Mario Van Peebles may have beefed up Posse by casting rap stars and putting hip-hop songs on the soundtrack, but it was Herb Jeffries, the original African-American singing cowboy, who brought black music to the Old West.
In 1937 Jeffries, now 82, starred in Hollywood’s first all-black, full-length Western, Harlem on the Prairie. A handful of hour-long quickies followed (in which he used his real last name, Jeffrey): Two Gun Man From Harlem (1938), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), Harlem Rides the Range (1939, all from Nostalgia Family), and 1938’s rare Twenty Notches to Tombstone. The plots were simple: Run the bad guy off the land and get the girl, though today’s audiences might find the implications of a near-white hero defeating the evil, darker-skinned villain offensive.
Jeffries patterned Bob Blake, his fearless alter ego, after his own childhood heroes, movie gunslingers W.S. Hart and Tom Mix. Like them, he became a matinee idol, albeit for the smaller black audience. ”I used the same formula,” he says. ”I didn’t smoke or drink or shoot anybody unless it was in self-defense.”
With budgets of just $150,000 each, his movies were shot outside Hollywood in Victorville, Calif., in five to seven days. ”We got up at the crack of dawn and had to chase the sun over the hill,” says Jeffries, who did his own stunts. His cowboy experience later helped him land bit parts in the ’60s TV Western The Virginian.
But singing was his real calling. After writing songs for all his pictures, Jeffries toured with Duke Ellington and recorded the 1941 hit, ”Flamingo.” He has just made a country album due next year from Warner Bros., and still tours around the world.
Although he’s pleased, Jeffries says he’s not surprised by the return of the black Western. ”Cowboys are never dated.” he insists. ”A horse doesn’t wear a license plate.”