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Herb Jeffries

Jazz singer and actor

Jazz singer and actor

Born: September 24, 1913; Died: May 25, 2014

Herb Jeffries, who has died of heart failure at 100, was a jazz singer and actor who performed with Duke Ellington. He was also known as the Bronze Buckaroo in a series of all-black Westerns.

With a mellow voice and handsome face, Jeffries became familiar to jazz fans, but segregation in the film industry limited his movie career. He scored a big hit with Ellington as the vocalist on Flamingo, which was recorded in 1940 and later covered by a white singer Tony Martin. Among the other songs Jeffries recorded with Ellington were There Shall Be No Night and You, You Darlin'.

Jeffries always attributed much of his success to Ellington. "The camaraderie in his band was like a bunch of guys in college," he recalled in the book Off the Record: An Oral History of Popular Music. "Ellington had a knack for developing talent and stars. He was more like a father to me than a boss."

In his movie career, Jeffries has been described as the only black singing cowboy star in Hollywood history and, more recently, after the deaths of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and others, as the last of the singing cowboys.

Sometimes billed as Herbert Jeffrey, he starred in four Westerns aimed at black audiences from 1937 to 1939: Harlem on the Prairie, Two-Gun Man From Harlem, The Bronze Buckaroo and Harlem Rides the Range. In the words of The New York Times, the low-budget films (which were produced by a white man, Richard C Kahn) were notable less for what was in them than that they exist at all.

Jeffries' role was Bob Blake and his films featured his horse Stardusk, the vocal group the Four Tones, and comic relief from the prolific character actor Mantan Moreland. Songs included I'm a Happy Cowboy, Get Along Mule and (Got the) Payday Blues. According to actor-director Mario Van Peebles, Jeffries "did something outrageous, and then rode off into the sunset. He did us proud".

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He remained active as a singer into his 80s and 90s, touring and releasing the 1995 CD The Bronze Buckaroo (Rides Again) and following it up in 2000 with The Duke and I. Among the honours that came his way late in life was a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, dedicated in 2004.

"I don't believe in age," Jeffries said in 1995. "I believe this magnificent thing we have on our shoulders can help you evolve. In jazz, we keep going. There's no such thing as retiring, or being retired, so you never feel unwanted or useless. And that keeps your body vital."

He was born in Detroit to a racially mixed couple, referring to himself in one interview as "an Italian-looking mongrel with a percentage of Ethiopian blood, which enabled me to get work with black orchestras".

He lamented the days touring in the South in the 1930s. Black audiences were made to stand separately off in a corner and not allowed to dance. "I don't think anybody was thrilled about the conditions, but if you wanted to advance and develop you couldn't show anger," he said.

Jeffries said he was inspired to seek backing for the cowboy movies after seeing a black boy crying because other children with him "wouldn't let him play cowboy. But in the real West, one of every four cowboys was black". But he had no plans to star in them himself, he said, until the search for a suitable actor-singer-rider came up short and he embarked on a crash course on lasso handling and other Western skills.

Jeffries is survived by his fifth wife, Savannah, three daughters and two sons

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