There were a few things that were unclear about Herb Jeffries, the handsome actor/singer/songwriter, whose career spanned seven decades. His year of birth was given, at various times, as either 1913 or 1914. He often told conflicting stories about his father — whether he was French or Sicilian or of African descent. It was also unclear if Herb, Hollywood’s first black singing cowboy, was, in fact, black.
Young Herb Jeffries was singing in a Detroit speakeasy. His beautifully-toned voice caught the attention of legendary jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong. He embraced the young Herb and recommended him to fellow musician Erskine Tate as a featured vocalist in his all-black band. He told Herb if anyone questions his race, he should explain that he is Southern Creole from Louisiana. After a regular stint with Tate’s band in Chicago (at a club allegedly owned by mobster Al Capone), Herb toured the southern United States with Earl “Fatha” Hines.
While travelling through segregated areas of the country, Herb was distressed by the restrictions to which blacks were subjected. Performances were relegated to tobacco warehouses and “blacks only” theaters. Taking a cue from the popularity of Western stars like Tom Mix and Jack Holt, Herb decided to produce his own Western films, specifically for black audiences. He hired a B-movie director named Jeb Buell. Herb secured the N.B. Murray Dude Ranch in Apple Valley, California for the setting. He wrote original songs, with help from Spencer Williams (famous for writing “Basin Street Blues”, “I Ain’t Got Nobody” and “Everybody Loves My Baby”), who also would co-star in the film. With his experience with horses from time spent on his grandfather’s farm, Herb cast himself as the main character, a mellow-voiced, smiling “good guy.” The first film, released in 1937, was called Harlem on the Prairie. Its popularity spawned subsequent features, each with a similar premise and an original musical score by Herb.
Herb often enhanced his naturally light complexion with darker makeup. He regularly darkened his skin for the movies, as well as public appearances. He earned himself the nickname “The Bronze Buckaroo” and was notable as a true Western movie star, his name often mentioned in the same breath as Roy Rogers and Gene Autry.
He was quite a ladies’ man, having married four times, including a union with noted stripper Tempest Storm. Curiously, he identified as “Caucasian” on each of his marriage licenses.
In the 1960s, Herb was featured in the Western TV series The Virginian, as well as guest appearances in episodes of I Dream of Jeannie and Hawaii 5-0. He also regularly performed at benefits for autism and music education. He was active until his death in 2014 at age 100. Although he championed for equal rights and racial equality, he never fully confirmed his true ethnicity.