Hats off to a Happy Cowboy
Salute to Herb Jeffries
©2004. Donna L Halper,
Herb Jeffries is an amazing person.
As I write this, he is 93 years old and still performing.
He has had a successful career in the music industry—as a vocalist with
Earl “Fatha” Hines and Duke Ellington in the 30s and early 40s; as a solo
performer who appeared on radio in the 40s and on TV in the 50s and 60s; and as
a recording artist who has continued to put out new records and get good reviews
throughout the 80s and 90s. He has
also been an actor in TV westerns and he even did some directing.
But to this day, there are old-time movie fans who still remember him as
the first black singing cowboy. And
although he only made four films in that era, he helped to change the way
African-Americans were portrayed.
When Herb made his first western in 1937, America was
still segregated and opportunities for black actors in Hollywood were limited.
It was an era when black performers were relegated to stereotypic roles,
often as buffoons or as domestics. But
Herb Jeffries was nobody’s fool and nobody’s servant.
He was a heroic figure, a black cowboy who was doing the same things that
white cowboys like Tom Mix or Gene Autry did.
He rescued people in trouble, defeated the bad guys, won the heart of the
beautiful girl. And he brought his
own unique style to the roles he played. The critics who wrote about him said he
was ‘handsome and athletic,’ and it is not surprising that young black movie
fans of the 1930s adored him.
If you saw his movies, you
know that his name was sometimes “Herbert Jeffrey.”
But interestingly, advertisements for his first two movies, published in
such black newspapers as the New York Age, never referred to him that
way. Print journalists usually
wrote about “Herbie Jeffries,” undoubtedly because that’s what the music
critics called him. In one of his
first appearances in Harlem, where he sang vocals for Ralph Cooper’s newly
formed band in late April 1935, the New York Age reviewer headlined it
“Herbie Jeffries Steals Show at Apollo Theatre.”
But whether known as Herbert Jeffrey or Herbie Jeffries, or eventually
Herb Jeffries, he was a light-skinned black man who rode a white horse named
Stardusk and portrayed a good guy named Bob Blake. His movie theme song was
“I’m a Happy Cowboy,” and that seemed to express his attitude.
Over the years, he would tell many interviewers that the cowboy
represented honesty, hard work, and ethics.
And the cowboy didn’t have time for prejudice—he treated others as
equals. Jeffries starred in
four black westerns: “Harlem on the Prairie” (1937), “Two-Gun Man from
Harlem” (1938), “The Bronze
Buckaroo” (1938) and “Harlem Rides the Range” (1939).
[It was customary during that era of so-called “race movies” to use
coded language in the title; such words as “Sepia”,
“Tan” and “Harlem” let fans know they would be seeing black
entertainers.] He was also
scheduled to appear in at least one other cowboy movie, “Ten Notches to
Tombstone.” But although it was begun, it was never completed, probably
due to the fact that by the end of 1939, Herb was singing with Duke
Ellington’s orchestra. He would have his first hit record in 1941, a song
called “Flamingo,” which over the years, would sell a million copies.
While Herb Jeffries was undoubtedly the first black
singing cowboy, he was not the first black actor to be in a western.
During the silent era, there had been a handful of black westerns, such
as a 1919 film from Oscar Micheaux called “The Homesteader,” and a 1921 film
featuring rodeo cowboy Bill Pickett, “The Crimson Skull.”
There was also a comedy short called “A Chocolate Cowboy,” from 1925.
But fortunately for Herb Jeffries, by the time he made “Harlem on the
Prairie,” talking pictures had long since worked out their technological
problems. And although most critics
regarded the black westerns as “B movies” (Jeffries himself joked that they
were so low budget they might more accurately be called “C minus movies”),
Jeffries soon proved that he could be a very competent actor.
Herb Jeffries was born in Detroit MI on 24 September
1911. His family tree was an
interesting mix: his mother was of Irish descent, his father was Sicilian, and
he had at least one great-grandparent who was Ethiopian.
He told me that his family name was Balentino, and that he
was originally named Humberto.
