On Film: when Harlem rode the range | Calendar | Chicago Reader

On Film: when Harlem rode the range 

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In 1933, Louis Armstrong met Herb Jeffries in a Detroit club and told him to hit the road. "Hey boy," Satchmo said to the 22-year-old singer, "you're wasting your time here," and handed him a note to give to his friend Erskine Tate in Chicago. Jeffries took him up on the suggestion and hopped on a bus; when he found Tate, the bandleader promptly gave him a job.

Jeffries has show business in his blood. His father, who was of mixed black, American Indian, and European ancestry, sang in cabarets and speakeasies; his white mother designed costumes for actors and made dresses. Growing up, Jeffries sang in the church choir, rode horses at his maternal grandfather's dairy farm, and watched cowboy movies.

In Chicago, Jeffries also hooked up with Earl Hines and performed on the south side at the Savoy and the Regal. But he was soon sidetracked by another project. While touring the south with Hines's band, Jeffries often saw cowboy pictures featuring Gene Autry and other white stars in segregated theaters. Knowing that black cowboys had helped tame the west, he started thinking about making all-black westerns. After encountering a boy in Cincinnati who was crying after his white friends had told him he couldn't play Tom Mix because he was black, he says, "I was determined to make something happen."

None of his black acquaintances wanted to risk money on such a venture, but Jeffries came across a magazine story about Jed Buell, a B-movie producer known for taking risks (perhaps most notoriously on the 1938 cult classic The Terror of Tiny Town, a western cast entirely with midgets).

He traveled to California and met with Buell, who, after finding a willing distributor, agreed to back the project.

The two men took an old script entitled "Sunset on the Prairie" and changed "Sunset" to "Harlem" without altering the text. "Nobody will ever know the difference," Jeffries says he told Buell. They cast Connie Harris, a Lena Horne look-alike, as the love interest and comedian Spencer Williams, who later played Andy on TV's controversial Amos 'n' Andy, as co-star.

Buell and Jeffries had trouble finding a leading man who could sing, act, and ride a horse, so Jeffries volunteered to play the part. Buell initially disagreed, arguing that no one would believe the blue-eyed, light-skinned Jeffries was black. "I've been singing with Earl Hines," Jeffries replied, "and nobody complained about me yet." He got the job and--after he learned how to vault over a horse, handle a gun, and twirl a rope--Harlem on the Prairie was completed in one week in 1937 at a black dude ranch in California.

Jeffries became the first black singing cowboy--an African-American hero who didn't drink, smoke, or shoot without provocation. Three more movies followed: Two Gun Man From Harlem (1938), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), and Harlem Rides the Range (1939). Work on a fifth picture stopped abruptly when the investors pulled out, but the series led to Jeffries's greatest singing achievement. Duke Ellington, who had seen the films, hired him to sing with his orchestra in 1939, and in 1940 Jeffries and the band recorded the single "Flamingo," which became a runaway hit.

These days, Jeffries lives on a ranch in California. He sings, practices yoga, lectures on the west, spirituality, and jazz, markets old photos, compact discs, and posters from his cowboy movies at www.herbjeffries.com, and works on his memoir. Although the cowboy movies were only a small part of his career (in addition to singing and operating a club in France for 12 years he appeared in movies and television shows, including I Dream of Jeannie, The Virginian, and Hawaii Five-0, ran clubs in LA, and sang calypso and western music), he calls them an important part of film history. "My reward is to see guys like Denzel Washington," he says. "He plays heroes. He plays any part he wants....I paved the road for that."

Harlem Rides the Range will be shown on Sunday, February 17, along with Moon Over Harlem, a 1939 musical starring jazz great Sidney Bechet, as part of the Doc Films series "Race Movies: Black Cinema Before 1950." The screening is at 7 in the Max Palevsky Cinema at the University of Chicago's Ida Noyes Hall, 1212 E. 59th. Tickets are $4; for more information call 773-702-8575.

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