I am sorry to report the death of a man who was one of precious few remaining icons from the era of the singing cowboy: Herb Jeffries, who was known as Hollywood's first black singing cowboy — and who may well have been the last singing cowboy. Jeffries died of heart failure Sunday, May 25, 2014, at 100 years of age at West Hills Hospital in the San Fernando Valley.
It has been reported that Jeffries — who spelled his last name that way even though it often appears as "Jeffrey" or "Jeffreys" on posters and in film credits — sometimes worked at the Iverson Movie Ranch, and I've heard anecdotes about the actor appearing on this rock or that rock during filming of a particular scene. But I do not have personal knowledge of any of Jeffries' productions being shot at Iverson, and I have yet to find actual footage of Jeffries on location at the movie ranch. Still, I have not given up — and I'll report it here if something turns up.
Herb Jeffries on the cover of Jet Magazine in 1952
Jeffries has been called the towering figure in the integration of pop culture in the 20th century, and has been widely credited for making a conscious decision to become the first black singing cowboy rather than pass as white — something his mixed ethnic background and light skin would have enabled him to do. His widow, Savannah Jeffries, is quoted as saying earlier this week: "Herb's motto was there's only one race — the human race."
Herb Jeffries, left, with Duke Ellington (partially visible over
Jeffries' shoulder) and bassist Jimmy Blanton in 1941
Jeffries was a singer in the Duke Ellington Orchestra in the early 1940s, scoring a big hit in 1941 with "Flamingo," which became his signature song.
Herb Jeffries sings "Flamingo" with the Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1941
Jeffries participated in at least one gathering at the Iverson Movie Ranch, well after the site's filming era, in 1999, when he took part in a fund raiser held at Iverson for fellow singing cowboy Eddie Dean, who was in failing health at the time and died about a month later.
"Last Stagecoach West" (1957)
In effect, Jeffries died in the background of the singing cowboy genre's most important outdoor filming location, the Iverson Movie Ranch, as portions of what is now West Hills can be seen in the distance in movie scenes shot in Iverson's Upper Gorge — including the above example from the Jim Davis B-Western "Last Stagecoach West." (Jeffries did not appear in the movie, having wrapped up his career in Westerns by the end of the 1930s.)
The links below will take you to Amazon.com listings for a number of Herb Jeffries' films and recordings: