Herb Jeffries, a pioneer in African American-targeted Western movies and jazz singer known as the “Bronze Buckaroo,” has died. He was 100.
Jeffries died of heart failure in West Hills, Calif. on Sunday, according to the L.A. Times. His health had been declining for some time.
The multitalented Jeffries embraced his mixed heritage — he was of Irish, Ethiopian, Sicilian, French, Moorish and Italian descent — and appeared in his first film in 1937. The movie, “Harlem of the Prairie,” was targeted to black audiences, and jump-started the career for the blue-eyed actor.
In 1939, he appeared in “The Bronze Buckaroo,” cementing his reputation as the African American Gene Autry. He would become a go-to singing cowboy in Hollywood, the good guy riding in on a white horse named Stardust. Other credits during the period include Westerns “Harlem Rides the Range” (1939) and “Two-Gun Man From Harlem” (1939), where he sang “I’m a Happy Cowboy.”
Later he starred opposite Angie Dickinson in the musical romance “Calypso Joe” (1957).
He portrayed himself in Western comedy “The Cherokee Kid” in 1996.
The actor also appeared on television from time to time, guesting on series including “The Virginian” and “Hawaii Five-O” and contributing one of the voices to the brief Hanna Barbera cartoon series “Where’s Huddles?” in 1970.
Jeffries also had a successful singing career outside of movies, appearing with the Duke Ellington Orchestra as well as other pop orchestras in the 1940s Swing Era. He became best known for jazz hit “Flamingo,” which he sang with Ellington. The song took advantage of his signature baritone voice and would go on to become a jazz classic, selling millions.
Most recently, he recorded an album of Western songs in 1995 called “The Bronze Buckaroo Rides Again.” The record was well received by critics.
In 2004, the pioneer was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum.
He was born Umberto Alexander Valentino in 1913 in Detroit. His survivors include his wife Savannah and five children.