By Lola Rossi-Meza
How many people do you know can say that they were discovered by Louis Armstrong, sang with the Duke Ellington Band and traveled throughout the world performing for countless audiences, four different members of Royalty and six American Presidents: Truman, Nixon, Ford, Bush Sr., Clinton and George Bush Jr.? There’s only one person who can own up to those titles and that person is, the legendary Herb Jeffries.
A surprise to everyone, Jeffries and his wife, Savanah, made their appearance at Cafe Aroma in Idyllwild on Tuesday, September 24, to celebrate his 100th birthday. Those fortunate enough to be in the restaurant in Idyllwild that day, were certainly captivated by him, as he held court in the room named in his honor. Phonograph records, CDs, movie posters, photographs, a riding saddle and a pair of spurs line the walls of the dining room which seats six comfortably. “It is so nice to be back in Idyllwild,” said Jeffries. “I am looking forward to spending some time in the Desert.”
We are planning a celebration here in the Desert. If anyone is interested in knowing more information, please call me, Lola Rossi at (760) 322-8530 and keep your eyes and ears open and spread the word. “Herb is cruising the California Coast, don’t blink, ‘cause you might miss him,” said Savanah Jeffries. “Herb is having a great time seeing all his friends.”
Born on September 24, 1913 in Detroit, Michigan to parents of Sicilian and mixed Irish heritage, Humberto Alejandro Balentino, at the age of 10, would dress up as a circus clown and began singing at local circuses and carnivals. As a cocktail waiter he would sing to patrons garnering tips as the “singing waiter.” The management took notice and hired him to perform on the stage as a salaried entertainer, at that moment he knew what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.
At a Michigan Democratic League engagement in 1933, Jazz trumpeter Louis Armstrong was so impressed by Jeffries’ baritone voice, he asked him to come to his table and handed him a napkin with a note scrawled on it and told him, “I want you to take this to Erskine Tate at the Savoy Ballroom in Chicago.” Jeffries took the bus to Chicago and after performing an impromptu audition, Tate eyed Jeffries suspiciously and asked him, “What nationality are you anyway?” Knowing Tate fronted an all black band, Jeffries’ medium dark complexion and straight black hair allowed him to pass as a Creole. He began earning fifteen dollars working three nights a week as a featured singer.
It wasn’t long before Jeffries was recruited by Earl “Fatha” Hines to sing at the elegant “Grand Terrace,” which was Chicago’s answer to the Cotton Club. Broadcasting six nights a week on the radio, recording dates soon followed with a song entitled “Blues For Johnny” on the Brunswick label, which quickly became a popular hit raising Jeffries’ salary to seventy-five dollars a week.
After touring the country Jeffries struck upon the idea of making a black cowboy movie to give inspiration and a hero image for all dark skinned people. Financing wasn’t easy to find for a new venture like this, but it was in Hollywood where Jeffries solicited Jed Buell Productions, a producer of novelty movies such as, “Terror Of Tiny Town”, a western that featured a cast of midgets. Jeffries utilized a stack of un-used scripts piled in a corner of Jed Buell’s office, and one script formally titled “Sunset On The Prairie” soon became “Harlem On The Prairie”.
Things were finally coming together but finding a suitable role model who could ride, sing and act became another obstacle. After many auditions it became apparent the only man for the job was Jeffries. Utilizing black ranch hands from a nearby ranch in Santa Barbara and existing movie sets in Hollywood, the Bronze Buckaroo movie series was born.
One evening after making a round of personal appearances, Jeffries found out Duke Ellington was appearing at the Apollo Theatre, he decided to show up in his full western outfit. Ellington invited him to sing a few songs and consequently Jeffries found himself touring again but this time all around the world as the male vocalist for the Duke Ellington Band. It was with Duke’s band that Jeffries’ signature song “Flamingo” was recorded and became a worldwide hit. Herb had this to say about Mr. Ellington, “I learned a lot about clothes, music and articulate speech from the Duke. As a movie star I became a national celebrity,” remembers Jeffries, “but as lead vocalist for the Duke Ellington Band, I became known throughout the world.”
After leaving the Ellington Band, Jeffries fell in love with France and opened a nightclub aptly named “The Flamingo” which became one of the hottest nightspots in downtown Paris. There is so much to say about my friend, Herb Jeffries, we are waiting for the release of his book. Happy Birthday Herb. May God continue to bless you with health and happiness. Fans all over the world, love you!