Album:The Prewar Vocal Jazz Story
Herb Jeffries was a jazz singer best known for singing Flamingo when he was in Duke Ellington's band in the early 40s. He also acted in cowboy movies and was known as The Bronze Buckaroo. He was born Umberto Alexander Valentino Sept. 24, 1913 in Detroit. There has been controversy about Jeffries' race because neither of his parents were black. He claimed that his great grandmother was Ethiopian. But his stepfather Howard Jeffrey was black so Jeffries took his name. This followed him for his entire career. But his skin was dark enough so he could pass as black. Jeffries sang in Detroit ballrooms as a teen. And Louis Armstrong spotted him and recommended him to Erskine Tate at the Savoy Ballroom in Chicago. Knowing that this was a black band, Jeffries told Tate he was Creole. Armstrong may have told him to say that. Jeffries joined Earl Hines' band in 1934 and that was when he first recorded. While touring the south with Hines, Jeffries got the idea of doing a black cowboy movie. He was a big Tom Mix fan but Jeffries thought black audiences should have their own singing cowboy. He approached producer Jed Buell who agreed to do it. Jeffries starred, wrote the songs and could ride a horse. His co-star was Amos 'N' Andy's Spencer Williams. Harlem on the Prairie was the first of several films. Jeffries became The Bronze Buckaroo. He sang and did his own stunts. Then he returned to music and Duke Ellington in 1940. Flamingo was his biggest hit. It's now considered a jazz standard. The story goes that the songwriter Ted Grouya gave the song to Jeffries and asked him to show it to Ellington. Billy Strayhorn saw it on the dressing room table and started playing it on the piano. Ellington heard that and had his pal Edmund Anderson write lyrics for the song. Jeffries sang it and the rest is history. After leaving Ellington's band in 1944, Jeffries recorded solo with modest success. He moved to Europe in the late 40s and returned to the US in the late 50s. He recorded occasionally until he died on May 25, 2014 at age 100. Unfortunately there is no Herb Jeffries comp CD but you can get Flamingo on this 2CD various artists comp. Here's Herb Jeffries with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra performing Flamingo in a 1941 Soundie.