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September 26, 2013

Singer/Actor Herb Jeffries Celebrates 100th Birthday

by Richard Paul

Herb Jeffries earned fame as a singer with Duke Ellington, and as an actor in Hollywood westerns of the 1930s. He turned 100 on September 24.

Herb Jeffries Celebrates 100th Birthday

One night in 1933, Jeffries was singing in a little nightclub in Detroit, Michigan when jazz icon Louis Armstrong walked through the door.  In an interview by amateur jazz historian Tad Calcara, Jeffries says Armstrong heard him sing, pulled him aside, and changed his life.

“He said, ‘Well there's a band in Chicago - that's where you should be now.  And he said 'I'm gonna write you a letter,’” Jeffries said.

Then Armstrong pulled a cocktail napkin off the table.

“He just wrote down on there, said, 'You want to hear this guy's voice.  You'll love him.  I do.’ And he put down ‘Pops,’” Jeffries said.

Armed with only this special “calling card,” Jeffries took the great man’s advice and headed for Chicago where he joined the band led by Erskine Tate.

Soon he was heard and hired by legendary band leader Earl “Fatha” Hines. Singing with Earl Hines, Jeffries traveled to California, where he would land a role and also sing the opening song in the Hollywood western, “Two Gunmen from Harlem.”

With his long frame, rakish mustache and exotic good looks, Jeffries capitalized on two unique styles of film that Hollywood was cranking out at that time: “Race Films” - movies by and for African-Americans - and “singing cowboy” pictures.

On a promotional tour for a film called “The Bronze Buckaroo,” Jeffries found himself in the same theater as Duke Ellington.  He was planning to head back to Hollywood that night, but The Duke had other ideas.  

For the next two years, Jeffries was lead singer in the Ellington band.  He toured the world and starred in “Jump for Joy,” the musical Ellington wrote and staged in Los Angeles.

“Jump For Joy” never made it to Broadway, as Ellington had hoped, but it helped cement Herb Jeffries as a bona fide star.  And 72 years later, Jeffries can still belt out that title song with as much verve as ever.