The Legendary Herb Jeffries
An interview by Les Wills formerly
of Players Magazine
For the first, and only black singing cowboy ever on the silver screen,
there's no such thing as riding into the sunset. In the late thirties, Herb
Jeffries left the Earl "Fatha" Hines band to become the first black
movie hero in such movies as "Harlem On The Prairie", "Two Gun
Man From Harlem", "Harlem Rides The Range" and "The Bronze
Buckaroo". In the forties he became one of the worlds most popular singers
when he joined Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra, recording such pop and r&b
hits as "You,You Darlin", " Jump For Joy", " I Don't
Know What Kind Of Blues I Got", and his million selling signature song "Flamingo".
During the fifties, Jeffries moved to France briefly where he established and
ran successful jazz clubs. He made a triumphant return to the states, and the
man who is considered one of the greatest jazz stylist of this century has never
stopped entertaining. Today, Jeffries is a phenomenally vigorous 83-year-old
who is as charismatic (and his smooth baritone just as strong) as when the
Bronze Buckaroo first saddled up. In fact, nearly 60 years after he made movie
history, he has recorded his western songs for the very first time on a Warner
Western album - The Bronze Buckaroo (Rides Again), and like Jeffries himself,
this debut which blends both jazz, pop and country is both "Now and Then."
Players had the pleasure of spending a day with this living legend, but like
the man himself the interview I (Les Wills) did with Herb Jeffries proved to be
simply "Beyond Category".
Players: It's such an honor for us to interview you. How does it feel
at the age of 83 with a career that has spanned over sixty years to be getting
the accolades that you're receiving, especially with your new disk?
Herb: Well, it's quite a surprise to me, Les, to be honest with you.
I've been doing very well as far as concerts are concerned, both jazz and
classical concerts. I can't complain about my career. It's been hanging quite
well over the years. But here, all of a sudden, an avalanche has happened after
more than 50 years of my old cowboy pictures . There's been a resurgence of the
Black Cowboy. All of a sudden, it seems like everybody discovered that there
were black cowboys who helped to pioneer our country. And as a matter of fact,
one out of every four cowboys during the pioneering days of creating the
boundary lines of our states coming West was a black cowboy. And now all of a
sudden this is beginning to become current and we're beginning to realize that
was an important part of our history.
And then that created an interests in Warner Brothers Western Division
Nashville doing some Western albums. And we did this album. And all of a
sudden, boom, it took a hold. So I am just totally surprised and amazed by what
has happened. It's just a landslide. I'm trying very hard to keep my humility
and maintain the humbleness of the fact that God has arranged it this way. He
always has to plan some kind of way. So here I am.
"Herb Jeffries: The Bronze
Buckaroo Rides Again", is one of the first new CD's from
Jeffries and Warner Western.
Players: Why do you believe God is using you this way?
Herb: Maybe it is to give people who are of the octogenarian age range a
lift to let them know that it's not over because they're 80 years old. To let
them know that a new life can happen for them. What they have to do is to
maintain their energy and not allow themselves to be brain washed by the social
structure that when a man is 50 years old, that he's going to be retired from
his job and given a watch. He's over with! When he's 65, he's going to collect
his old age pension and that he's finished. He's through and he will have to
live off his paltry sum that Social Security gives him, which is not enough to
pay his rent. It's depressing to people who are vintage people. They think
that they are useless and are no good for anything. They have a world of
knowledge when they become vintage at 60 and 70 years old. They have a vast
amount of knowledge. They've been through trials and tribulations. They should
be looked upon the way the Chinese and Oriental elderly are looked upon.
They're the wise ones that people should be coming to and getting help and
information from. They should be very useful. There are many ways that people
of a later vintage can be used. There are all kinds of social work that they
can get out there and be involved in to keep active. Here I am, at the vintage
age of 83 starting a new career. I am the new kid on the block in the Western
Players: Today you're reaching a whole new generation of young people.
So with this album, you worked with artists such as Take Six, who sing jazz and
soul cappella as well as gospel. Like you, they really defy category and they
must have learned a great deal from you.
Herb:Well, you know, to me it's very exciting because I'm beginning to
find that I am arriving at a point of communication. You know, there's always
that business of generation gap, which I don't believe in. And here, Take Six,
working with them, they're so wonderful because they're full of spirit and have
Players: So you consider learning a form of communication. What did you
absorb from an act as young as Take Six?
||Herb Jeffries with Duke Ellington and His Famous Orchestra|
Herb: What they're communicating to me is an energy of youth. And
being around them and staying around youthful people gives youthful ideas. And
I get youthful ideas in my music of which I am able to absorb from them. So
they take something from me and I take something from them ,and I love them. I
was a fan
of theirs long before I thought I was able to record with them. As a matter
of fact, I have a lot of their records here at home, some of their gospel stuff,
and some of their later stuff that they did when they got into some of the jazz
things. But I collected them and never thought that I would be on the same
label with them. When I got on Warners, Jim Ed Norman was the first one I
asked. I said, hey, I want to do something with Take Six. And he said, well,
let me talk to them to see if they're available and if they would like to do it.
