Monday, August 2, 2021

Herb Jeffries: Just Who Did He Think He Was?

My friend Mary told me about Herb Jeffries not long ago, Hollywood's first black singing cowboy. I'd never heard of him, so I Googled him and found out some interesting facts. He was a fascinating character who took advantage of both sides of his ethnicity before that was in vogue, so to speak. Here's a bit about this singing cowboy from Wikipedia:
Herb Jeffries (September 24, 1913 – May 25, 2014) was an American actor of film and television and popular music and jazz singer-songwriter, known of his baritone voice, he was of African descent and was Hollywood's first singing black cowboy
Jeffries was born Umberto Alexander Valentino in Detroit to a white Irish mother who ran a rooming house. His father, whom he never knew, was of mixed Sicilian, French, Italian and Moorish roots. He also claimed that his paternal great-grandmother was an Ethiopian with the surname of Carey.
Firm evidence of Jeffries’s race and age is hard to come by, but census documents from 1920 described him as mulattoand listed his father as a black man named Howard Jeffrey. Jeffries himself, late in life, said that Howard Jeffrey was his stepfather. He said his biological father was Domenico Balentino, a Sicilian who died in World War I.
Jeffries once described himself in an interview as "three-eighths Negro", claiming pride in an African-American heritage during a period when many light-skinned black performers were attempting "to pass" as all-white in an effort to broaden their commercial appeal. In marked contrast, Jeffries used make-up to darken his skin in order to pursue a career in jazz and to be seen as employable by the leading all-black musical ensembles of the day.
Much later in his career, Jeffries identified as white for economic or highly personal reasons. Jet reported that Jeffries identified as White and stated his "real" name as "Herbert Jeffrey Ball" on an application in order to marry Tempest Storm in 1959. Jeffries told the reporter for Jet:
"... I'm not passing, I never have, I never will. For all these years I've been wavering about the color question on the blanks. Suddenly I decided to fill in the blank the way I look and feel.

Look at my blue eyes, look at my brown hair, look at my color. What color do you see?" he demand to know. "My mother was 100 per cent white," Jeffries said, his blue eyes glinting in the New York sun. "My father is Portuguese, Spanish, American Indian, and Negro. How in the hell can I identify myself as one race or another?"  

Have you ever heard of Herb Jeffries? Thanks for visiting and have a great week! 

Originally posted 1/25/16 

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