The Legendary Herb Jeffries

"Beyond Category"

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
Herb 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 business.

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 great ambition.

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 records?

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 time!!!

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 their looks.

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.

Harlem on the Prairie

The Bronze Buckaroo

Harlem Rides the Range

Two Gun Man from Harlem

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 happened.

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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