He also said he didn’t really remember his dad, who died when Herb was
very young. In some interviews you
may have read, he was quoted as saying that his father had abandoned the family.
But whatever the facts, there was little involvement.
Herb’s mother Millie supported her children by operating a rooming
house, and her work ethic was an inspiration to him.
He was also influenced by a grandfather who owned a dairy farm in Northern Michigan. His
grandfather had some horses, and that’s where Herb learned to ride, a skill
that would eventually help him in his movie career.
Herb fell in love with music at a young age, and sang in
a church choir. But he was
especially attracted to jazz and blues. While
he liked school, he was attending during the Depression, and money was scarce.
He decided to quit high school and go to work.
Years later, he would go back, graduate, and even get several degrees,
but at that time, the goal was to earn enough money to help his family.
Blessed with an excellent singing voice, he began performing locally in
Detroit, and then made his way to Chicago.
By 1934, he caught the eye of jazz great Earl “Fatha” Hines, and
began doing some tours with Hines’s band.
While on the road in the south, he tells the story of
seeing a young black boy being made fun of by his white friends. They were all
playing Cowboys and Indians, and the boy wanted to pretend he was a cowboy, but
his friends told him he couldn’t because there was no such thing as a black
cowboy. The story may be
apocryphal, but it exemplifies a very real problem black children had in those
days of segregation. Few if any
movies accurately portrayed the black experience in America, and even fewer
showed black characters who were doctors or teachers or business executives,
even though such people existed. The
major movie studios would not challenge the social codes of the times, so even
though there really had been black cowboys in the development of the west, their
existence was totally ignored. Wanting
to correct that, Jeffries decided the answer was to help make some black
westerns. At first, he didn’t
plan to star in them; he intended to find some backers and get the pictures
made. But soon, his plans would
Partially because of racism and partially because it was
believed by white studio executives that the majority of black movie fans
couldn’t afford to attend many movies, the major studios were not eager to
make films that catered to the minority audience. A lack of funding also limited
the number of films that black studios could make.
But Herb knew that a real demand existed for films that could both
inspire and entertain black audiences. And
depite segregation, there were plenty of available venues —one movie historian
has estimated that there were about 430 “all negro” theaters in the late
Herb’s attempts to persuade wealthy businessmen to donate money for black
films proved unsuccessful. So, he
sought out a producer who might be able to get a cowboy movie made, someone who
would not see the black audience as a liability.
That led him to Jed Buell.
Buell was a veteran of the movie industry.
He had gotten his start as a theatre manager on the west coast, and then
went to work for Mack Sennett, for whom he became director of publicity.
Eventually, Buell became the Sennett Studios’ assistant general
manager. During the mid-30s, he
went out on his own and set up an independent production company.
He produced baritone Fred Scott in a couple of singing westerns
(including “The Roaming Cowboy” and “The Rangers’ Roundup”), and was
also working with a former comedian from the silent era, Andy Clyde.
By the late 30s, he would become known for taking chances on the
unusual— he did an all-midget western (“The Terror of Tiny Town”), and was
planning to do an all-female western (to be called “Follies on Horseback”).
It was Buell who was willing to
produce an all-black western.
What became Herb Jeffries’ first movie began its life
as a script originally called “Sunset on the Prairie.” When it was completed in the autumn of 1937, it had been
re-named “Harlem on the Prairie.” (Variety noted in its review of the
film that its original title was supposed to be “Bad Man of Harlem”; the
name was changed so people would know it was a western.)
The film was distributed by Associated Features, the company started by
Buell, along with several other partners, including songwriter Lew Porter and
Yale graduate and famous former athlete Sabin Carr. The 54 minute film was billed as the “first outdoor action
adventure” to feature an “all negro cast.” Among the actors
were Spencer Williams Jr. (who played “Doc Clayburn”, a former outlaw
who had turned over a new leaf). The
lone actress was Corrine Harris, who played Doc’s daughter Carolina.
Music was provided by the Four Tones, as well as by Jeffries, and comic
relief came from Mantan Moreland. Sam
Newfield was the director; he directed a large number of low budget “B
movies” during the Golden Age.
