For Herb Jeffries, the silver screen singing cowboy, the Bronze Buckaroo, Idyllwild’s Sir Jazz, the man with the velvet voice, soft smile and humble heart, the long ride is over.
Jeffries, born Sept. 24, 1913, died on Sunday, May 25, four months shy of his 101st birthday. The cause was heart failure.
His life and career are the things of storybooks and well, movies — a man who could pass for, and likely was, white, but who chose to chart his career as a black or at best, mixed-race man. “Had I been white I could never have sung with Duke Ellington,” Jeffries stated in interviews. In a 2004 interview, Jeffries said his mother was Irish, his father Sicilian and that he had a great-grandparent who was Ethiopian. And, at a time when light-skinned blacks could find success in Hollywood, Jeffries had the right combination of masculine charm, an extraordinarily mellifluous speaking and singing voice, and a strong screen presence made more mysterious and compelling by his not-so-certain racial heritage. He was the full package. Ladies loved him and men admired his suave strength.
He had a major hit in the early 1940s with “Flamingo” in the Ellington Orchestra and there was no denying the voice — the richness of the smooth baritone with easy glides into the tenor range, and the way he could deliver a lyric with an inviting smile and a wholesome wink.
He parlayed his ease with a lyric, appealing voice and approachable good looks into a movie career, journeying from the Detroit of his birth to Hollywood back lots as the first black singing cowboy. He owned jazz clubs in France. He appeared on TV, in a 1957 movie, “Calypso Joe,” with Angie Dickenson, and continued to sing into his 90s, always with the same grace and ease that allowed him to deftly navigate movies, TV, big bands, Europe and Hollywood, and earn a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
To Idyllwild, where he and wife Savannah lived in many of Jeffries’ last years, Herb was an iconic presence, easily approachable, friendly and encouraging, and one who made others feel he really saw and appreciated who they were. He did not make much of his celebrity status or his many career accomplishments. He was just Herb.
His widow said it was Idyllwild that he loved. When people questioned, with all the successes of his career, why he moved to the mountain, he said, “It’s as close to heaven as I’m going to get.” Savannah remembered, “He loved the musicians there, the artists, the way people come from the heart. We love it there. We still consider it our home.” She talked about how proud he was that, in this place he loved, there was a Herb Jeffries Room at Café Aroma. And she remembered the ease with which people in Idyllwild took him into their hearts. “He had this most beautiful reaction with men, with women, with children — they inspired him and they embraced him.”
Friend Gary Tompkins knew Jeffries as a man of deep spiritual resonance, a devotee of Paramahansa Yogananda and his Self-Realization Fellowship. He remembered how Jeffries could always put people he met at ease. “He could look into you and see who you are,” he said. He remembered Jeffries’ good-natured patience. “He would always say to me, ‘Gary, remember who won the race [meaning the slow and steady turtle].’”
Town Crier Publisher-Editor Becky Clark remembers, “Herb was the kindest man. When he got his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Jack [Clark] traveled down to take a photo for the Town Crier. A mess of big Hollywood publications were represented, but it was Jack who Herb was excited to see taking a publicity shot.” Herb insisted that Jack be in the front row of photographers.
Jeffries, a man who loved Idyllwild, lived his life slow and steady with grace and good humor, and handled fame as if it were no big deal. Said Savannah, “He was something else!”
For those who might want to make contributions to help defray funeral expenses, visit www.youcaring.com/memorial-fundraiser/herb-jeffries-funeral-fundraiser/183112.
A memorial service is scheduled for 2 p.m. Saturday, July 12, at Lake Shrine, 17190 Sunset Blvd., Pacific Palisades.