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Herb Jeffries: An appreciation

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Charley Pride, Darius Rucker and Cowboy Troy notwithstanding, there have been few African-American country stars since harmonica ace DeFord Bailey first graced the Grand Ole Opry stage in the 1920s. One of the greatest, singing cowboy Herb Jeffries, a.k.a. “the Bronze Buckaroo,” died Sunday (May 25).

Jeffries, who sang country music and jazz with the likes of Duke Ellington and Earl Hines, starred in black westerns including Harlem on the Prairie (1937) and sang on Ellington’s 1941 hit “Flamingo.” He was thought to be 100 when he died in West Hills, Calif.

"I was a big fan,” says Jim Ed Norman, who headed Warner Nashville when the label issued Jeffries’ The Bronze Buckaroo (Rides Again) in 1995.

“I saw Herb first perform at the Gene Autry Western Heritage Theater in Griffith Park [in Los Angeles] in a tribute to ‘the Singing Cowboy,’ and was immediately swept off my feet by this velvety smooth voice coming from a spry young soul who had bounded out on the stage and appeared to be no more than 60 or 65 years old,” recalls Norman.

“I just figured he'd started very early! Since they played a small piece of film from each Singing Cowboy, I was also fortunate to have the piece they played for Herb have the background group The Aces as his [version of the] Sons of the Pioneers, and it was exactly what I'd been looking for: not only a black singing cowboy, but also great doo-wop background singing.”

Norman continues: “So I tracked Herb down to a house out in the San Fernando Valley and visited him and talked about his coming to Nashville to do a recording which eventually became the album The Bronze Buckaroo (Rides Again). We had a wonderful time. I remember Take 6 singing with Herb on ‘Tumbling Tumbleweeds’ and the Mills Brothers sang on ‘You, You Darlin.’ I notice one of the songs from the album showed up on Spotify, ‘Texas To a ‘T.’"

“Herb told me so many wonderfully funny life stories. He was one of the smartest people I've ever known and was able to accomplish some wonderful things in his tenure as a Singing Cowboy. He told me about his time with Ellington and how he got a raise. A good man, and I'm saddened to learn that he is gone.”

Music archivist Gregg Geller was also working at Warner Bros., in New York, at that time.

“Herb was playing the Village Vanguard, and I went down to present him with the career-spanning retrospective CD—A Brief History of Herb Jeffries (The Bronze Buckaroo)--I had produced to help promote The Bronze Buckaroo (Rides Again), which we’d just released,” says Geller.

“It opened with the song ‘I'm a Happy Cowboy,’ recorded with The Cats and The Fiddle for the film Two-Gun Man From Harlem in 1938, and closed with the same song from the new album, released 57 years later--with stops in-between for his work with Earl Hines, Sidney Bechet, Joe Liggins and, of course, Duke Ellington. He seemed genuinely pleased with--if a bit taken aback by--the CD and all it represented. And then he went out and sang a killer set.”

“Herb was a mere 81 years of age that night,” concludes Geller. “A great gentleman!”

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