There has been some question about where “Harlem on
the Prairie” was filmed. The most
likely location was a dude ranch owned by husband and wife Nolie and Lela
Murray, in Victorville, CA, a two hour drive from Los Angeles. Theirs was one of the few ranches that welcomed people of
color, and several other black westerns were shot there, including “The Bronze
Buckaroo” and “Harlem on the Range.”
The total cost to make “Harlem on the Prairie” was estimated at about
$50,000 (although one source says it may have cost as little as $20,000).
Although Herb was the star, he was only paid about $5000 for his work, which
included singing, acting, and doing his own stunts. Herb won the starring role after auditions of other black
actors failed to find one who could do all the things that Herb could.
Unlike his other films, where his character was called
“Bob Blake,” in this film, Herb played “Jeff Kincaid.” The bad guy in the film was “Wolf Cain,” played by Maceo
B. Sheffield. Sheffield, when not
working as an actor and a bad guy, was a night club owner, and a partner in
Buell’s Associates Features. Prior
to his show biz career, Sheffield had been a Los Angeles police officer.
The story goes that while Jed Buell was impressed with Herb Jeffries as a
singer and believed he would be able to do the required riding and roping, there
was one concern about using him as the leading man:
Herb was very light-skinned, and Buell was worried that black audiences
wouldn’t believe that Herb was black, despite his having sung with several
black jazz and dance bands by this time. Fortunately,
it did not turn out to be a problem, although Herb notes with amusement that
stage makeup was used to darken his skin tone a little.
In addition to being the first all-black singing cowboy
film, “Harlem on the Prairie” was unique in several other ways.
Black films of that era usually played in black theatres only. (One
estimate stated that there were as many as 500 black theatres nation-wide around
the time when Herb Jeffries’ first movie came out.)
But this movie was not just relegated to the segregated movie houses; it
was also shown in a few East and West Coast theaters where the audiences were
mainly white. Black films were
frequently ignored by the white movie critics; Hollywood didn’t consider these
films for Oscars, and mainstream movie annuals of the day didn’t even list
them because they were made outside of the Hollywood studio system.
But “Harlem on the Prairie” received more attention than many black
films of that era. It got positive
write-ups in Motion Picture Herald and Variety.
And, proving that no publicity is bad publicity,
it got nearly a full page write-up in Time magazine.
Unfortunately, the review was often quite patronizing.
The critic seemed surprised to see black actors doing a western, rather
than a musical, for which he felt they were better suited.
He praised Herb’s voice and also liked the harmonizing of the Four
Tones. But he believed that only a
black audience would take a black western seriously, saying that white audiences
would probably regard it as a parody.
Interestingly, the influential black newspaper the New
York Age did not seem especially impressed with the movie, although their
movie critic, William K. Clark, praised the comic skills of Mantan Moreland.
Clark seemed more concerned that one of the songs, “Love in the
Rain”, sounded very much like a recent Bobbie Breen song, “Love on the
River.” In a somewhat scathing
review, he implied that the songwriters for “Harlem on the Prairie” were
guilty of plagiarism. This caused Bessie Miller, wife of veteran entertainer
Flournoy Miller (and also a cast member in “Harlem on the Prairie”) to write
a heated reply in which she took Clark to task for being negative and making
unfair accusations. And Flournoy
Miller himself took pen in hand to write to several other black newspapers.
He basically asked them to be kind to the movie, saying that while it
certainly could not match the big-budget Hollywood westerns, it still was
worthwhile entertainment and deserved praise for calling attention to the
existence of actual black cowboys such as Bill Pickett.
Whether the critics liked the film or not, “Harlem on
the Prairie” seemed to find a niche, and it even made a profit, grossing over
$50,000 in its first year. But
unfortunately for film scholars and Herb Jeffries fans, today’s viewers cannot
see this film and draw their own conclusions, because no print of it has been
found. It only lives on in the
memories of those who saw it and those who were in it, as well as those who
collect old movie posters.