Herb Jeffries, Singer


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After Herb Jeffries died on Sunday in Los Angeles, headlines around the world remembered him for his career as a singing cowboy in a succession of low budget 1930s Hollywood movies.

Appreciative listeners are more likely to recall Jeffries as the singer who worked with the Earl Hines Orchestra, then joined Duke Ellington when the classic Blanton-Webster edition of the band was taking shape. With Ellington, he recorded “Flamingo.” The record, with its remarkable Billy Strayhorn arrangement and a lovely Johnny Hodges interlude, became a hit in 1941. It remained on juke boxes and radio play lists for decades.

“Flamingo” became a trademark and calling card for Jeffries. Over the years, he was prevailed upon to remake the piece in film shorts, including this one with the Ellington band and decoration by a couple of pseudo-Caribbean dancers. Subsequent performances did not match the seductive power of the original recording.

Jeffries led a full and varied life in the United States and in the 1940s in France, where he owned night clubs in Paris. From the well-balanced New York Times obituary:
Over the course of his century, he changed his name, altered his age, married five women and stretched his vocal range from near falsetto to something closer to a Bing Crosby baritone. He shifted from jazz to country and back again, and from concert stages to movie theaters to television sets and back again.
To read the whole thing, go here. For the L.A. Times obit, which concentrates on Jeffries’ movie career, go here.

The matter of his ethnicity was a source of speculation throughout Jeffries’ career. He most often claimed that his mother was Irish and his father was a mixture of Sicilian, Ethiopian, French, Italian and Moorish and that his birth name was Umberto Alexander Valentino. The question of his degree of blackness seemed to be a source of some amusement to him in an interview around the time of his 100th birthday last fall. It had to do with his role in the production of Ellington’s 1941 musical Jump for Joy. It takes the video a while to get to the interview and Jeffries a while to get through the story, but patience will be rewarded.

Herb Jeffries, RIP

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This story appears courtesy of Rifftides by Doug Ramsey.
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