Herb Jeffries was the first singing star of all-black cowboy movies in the late 1930s, garnering him the nickname the "Bronze Buckeroo." The jazz baritone had a seven-decade career, including singing with Duke Ellington's Band. He died Sunday in California, at age 100.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
He was known as the Bronze Buckaroo. Hollywood's first Black singing cowboy Herb Jeffries.
BLOCK: He starred in movies including "Harlem on the Prairie" and "Harlem Rides the Range." And he had a storied career as a jazz singer touring with Earl "Fatha" Hines and Duke Ellington, with whom he had his biggest hit, the song "Flamingo".
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLAMINGO")
HERB JEFFRIES: (Singing) Flamingo, like a flame in the sky.
BLOCK: Herb Jeffries died yesterday at the age of 100. For the last 70 years, Raymond Strait counted Jeffries among his friends and worked with him on his memoir. Strait told me that Jeffries got the idea for an all-black Western after a young boy told him his friends wouldn't let him be a cowboy while they played because he wasn't white.
RAYMOND STRAIT: There were no black heroes for these young kids. And, you know, Herb was not completely black. His father was Sicilian, his mother was Irish - blonde hair, blue-eyed Irish. And when he came to California, he went into this studio, he told the guy his idea of the singing cowboy that was black, that the black children and the Asians and the Mexicans, they could all have someone they could relate to. So they set out to look for a star. And they found people who could ride horses and shoot guns and sing, but none could do the same thing. Well, Herb was able to do all three and that's how he became the Bronze Buckaroo.
BLOCK: I'm curious if he always self-identified as black because he was very light-skinned.
STRAIT: Herb never identified with any ethnicity. Herb was a citizen of the world and he considered himself a person of the world. I don't think Herb ever spent a day whether he thought he was black or white.
BLOCK: Except he did decide to become the first black singing cowboy right?
STRAIT: Well, he did that because it was economically feasible and it served the purpose that he had in mind - to provide something for these children of color that they could identify with in the movies.
BLOCK: He - in these movies he's wearing a white Stetson, he's dressed all in black and I've read that he darkened his complexion to look darker.
STRAIT: Well, they didn't think he was dark enough, so what they did is they sent him over to Max Factor, I think he said it was Max Factor number 34 that they put on him to make him look darker.
BLOCK: You know, his time as a musician, singing with Earl "Fatha" Hines and then with Duke Ellington must've been fascinating. He had a huge hit with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, "Flamingo".
STRAIT: Oh, yes, well, "Flamingo" is one of the greatest recordings ever. You know, it sold something like 14 million before anybody was selling 14 million.
BLOCK: What did he tell you about that, that huge hit, about "Flamingo?"
STRAIT: "Flamingo" was an accident. It's very funny. Duke was recording that day in Chicago and Herb was at the hotel. He wasn't recording that day. And the guy who wrote "Flamingo" came in with the song. And Duke liked the song, but he was going to record it with an instrumental. He said, no, I want Herb Jeffries to sing this. So Herb gets a call at the hotel - Mr. Jeffries we've got three minutes of recording time left, you want to get down here, we can do it. So Herb got in the cab and went down there. And he went through it once with Strayhorn and then they recorded it. And that's the beginning of the first recording of "Flamingo."
BLOCK: Fourteen million copies?
BLOCK: When you were working with Herb Jeffries on his memoir, what was the most fascinating thing that you learned about him?
STRAIT: His acceptance of other people. I never heard him ever say anything bad about anyone. Never. He always found good in people. That was one thing about Herb - and I'm not just buttering the bread here because he's gone - that's who Herb Jeffries was.
BLOCK: Wow. Well, Mr. Strait, thanks so much for helping us remember Herb Jeffries today.
STRAIT: You're sure welcome.
BLOCK: That's Raymond Strait remembering his friend Herb Jeffries, Hollywood's first Black singing cowboy. Jeffries died yesterday he was 100.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "AS TIME GOES BY")
DOOLEY WILSON: (Singing) You must remember this...
BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.