When I discovered this man, I was amazed that I hadn’t come across him before. Herbert “Herb” Jeffries, born September 24, 1913(some confusion here as I’ve found 1911 and 1914 on alternate sources), is a singer of jazz, country, and an actor. Honors he has received are a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. In 2004 he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum. He even has a room at an Idyllwild cafe, Cafe Aroma, named for him.
He’s also credited with being the first African-American singing cowboy(I haven’t actually come across any others, though there must be). As a young singer, he appeared in a club reputedly owned by Al Capone. He financed his first singing cowboy movie, and film debut, HARLEM ON THE PRAIRIE(1937), starred in, and wrote and sang all the songs. The films were produced on a low budget for primarily black audiences and featured non-stereotypical black roles. The film was popular and he went on to star in four of them, playing Bob Blake. He never appeared in a “white” film, refusing to take a demeaning role as most black actors had to endure in those days. He was billed as Herbert Jeffrey.
They followed the same formula as other singing cowboy movies, the clash of cowboys, guns on hips, riding a horse and modern day cars, of the time of course. He also had the comic sidekick as well.
In TWO GUN MAN FROM HARLEM(1938), Bob Blake is accused of murdering his boss. The boss’s wife was seeing another man and was caught by her husband. She had been spurned earlier by Bob and switched guns in his holster while he was trying to help his boss. She rats him out to the sheriff. He escapes and begins wandering,ending up in Harlem, where he runs a foul of the local gangster, a former preacher turned killer known as the Deacon. Caught talking to a young woman the Deacon fancied in a bar, she says she was attracted to Bob because he looked like the Deacon. They don’t show any confrontation, but later he shows back up at home dressed out as the gangster, two .45s in shoulder holsters and a newspaper article on the death of the Deacon. He uses it to get in with the bad guys, quoting Twain about the rumors of his death. He learns a young woman(Marguerite Whitten) he’d been attracted to was about to lose the ranch. Her father had passed in the year Bob had been gone and she and her little brother(Matthew “Stymie” Beard, Stymie from the Our Gang short films) were being pressured by a rich man who’d loaned her father fifteen hundred dollars to marry him or lose the ranch.
We learn quick that the man, John Barker, was the real killer of his boss and had hired Butch Carter(played by Spencer Williams, popular jazz singer, pianist, and composer) to kill the widow who was pushing for him to marry her.
He has the opportunity to clear his name, win the hand of the young woman, and generally come out on top.
Here’s the film on YouTube. Not a great copy, but will give you a taste.
HARLEM RIDES THE RANGE(1939) was the third film(THE BRONZE BUCKAROO(1939) was his last singing cowboy role). Again, Bob Blake, he and his partner Dusty were riding up to a small ranch, seeing two men fleeing on horseback as they approached. They were hungry and looking for a meal, but apparently no one was home. When they find blood on the table cloth, they get suspicious and leave. But not before Bob spots a photo of a beautiful young woman and “borrows” it.
At their next stop, they get hired on at the ranch of Mr. Watson(again Spencer Williams) and when they meet the foreman, Jim Connors(Tom Southern), both recognize him as one of the men that had ridden away from the ranch at their last stop. Bob has to shush Dusty when Connors denies being over there. He’s suspicious of the man and his intentions. And who was the second man?
He takes to following Connors, gets into a fight, and ends up with the foreman job after it comes to light. Which doesn’t sit well with Connors.
The whole thing is the man at the ranch, Mr. Dennison, has a mortgage due next month and has discovered uranium on it. The samples were intercepted by the rich mortgage holder, Bradley, who wants the ranch. Connors and he think they’ve killed Dennison, at the beginning of the movie, but he had only a head wound and is hiding. From everyone. Connors starts blackmailing his boss, who’s unhappy, and when they find Bob stopping to check on Dennison, and seeing the foreclosure notice, he drops a glove by accident and Bradley uses it to frame Bob for Connors’ murder.
Then word comes that Dennison’s daughter is coming from back East with money from an uncle’s inheritance to pay off the ranch and He makes plans to intercept her, make her disappear, and claim she never shows. Bob uses a neat trick to break out of jail. Using Dusty’s rope belt, he fashions a small lariat, drops it over the sheriff’s pistol, and yanks it from his holster.
He has to ride to the daughter’s rescue, a posse on his tail, save the day, and win the love of the beautiful young woman on top of it.
here’s the Youtube of the film. Again not a great copy.
Richard C. Kahn directed both of these films. as well as THE BRONZE BUCKAROO, and the first in the series was helmed by Sam Newfield and Jed Buell.
I liked these two. the copies I saw were on Turner Classic and were much better than the versions linked here. But listen to the music at th beginning anyway. It’s quite good.
For other overlooked goodness, check out Todd Mason\'s blog, Sweet Freedom