The film industry’s first black singing cowboy, who made history as the lead in all-black Westerns in the 1930s, has died. The Los Angeles Times reports that Herb Jeffries died Sunday of heart failure at West Hills Hospital and Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 100.
The report cites Raymond Strait, who had been working with the singer and actor on his autobiography.
Jeffries sang with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the early 1940s, scoring his biggest musical hit with "Flamingo." The song, which sold millions of copies and is considered a jazz classic, became Jeffries' signature number.
“As the African American answer to Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and other white singing cowboys, Jeffries made a handful of low-budget westerns in the '30s,” the story notes. His films include “The Bronze Buckaroo” and “Harlem Rides the Range.”
Jeffries came up with the concept of Westerns with all-black casts, the piece notes.
“Little children of dark skin — not just Negroes, but Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, everybody of color — had no heroes in the movies," he told the L.A. Times in 1998. "I was so glad to give them something to identify with."
Jeffries was born Umberto Valentino, the son of a Sicilian father, an Irish mother and a great-grandparent who was Ethiopian, the piece adds. “So I'm an Italian-looking mongrel with a percentage of Ethiopian blood, which enabled me to get work with black orchestras,” he told the Oklahoman in 2004.