They were 100% willing to do it. It was a great joy for me.
Players: Did they know about you through your movies or through your
Herb: Yes, they were aware. They had done some research and they were
familiar with me, not only as the first black cowboy, but they were familiar
with me with Ellington. And so they've done their homework and in order to be
progressive that's something you've got to do.
Players: Speaking of homework, you're considered an authority on the
African American contributions to the West.
Herb: I studied up on a lot of people. And for black history, I have
over 50 years of research in the black cowboy. And I am now writing a book on
the black cowboy and how he came about escaping from slavery and being taken in
by the Indian tribes and how he learned to ride as a brave, growing up as a
brave, and going to the Indian rituals to become a brave. He had to learn how
to be a great rider, bare-back without a saddle. So when slavery was over and
emancipation came about they were moving into the social structure, mostly up in
Kansas, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and places like that. They moved in and became
great cowboys and helped to build our country. Most of our own people have very
little knowledge of that and they think that the whites are the only ones who
didn't know there were black cowboys. I can tell you, maybe one out of every 20
brothers that I've spoken to didn't know anything about a black cowboy being a
part of pioneering our country.
Players: Why do people say that country and western music was heavily
influenced by the blues?
Herb: Blues got into country music because there was, in the early days,
a great integration amongst the cowboys. They were black cowboys, mexican
cowboys ,and white cowboys, and they all lived together. They slept in the same
bunk houses, they camped together, looked after each other, and protected each
other on cattle drives. The drovers were very well in tune with each other
regardless of the epidermis, the shade of one another. They fought for each
other to keep someone from stealing their cows. Then the Blues of course were
being sung by the black cowboys and they discovered that singing these songs
when the cattle would come at rest at night when they were at camp would settle
the cattle down. Well then that moved itself over into all cowboys and somebody
would say, hey, we'll do this singing!! Well, of course since they heard the
Blues, then they would start singing the Blues too, and there are a lot of Blues
singers in country that are great, you know, because they have the spirit. So
it's been a hundred years that they've been doing this stuff.
Players: Your album seems to reflect all those styles as well.
Herb: What we've done in our album is that we merged the two musical
styles that are our American heritage, country and western, jazz, and blues.
And we merged it together in the Bronze Buckaroo Rides Again, and so if you'll
listen to that you'll hear in that album all of these emotional elements. They
fused together and it works obviously because everybody loves it and the DJ's
are calling me and saying hey, I love this album, I am playin it all the
Players: You grew up in Detroit during the Jazz Age of the Harlem
Renaissance, a time of great awakening for America. Who were your influences?
Herb: Yes, well you know, it's true. Now I had always looked upon
Duke Ellington as a very elegant man and he was a role model. I never thought
that some day I would sing with his orchestra and when I did perform with his
orchestra as the vocalist, I began to emulate just about everything he did. I
wanted to please him so I was careful with my dress and I was always trying to
improve my English because he was so articulate. If you listened to him or spoke
to him over the telephone you couldn't tell what nationality he was, and of
course, as a Detroiter, I had alot of Detroit slang. I was influenced by the
ghetto that I lived in, but when I knew of Ellington I began to really work on
improving my diction, you know, so that I could be articulate and so that if I
was going to sing songs, people wouldn't have to play them over three times to
find out.... what did that guy say? And if you listen to my records I am pretty
sure that you'll find you can almost understand every single word....I make it a
point to do that.
Players: So even before you worked with Duke Ellington he was your role
model as a young man growing up in Detroit.
Herb: He was one of my role models. And then later on in life when I
felt that I needed a spiritual role model I then began to study Eastern
teaching. The Eastern tecaching of India is not a religion but more like a way
of life, a yoga. And that of course improved me and amplified my Christian
bellets so of course I've always tried to keep a good moral principle in my
work. And I think that if we are going to progress and we're going to move
forward we have to keep some good principles in our minds. It isn't necessarily
that you are a, " I go to church every Sunday type of a person," I
think you have to believe in a supreme power. I believe that rather than having
to try to live up to the Ten Commandments, I'd rather live up to one commandment
and that one commandment is ,do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
And this is more or less my religious morals.
