I read about you that you grew up in a very kind of racially ambiguous environment. Let me ask you to describe your own ethnic background for us, which is really very mixed.
JEFFRIES: Well, my mother was Irish. My grandmother and my grandfather were O'Dells (ph) from County Cork, Ireland. My mother was 100 percent Irish. My father was the mongrel. He was Italian, French Canadian and - let me see - Ethiopian, yeah. My great-grandmother, Carey (ph), who I did meet and did know, she was a full-blooded Ethiopian. And that is my ethnic background. So, you know, actually I could, if I wanted to be a chameleon, I could identify with about five different races.
GROSS: Did you identify as black or white when you were young?
JEFFRIES: No, not in my school. I had no identity. I was just, you know, as I said, I was a mongrel. And I had many different bloods in my vein. And I was a little bit - probably had a little bit of egotism about it because I felt that, as a chameleon, I could celebrate anything. I could celebrate Saint Patty's Day. I could celebrate Hanukkah. I could celebrate - oh, and I did - Pesach, Passover and...
GROSS: Yeah, I understand you speak a lot of Yiddish.
JEFFRIES: Yes, I do. I speak Yiddish. I was raised in a heavy-Yiddish neighborhood. Most of our merchants were Yiddish. And as a matter of fact, I worked in a grocery store where the owner was the cantor at our school on Frederick Street. And my two dearest friends were his son and daughter.
And of course when they studied at night, I would sometimes go upstairs and study with them, the Hebrew as well as - I learned to speak Yiddish because we had many Yiddish customers. Little ladies would come into the store that didn't speak English. And so if you wanted to wait on them, you had to know what they were saying, and you had to answer them back.
GROSS: So it was when you started singing with Earl Hines and traveling through the South that you decide to identify more black. Tell me a little bit more about what that experience was like of understanding the discrimination in America and being exposed for it in a major way for the first time.
JEFFRIES: Well, Terry, it was very difficult for me because I am - probably if I were identified, they would more look at me as an Italian or Middle Eastern. It was difficult. It was very difficult because while I traveled with Earl Hines' band, I never had a problem performing in front of it. Yet if I went out into the street sometimes - when they couldn't stay in a hotel or they couldn't eat at restaurants, we would go out, my sub, Barney Bigard, who was Creole, and Juan Tizol, who was Puerto Rican. We would go to the stores and bring things back for the guys in the band. And we could do that.
It was an emotional, difficult thing for me to realize that I had an advantage over people who were supporting me in music, which I love more than life itself. And I couldn't do anything that would reflect against their feelings towards me. And I wouldn't stay at white hotels, even though I could have.
GROSS: We're listening to a 1995 interview with Herb Jeffries. He died Sunday. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
Let's get back to our 1995 interview with Herb Jeffries who died Sunday. He sang with Duke Ellington and Earl Hines and was a singing cowboy in black Western movies of the 1930s.
I want to talk with you a little bit more about music. You know, you started off music - in music singing with Earl Hines. And then - I believe then you make your movies and then sang with Ellington.
GROSS: How did you join Ellington's band? How did he hear you?
JEFFRIES: During that period of time, they had what they called four-a-day. That was, Duke Ellington was at the Apollo Theater doing a variety show, a stage show. Then they'd play a picture. Then he'd come back and do another show, and they'd a picture. And that went on four times a day. It was called four-a-day.
And he happened to be playing with my picture "The Bronze Buckaroo" at the Apollo Theater on 125th Street in Harlem. And I went to a dance in Detroit that he was at. And he saw me there and introduced me and then asked me if I'd like to join his band and do some theater engagements with him and record. And so I took that opportunity because I thought this was the greatest band in the world.
GROSS: Your biggest hit was the song you recorded with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, "Flamingo." How did Ellington end up giving you "Flamingo" to sing?
JEFFRIES: (Laughing) Ellington didn't give it to me. A man by the name of Ted Grouya handed it to me at the stage door because he was unable to get in to see Duke. And I was going out for lunch, and he said, I can't see Mr. Ellington, will you give this to him? And so I put it in my pocket and went on and had my lunch.
And then when I came back, I threw it up on my dressing table in my dressing room. And Billy Strayhorn came in. He said, what is this? And I said, oh, it's a song a guy gave me to give to see if Duke would like it. And so he said, let's take it down into the rehearsal room and see what sounds like.
So we went downstairs into the rehearsal room, and Strayhorn played it. And while he was playing it, Duke stuck his head in the door. He said, what is that? And I said, oh, it's a song about a bird. And we're going over it, he says, hey, that sounds pretty good. So when he went on and when we finished, Strayhorn told him. He says, hey, that's a great song. So he said, well, make an arrangement on it, and we'll try it on stage.
You see Ellington was clever that way. Most of his song hits, he pretty well knew when he recorded them that they were going to be successful because he got the reaction from personal appearances when we were on stage. If the audience really liked the songs that he played, then he would record them. So that was his testing ground. And so it worked, and we recorded it.
GROSS: Well, why don't I play that first recording that you made of "Flamingo" with the Duke Ellington Orchestra? This was in 1940.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)
JEFFRIES: (Singing) Flamingo, like a flame in the sky flying over the islands to my lover nearby. Flamingo, with your tropical hue, for it's you I rely on and the love that is true.
GROSS: Did Ellington or Strayhorn give you any advice about singing?
JEFFRIES: (Laughing) Yes, indeed they did because, if you don't notice, in my Western pictures, I was singing very, very high.
GROSS: Yeah, right.
JEFFRIES: Yeah, I had a very high voice. And I was a boy soprano in the choir in my church, and I sang high. And somehow as I grew to the size that I finally became, it sort of didn't fit my image - a big guy, 6-foot-2-and-a-half shouldn't really be singing up in a high voice like that. And I did in my Western pictures.
But when I went with Ellington, I used to - for fun around the backstage, I would imitate Bing Crosby. And I was clowning around one time imitating Crosby, who was really my idol, and they heard me. And Strayhorn said, that's voice. And he said, come on, do that for the Duke. And I did, and Duke said, absolutely. We're going to record in that voice from now on.
GROSS: Herb Jeffries, recorded in 1995. He died Sunday at the age of about 100. The exact date of his birth is uncertain. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.