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Back From the Saddle Again

Jazz: The current swing-music craze has returned ex-singing cowboy Herb Jeffries to fronting big bands.

October 02, 1998|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Herb Jeffries is stuck with dual images. One is a sophisticated chap who wears a tuxedo and sings in front of jazz bands. The other sports boots and a cowboy hat and sings western songs from atop a horse.

Will the real Herb Jeffries please stand up?

Actually, the 82-year-old singer-actor will tell you both images suit him fine. His career took him from jazz singer to film cowboy and back to jazz singer--and that was all before World War II.

Today, Jeffries is riding the crest of two revivals. Interest in recent years in singing cowboys spurred Warner Bros. in 1996 to release a bunch of newly recorded tunes in an album titled "Herb Jeffries: The Bronze Buckaroo Rides Again."

The current swing-music craze has generated increasing calls for the former Duke Ellington vocalist to get out in front of big bands once again. That's the Jeffries who will appear at the Cerritos Center on Sunday with other soloists in a program called "Swing, Swing, Swing."

"I'm more busy now than I was at the height of my career," Jeffries said earlier this week. "I think people come to the conclusion after a certain amount of time that those of us who've lived through several generations and continue to work are icons. They make us into living legends."

*

Jeffries' legendary career began in Detroit. He sang with the bands of Erskine Tate and Earl "Fatha" Hines before he was 20. In 1934, Jeffries left Hines' group to pursue an entirely different career, that of movie cowboy.

"From my travels through the South, I had a chance to see that there were thousands of tin roof theaters that were playing white cowboy pictures to black audiences," Jeffries said. "Now, my education back in Michigan taught me that there were many black cowboys who traveled west after the Civil War. I couldn't understand why there were no black cowboy pictures."

Jeffries moved to California and began putting investors together. When a suitable actor couldn't be found to take the leading role, Jeffries donned a 10-gallon hat and strode in front of the cameras himself.

He starred in a number of films between 1935 and 1939, including "Harlem on the Prairie," "Two Gun Man From Harlem" and "The Bronze Buckaroo." They were among the first to feature a black hero.

"This was a chance to make something good out of something bad," Jeffries said. "Little children of dark skin--not just Negroes, but Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, everybody of color--had no heroes in the movies. I was so glad to give them something to identify with."

His career took another turn when he walked into Detroit's Graystone Ballroom one night wearing his cowboy outfit. Duke Ellington was on the bandstand, recognized the film star in the crowd and called him up to sing.

"I don't even remember what the song was," Jeffries said, "but it was something in my key."

Afterward, Ellington met him at the bar and asked him to join the band. Jeffries spent 1940-42 with Ellington, singing, most notably, "Flamingo," a 78-rpm hit for Victor Records.

"I was thrilled to work with Ellington," Jeffries said. "Here was a man I admired so much that I felt he would go down in history as the Beethoven or the Mozart of our time."

Since those heady days, Jeffries has recorded with several distinguished orchestras, including those of Lucky Thompson and Lionel Hampton. He ran a jazz club in Paris. He started a record company. He delved into researching the history of black cowboys and is considered a leading authority on the subject.

Jeffries wants to work two or so more years as a singer and record an album of Ellington material. Then he wants to retire to his writing, something he's been doing for several years.

"When I get on the computer, I go into another world," he said. "I've always been articulate, and I have a wild imagination. I want to do an autobiography that includes both poetry and prose. I've lived through a lot of history."

* "Swing, Swing, Swing," with Herb Jeffries, Jaye P. Morgan, the Sunnysiders and the Big Band Alumni Orchestra, will be presented Sunday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive. 2 and 7 p.m. $32-$47. (800) 300-4345.

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