Players: You obviously are at peace with yourself.
Herb: I am not holier than thou nor am I a prude, you know, who goes
about saying,well you know people shouldn't do this or shouldn't do that. I
don't do that, I don't judge others, I judge myself, I love myself, I love my
body ,and I try to take very good care of it because it is the only body I have.
When I look at myself in the mirror, I look at myself and I see my image. I say,
Herb Jeffries, I love you, your're beautiful, I wouldn't want to change one
thing about you and remember one thing, Herb Jeffries, you did not make you,God
did. And you have a right to admire God's work and if you do, he may look down
upon you and say, hey, there's somebody that likes what I did and I think I
might do something for him. And I do find at this stage of my life that God is
doing something very nice for me.
Players: That's interesting because a lot of people in Hollywood today
don't have that philosophy. The are getting cosmetic or plastic surgery to alter
Herb: Yes, But we have something that is better than plastic surgery.
We have something that has been given to us that is better than any kind of
stuff that you can put on your face or on your body. We have, hanging on our
shoulders, a wonderful, wonderful thing called a head. Inside of the head is the
most magnificent thing you could ever imagine. And if you put your mind to
wanting to keep yourself the way you are, whatever it is, whether it's skin
color different from anybody else or whether it's freckles, whether it's spotted
or blue or black or green or red, we got to realize that it's magnificent. If we
look at it,we say there's a purpose for it being this way. And I am finding that
whatever my image is, my height, my weight, the color of my skin and my
heritage, I think it is magnificent and beautiful and I wear it with great
pride. And with that pride you'll make other people look at you and respect you
with that same feeling you have for yourself. But if you go around looking for
trouble, you'll find it. If you go around looking for people to complain about,
you'll find them and you know, I can remember an incident where a woman came
into a club where I was singing. When I got off the stand, she looked at me and
she said, Mr. Jeffries, may I speak to you a moment please? I said yes and then
she said to me why on earth are you wearing that disgusting beard? There were
about eight people sitting at the table with her and I replied by saying well,
may I answer that question? She said I wish you would and I said well,when I was
about 18 or 19 years old, God grew some hair on my face,and I shaved it off. And
about 3 days later, God grew it back and I shaved it off again. And about 3 or 4
days later, God grew it back on and I shaved it off again. So finally I decided
to let God have his way about it and I kept it. I said to her,let me tell you
something, If it was good enough for Abraham Lincoln, Ulyesses Grant and Jesus
Christ,it's got to be alright for me. And first of all lady, I like it, and if
you don't like it you are the one that has the problem, not me.
Players: What effect did racial discrimination have upon you growing up
in a country still basically segregated?
Herb: When I was a youth, Detroit was growing and we had sufficient
amounts of people in our city to take care of the employment that was needed at
that time. Then when the war came (WW1) and they didn't have a sufficient amount
of people to take care of what the needs were in Detroit they had to import
people, laborers, and people for our plants. So they were imported from places
where they didn't like each other in any way. They came from down South where
black and white didn't care for each other and they moved up there so we kind of
imported discrimination. I never saw it until I joined Earl Hines' band. Then I
went to Chicago and I saw a whole new world. In Chicago, South Park was like
Harlem and even in Harlem in those days there were a lot of Jewish people,a lot
of Puerto Ricans, and Spanish Harlem. So you see, when I went South is when I
saw real heavy discrimination, blacks could not go to the whites' theaters. Even
in Washington D.C., the capital of the United States, in 1937, and in 1938,
blacks had to sit upstairs in the balcony and whites sat downstairs. So you see
that was where I saw( blatant discrimination) and I couldn't understand it. So
when I went South and I saw so many black theaters playing white cowboy pictures
and I had had a great education on the black cowboy in my school, Lincoln School
in Detroit, and because we were a part of the heritage in pioneering our
country, I decided right there then, hey, why not make black cowboy pictures?
Players: You saw that the youth in our community needed heroes to make
it thru the Depression and you persisted and made it happen.
Herb: And let me tell you something, it was very difficult for me to
raise the finance. The Jones Brothers in Chicago, who were multi-millonaires in
the numbers business,they weren't interested. Then I went to the Sewell
Brothers, who were Oklahoma multi-billionaires living in Chicago, and it wasn't
so much that it was rejection,it was a lack of interest. Because they didn't
know about any cowboy pictures, they were not interested in putting any money in
it, so I came out to Hollywood. The first office I walked into, a man by the
name of Jed Buell, an Irishman, heard my story. He said wow,that sounds
interesting, Black Cowboy pictures, let me call my distributor in Dallas. He
called a guy by the name of Alfred Sacks. It's Sacks Amusement Company in
Dallas,Texas and he said I'll take all I can get and that was the beginning of
us making black western pictures and cowboy pictures. So you see, everything
takes place as it has to mess together. It takes time to do everything, It takes
ideas and when you have ideas, whatever they may be, follow them through, stay
with them and eventually you'll manifest them.
