EDITOR’S NOTE: Herb Jeffries, one of Palm Springs’ greatest legends, turns 100 on Tuesday. This story was published Oct. 14, 2001, to mark what was thought to be Jeffries’ 90th birthday. (Read more about the age mixup in Bruce Fessier’s column Tuesday.)
TIME PROVES KIND TO HERB JEFFRIES
By Bruce Fessier
The Desert Sun
There’s enough for a mini-series, this story of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, nondenominational Herb Jeffries.
But with Hollywood sensibilities the way they are, the story has to have a focus. Sure, he was discovered by Louis Armstrong. Sure, he was the first black singing cowboy star. Sure, he was Duke Ellington’s most popular singer. But movies must live in the now, baby. How can Jeffries, 90, of Palm Desert, speak to today?
Leave it to Frank Sinatra to suggest an answer. The two Coachella Valley singers met at Dominick’s restaurant in Rancho Mirage in the ’80s. Sinatra asked how Jeffries stayed looking so young, and Jeffries, four years his senior, explained it like a golfer.
“I’ve been working on the back nine,” he said.
Anyone who’s heard Jeffries lately knows his work has paid off. If you listen to him sing next weekend at his 90th birthday party at the Palm Springs Racquet Club, you’ll swear he sounds better than on his 1940s records.
That’s the key to the story, of course. His universal appeal. His almost mystical timelessness.
Roll the credits.
Dissolve to 1997 at a tract home in Cathedral City. A reporter enters Jeffries’ house and finds a sparsely decorated living room lit by dozens of candles. A woman less than half his age, whom Jeffries will soon leave for another woman half his age, takes the reporter into a room where Jeffries is working on his autobiography, appropriately called “Skin Deep.”
On a shelf is a picture of Jeffries’ spiritual teacher, Paramhansa Yogananda, founder of Self-Realization, and Yogananda’s teacher, Sri Yukteswar, the man who was instructed by the yogi-christ of modern India, Babaji, to write a book on the “underlying basic unity between the Christian and Hindu scriptures.” America. It was that message that inspired Jeffries to earn a doctor of divinity in Self-Realization.
The photograph inspires a conversation on meditation and healing. The reporter has a headache, so Jeffries places his right hand over the reporter’s closed eyes and tells him to focus on the circle he sees behind his eyelids. Now focus on the perimeter of the circle, he says, and follow it inside.
The camera picks up the image, which begins to swirl in circular motion, losing focus and fading to darkness until we realize the entire room is swirling. The camera moves its focus to the computer screen and we can make out some words to Jeffries’ autobiography:
“I got the emergency frequency and started may-daying,” says a chapter on the late 1940s. ” ‘May day. May day.’ No response. There had to be a tower in this area. Someone had to be reading my transmissions. We were almost to the place of the lights, enough so to recognize that it was a dam. Davis Dam. Night construction was going on. It was all lit up like a movie set.
“I searched for a place to put the plane down. A place the trucks were using as a roadway. We didn’t have much time. Eight minutes at the most. …”
The image loses focus and dissolves to live action at that time. Jeffries is navigating a plane he’s borrowed from Mickey Rooney to commute from his Las Vegas gig to the San Fernando Valley to see his baby daughter. The pilot got lost while Jeffries napped and now they’re crash landing. The camera follows the plane into a tailspin. Jeffries braces for a crash by putting his hands over his eyes. Suddenly, images behind his eyelids flash back to his childhood in Detroit.
Fading from black….
We see Jeffries as a teenager in a trio with a black pianist playing at a Polish wedding. That dissolves to an image of Jeffries as a strapping young man singing with a megaphone to a black crowd including Armstrong, who calls him to his table and hands him a letter of recommendation to give to a band leader in Chicago. That dissolves to an image of Jeffries in a tuxedo in the swank Grand Terrace Ballroom, Chicago’s equivalent of the Cotton Club, singing with Earl Hines’ band. That dissolves to Jeffries sitting in a rickety bus looking out the window in the Deep South in 1934 and seeing a billboard with a derogatory, racist comment.”
The camera cuts to a Palm Desert apartment Jeffries shares with his 46-year-old fiancØ, Savannah Shippin. Posters from his cowboy movies hang on the wall. The reporter who experienced Jeffries’ laying-on-of-hands in Cathedral City is interviewing him. Jeffries begins to speak about beginning his Southern tour with Hines.
