The Bronze Buckaroo
By Ron Eldridge
Let’s start off with a little game of word association. What do these have in common: Jed Buell … Bob Blake … Flamingo … Bronze Buckaroo … Hollywood … Duke Ellington … Harlem on the Prairie … Umberto Alexander Valentino … Erskine Tate.
Give up? Let me pull them all together.
Does the name “Umberto Alexander Valentino” ring a bell? Back in 1936, Hollywood had no African-American headliner representation in cowboy movies. Umberto Alexander Valentino, aka Herb Jeffries, became the first — and last — African-American singing cowboy on the golden screen in Hollywood to lead as a grade B film figure with five films to his credit: Harlem on the Prairie (1937), Two-Gun Man from Harlem (1938), Rhythm Rodeo (1938), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939) and Harlem Rides the Range (1939).
The films were produced by Jed Buell, who had cast midgets as leads in cowboy roles; now Mr. Jeffries was ready to make his mark and change the racial dynamics of cowboy movies.
Finally, the African-American movie audience had one of their own to look up to and emulate. At a time when Hollywood refused to cast black actors except as servants and nannies, Bob Blake (his character name) was inspiring the folks in Harlem!
In 1957, Mr. Jeffries stared in a move featuring Angie Dickerson called “Calypso Joe.” In the 1960s, Mr. Jeffries made appearances on the television shows “Hawaii Five-O” and “The Virginian.”
Mr. Jeffries was a man of many talents and had a set of vocal chops that could spin silk with his baritone vibratos. (He retained his amazing voice until his late 90s!) In 1933, Jeffries moved from Detroit to Chicago. There he landed a vocal gig with Erskine Tate’s big band. Then he attracted the attention of Earl Father Hines, who hired him away at a higher salary. Traveling around the country, Mr. Jeffries encountered the reality of American racism and segregation. Though his physical features could make him easily mistaken as Caucasian, he embraced his African-American heritage. His believed that there was no color barrier — we were all one race: the human race!
Jeffries vowed to fight this inequity by becoming the first black singing cowboy. The opportunity would have never come about without him becoming Duke Ellington’s lead vocalist and working with Hillsborough, N.C. native Billy Strayhorn. The hit song “Flamingo” became Mr. Jeffries’ signature song after selling an unheard of 14 million copies.
I have been fortunate to spend many hours in conversation with Mr. Jeffries. We found that we shared some common areas. Mr. Jeffries was a nightclub owner, like me, and did we ever have some interesting stories to share with each other! Mr. Jeffries’ knowledge was extensive on many subjects and we talked about everything from the Big Bang Theory and music therapy to performing on various stages.
Mr. Jeffries celebrated his 100th birthday on September 24, 2013, and passed away on May 25, 2014. Thanks to YouTube, his legacy lives on. Take a moment and go to You Tube and check out Herb Jeffries, “The Bronze Buckaroo.” I think you will find him as amazing as I do!
Ron Big “E” Eldridge is a Winston-Salem resident and freelance writer who frequently pens a Music Corner column about the local jazz and music scene.
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