In Memoriam: Herb Jeffries
Posted by Michael Eldridge on May 27, 2014
When Allied Artists recruited Herb Jeffries for Calypso Joe, its rush-release entry in the summer 1957 Calypso Craze derby, the former Ellington Orchestra crooner had no experience with the genre. But plenty of other would-be calypso stars had managed to surmount that obstacle, and besides, once Harry Belafonte refused to sign on to the project, how many other light-skinned African-American singers with sultry good looks were left? (Granted, the forty-something Jeffries was already a bit long in the tooth, and his sex appeal was more Rat-Pack than racy, but he could still strike a soulful pose and pull off a plunging neckline.)
As it turned out, the film wasn’t awful (by the standards of Calypso Craze films, anyway). It had a young Angie Dickinson, for one thing, and Jeffries brought a certain élan to his performance as a devil-may-care bandleader who helps his bland leading-man buddy pursue ex-girlfriend Dickinson to Trinidad in order to foil her impending marriage to a Latin lothario. (See the trailer at HistoricFilms.com.) Jeffries was pleased enough with his own vaguely Latin material to gather it onto an LP, puzzlingly titled Jamaica, that opened with the super-heated “Devil Is a Woman”:
His attenuated ethnicity may have been an asset in the studio’s eyes, but from his first film roles as the “Bronze Buckaroo,” black America’s answer to Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, in the 1930s, the multi-racial Jeffries proudly identified with African Americans, even if he didn’t always identify as an African American. Active—and in good voice—well into old age, Jeffries still performed regularly as a nonagenarian and recorded his last album at age 95. He died yesterday at “about a hundred” (as Terry Gross delicately put it) in suburban Los Angeles. You can read accounts of his life in the Times (New York or Los Angeles).