“Earl told me, ‘Look, you have to make a decision here because we’re going south,” Jeffries says. They’re going to see you on the bandstand and they’re going to call you off and say that you can’t sing with us. So you have to make a decision when they come up to you. (Say) ‘I’m a mulatto. I have black blood.’ All you have to do down there is tell them you have black blood and that changes the lenses on their eyes. From then on, they’re going to see you as dark and I am.’ ”
“So you chose to be a black man?” the reporter asks.
“I chose to represent races of people who were denied,” Jeffries responds. “That was the darker races of people: Puerto Ricans, Indians, Mexicans and Negroes. Not black races. I don’t see no black people and I don’t see no white people. White is the color of that tablecloth. It’s a misnomer and so is black.”
The camera dissolves back to the bus in 1934 with Jeffries looking out the window and seeing a marquee on a little, run-down theater advertising the Gene Autry film, “In Old Santa Fe.” It is the umpteenth theater in an all-black neighborhood showing this first white singing cowboy movie. It gives Jeffries an idea.
“There were thousands and thousands of tin roof theaters across the South, which were segregated theaters because blacks could not go to the white theaters,” Jeffries tells the reporter. “I saw thousands of them playing white cowboy movies. I said, ‘Wait a minute, what about the black cowboys,’ because I had read in history in my hometown about the black cowboys and how they pioneered the states after the Civil War. They came from camps where they were rescued by the Indians. So I asked a couple of the theater guys I had gotten to know and they said, ‘There are no black cowboy pictures. Sure, if we had them, we’d put them in here.’
“So I went for two years trying to raise the money. Finally, I read this article on this guy, Jed Buell, who had done a picture called ‘The Terror of Tiny Town,’ a cowboy picture done with midgets. I said, ‘If this guy will make a midget picture, he’ll make a black cowboy picture. So I came out to California, walked into Gower Gulch (Columbia Pictures) and into his office. In 10 minutes, he was interested.”
The camera pans across the posters of black cowboy films he made: “Harlem on the Prairie,” “The Bronze Buckaroo,” “Harlem Rides the Range.”
Darker shades: The reporter asks about reports that Jeffries “blackened himself up” to be a black cowboy star. Today, that’s degrading. How did it feel then?
“It wasn’t done in a way that would poke fun at the black people,” Jeffries replies. “They browned me up. Egyptian 24, Max Factor. These were not the stereotyped thing in my pictures. We’d sit around and discuss it with the actors and producers. ‘Is this comedy line something you feel is stereotyped? Is it something you think is wrong? Let’s rewrite it.’
“When I came out to California to do the picture, I didn’t come out to star in it. We went looking for a leading lady and actors who could ride a horse and work like real cowboys. It wasn’t easy. We must have screen-tested 20 guys.
“Finally, I went to Mr. Buell. He said, ‘What are we going to do?’ I said, ‘First of all, nobody can tell my eyes are blue. It’s a black-and-white picture. Just brown me up and I’ll tie my hat on with the handkerchief and my hat won’t ever fall off and no one will see my hair.’
“I’d been riding since I was 8 years old. My grandfather had a dairy farm in Port Huron, Mich. What’s going to stop me from playing a black man?”
The camera cuts to a shot of Jeffries as the Bronze Buckaroo, wearing a white hat and neatly-tied white handkerchief with all-black Western attire. That is the film that attracted Jeffries to Ellington. It was screening at the Apollo Theatre where Ellington’s band performed. When Jeffries attended an Ellington concert in Detroit, Ellington asked him to come up and sing. Then he asked him to join his band on tour.
The interview turns to Ellington’s socially conscious 1941 stage show, “Jump For Joy.” Some backers, including actor John Garfield, didn’t think Jeffries was dark enough to be in it. He joined the cast after “Flamingo” became a hit, but, two weeks into the run, Garfield visited Jeffries’ dressing room.
Flash back to Garfield entering Jeffries’ door.
Garfield: “Mr. Jeffries, you know this is an all-Negro revue.”
Jeffries: “Yeah, I know that.”
Garfield: “I’ve watched the show quite a bit and you don’t look anything like a Negro.”
Jeffries: “Mr. Garfield, what does a Negro look like? Have you ever lived in a black neighborhood?’
Jeffries: “Do you know anything about how black people think?”
