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Legendary pioneering actor & singer Herb Jeffries dead at 100

Herb Jeffries
Herb Jeffries
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Herb Jeffries passed away Sunday from natural causes at the age of 100. Best known for being a pioneer for African American actors in Hollywood who began his acting career as a singing cowboy in all black films of the thirties. Besides being an actor in b-movies, Jeffries was also a noted jazz singer who performed vocals for such musical legends as Duke Ellington, Earl Hines and Sidney Bechet. He was of mixed racial heritage and was looked upon as an alternative amongst black audiences because of his positive image, matinee idol looks, demeanor and the way he portrayed himself in films unlike his more mainstream contemporaries.

Born September 24, 1913 in Detroit, Michigan. He's birth name was Umberto Alejandro Ballentino. His father was of Afro-European descent and mother was Irish. Jeffries was of two worlds during his career in show business and Hollywood. He would play up his ethnic features for entertainment but would tone them down in his personal and business life (to avoid discrimination that was so prevalent in the thirties and forties). When he made his film debut in 1937 starring in the film "Harlem on the Prairie"(influenced by Gene Autry and the "singing cowboy" genre) Jeffries acted, composed and sung his own songs in four other "sepia musicals".

Over the years, Herb Jeffries would make acting appearances in film and television (I Dream of Jennie, The Virginian, Hawaii-Five 0). In 1967, Jeffries would write and direct his only feature film "Mundo Depravados" starring his then wife Tempest Storm (he was married five times and had four children). After being "retired for years", Jeffries recorded an album of Jazz standards in honor of Duke Ellington and periodically performed in public. He felt that age was "just a number" and said that “We're subliminally brainwashed with that word ‘old.’ It’s a good commercial word for people who want to make money with it. I don't believe in it.”

Herb Jeffries was an amazing person who helped break down racial barriers in Hollywood and didn't kowtow to the "mainstream" views on how actors of color should be shown on the silver screen. He lived a colorful and wild life that many of us aspire to. Despite the anchors that weighed him down early in his lifetime, Jeffries broke through and he will be missed.

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