Players: That's very interesting because you were so young. You were
just in your 20's at that time.
Herb: Well you see, the true story of this is that when I was in
Detroit as a kid, living in the integrated neighborhood, all of the kids,
blacks, whites, whatever, went to these Saturday movies. And parents would have
to come and get us at 7, 8 o'clock in the morning, and we would watch the
pictures over and over and over. These were our heroes, Tom Mix, Buck Jones, Ken
Maynard, Duke Wayne, etc. These were the people we wanted to be. We fantasized
about them, we played cowboy over at the vacant lot, just running to the
neighborhood playing cowboy. When I realized that there was no black cowboy
pictures, I said here's an opportunity to turn something good and I tried very
hard to raise the money for these pictures a couple of years before they
Players: You proved that you could make movies and become a leading
matinee idol in movies. How did you feel not being able to cross over into
mainstream movies and become a part of the Hollywood scene because basically
still, your films were made for black only segregated audiences?
Herb: I think again the reason why we couldn't cross over is because at
that particular time major motion picture companies were thinking of the revenue
from black theaters as not being that important to them...Remember, we had a
great star back in those days who made lots of money called Bill Robinson, one
of the greatest stars in the world. Yet as big as he was, he played a
subservient (in Hollywood films). He was like a household servant to Shirley
Temple. He didn't play the hero. I played hero when I made my pictures and I was
probably the first one to do the hero part. Even Paul Robeson, who was great in
making pictures in those days in Europe, he still was playing a subservient
person, a person who was depicted as an ethnic person. For instance, Saunders of
the River was the part of a African person who was a savage. In my pictures, I
was a hero. I was the guy who walked off with the girls and rode off into the
sunset. There was no such thing like that back then until I did it,but now today
we do have that again. Denzel(Washington) plays a hero, he plays a person, and
an actor should be able to play a person.
Players: If Hollywood had offered you an opportunity to star in movies
say like with a person of John Waynes status, but had asked you to play a
demeaning role in order to do so, would you have done it to get into the
mainstream Hollywood mix?
Herb: Hell no, under no circumstance, I couldn't care less!! I was
offered something to go to South America for two years and learn spanish and
come back here and pass as a spanish person by a very big star, a Western Star.
I turned it down because I had already played a black cowboy. It would be
denial... I didn't pick my parents, I had nothing to do with it. Nobody picks
your parents, you come as you are and you must learn as you come as you are you
must wear whatever it is with dignity. I did okay being who I am...I 've done
okay. And as it is now, the proof of the pudding is in the tasting. At 80 years
old, I am doing better now than I did back there. Probably the most I got out of
a picture was about $3000.00 to $5000.00 for making a film in five days in those
days. I had to go out and follow those pictures around and do personal
apperances with them so I could survive and make money so I could pay my rent,
my car, etc. Because after one five day picture was over, another five day
picture was waiting. And that money, by the time you bought a car to maintain
your image and put some steer horns on the front of your custom Cadillac and
your cowboy clothes and those guns, that $3,500.00 was gone! And so it was a
struggle to maintain the image of a star, following these cowboy pictures all
around through the South, playing on the stages which were movie stages. So I
would be up in front of the silver screen with about a 5 foot stage in front of
me and performing with my group the Four Tones..
Players: Times really have changed.
Herb: Today it's a different story. I just spent one year making this
album with 10 songs on it. And with all the people I have on it, by the time
they are through distributing them, who knows, it could cost a million dollars.
So you see it's a big difference. And then my performances, when I go out today
I can do one performance and make what it took me five days to make in those
days. I can also make that kind of money in just going out doing a lecture tour!
Les Wills of Players magazine, and the author of the above interview,
poses with Herb Jeffries after "The Bronze Buckaroos" performance on
March 9,1996 at the Wells Fargo Theatre which is located on the grounds of the
Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage.
Photo courtesy of: "The IronHorseman Collection."
Photo courtesy of: The Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage
"The cowboy never discriminated. He just wanted to know if you
could ride and do the work. He didn't give a damn what color you were. We could
use more of that cowboy code today. This album, The Bronze Buckaroo Rides
Again,is a lot more than nostalgia. There's a message too: There's only one
race,the human race." -Herb Jeffries
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