Garfield: “No, not really.”
Jeffries: ‘Well, if I took you down to Central Avenue right now, if you weren’t so well recognized as John Garfield and I told people you were my brother and were black, they wouldn’t question it. They wouldn’t question that because there are so many people who have Negro blood who are considered to be black and look lighter than you.’
Garfield: “Yes, but it’s not all Negro people who will be coming to this show.”
Jeffries: “What do you want me to do? Do you want me to walk out?”
Garfield: “No, no, no. I want to put some makeup on you.”
Garfield takes him to a makeup man, points to one of the three black dancers and he says, “I want him about this color.” The makeup man applies the makeup and Jeffries goes backstage.
The scene cuts to Jeffries doing a number with Dorothy Dandridge. Ellington, who is conducting, looks up at Jeffries and his eyes bulge in horror. Back stage at intermission Ellington comes running into the room.
Ellington: “What the hell do you think you are, Al Jolson?”
Jeffries: “Governor, I had nothing to do with this. Mr. Garfield told the makeup people to make me up like this.”
Ellington: “Get that stuff off of there!” (and he runs off).
Cut to five minutes later. Garfield finds Jeffries backstage.
Garfield: “Ah, Herb, just forget the makeup.’
Reflecting: The scene switches to 2001. Jeffries, his fiancØ and the reporter are talking about Jeffries’ “back nine” at lunch at an Italian restaurant in Palm Springs.
“I had a nice career,” Jeffries says. “I had a few lucky records that went out for me after the war, when I got out of the service. But, right now, I can’t tell you what is happening to my career. For some reason, wherever I go, it’s like, “This guy’s going to be 90 years old.’ I pack the joints not because of my singing, but because I’m still walking.”
Suddenly, the room starts spinning.
The image dissolves to Jeffries back in the cockpit of Rooney’s plane spinning out of control over the desert.
Jeffries thinks of his family and successful career and prays to God to let him live. A dark shadow envelopes the plane. The craft levels out but scrapes the ground with such force the canopy separates from the plane. Jeffries’ face smashes into the instrument panel.
He drifts into semi-consciousness. He feels pain throughout his body. He hears: “He’s bleeding like a stuck pig. Get him into the ambulance. I don’t think he’ll make it to the hospital.”
The scene switches to the next day in a Needles hospital. He regains full consciousness, but is bandaged from head to toe with facial lacerations, broken left and right arms, a smashed left knee and three herniated discs in his spine. We see him leaving the hospital a week later on crutches.
Then its three years later and he’s still suffering such pain a doctor suggests a triple laminectomy, which would fuse his spine and cripple him for life.
We see Jeffries in traction, when his aunt, a school teacher, brings him Yogananda’s “Autobiography of a Yogi.” Jeffries has been interested in Eastern religion since 1943, so when he reads that people can be taught to heal themselves, he believes.
Cut to Jeffries visiting Yogananda at the Mother Center on Mt. Washington behind Pasadena and doing yoga and meditating in other Self-Realization centers around Los Angeles.
Cut to eight months later. Jeffries is walking unassisted. His spine has naturally fused.
Living it up: Back at the restaurant, Jeffries tells the reporter that after that his career was no longer his main priority. He studied psychology at the University of Michigan. He moved to France, opened a nightclub and took up skiing, race car driving and mountain climbing in his mid-40s. His first marriage failed due in part to his devotion to his new spirituality.
Jeffries says his spirituality and children became his top priority.
“Yoga is not a religion, it’s a way of life,” he says. “If you go to (Yogananda’s) Lake Shrine, it honors all religions. You’ll see emblems from all religions up there. It teaches a better understanding of whatever your religion may be.”
The camera cuts to Jeffries singing “Flamingo” at the McCallum Theatre’s recent “Let Freedom Ring” concert. His voice is clear and powerful.
Back at the restaurant, a Sinatra song plays over the stereo. The reporter asks Jeffries the secret to his longevity.
“I meditate for one half-hour in the morning and I meditate for one half-hour at night before I lay me down and go into my somnambulistic state to recharge my body,” he says. “In meditation, you are communicating with the Creator, the entire infinitism. Now, God knows no time or space.
“Once you become involved in that unity with that dimension, for one half-hour in the morning and one half-hour in the evening, I don’t age.
“For 365 hours a year, I don’t age. Time ceases to exist.”