I couldn’t tell you what year it was when I bought Herb Jeffries’ Devil Is A Woman, but it had to be in the mid to late ‘90s, when I was neck deep in ironic acquisitions—mass-produced thrift store kitsch paintings, boxes of ‘50s vacation slides, vanity pressed gospel and lounge organist albums purchased for their endearingly cheap cover art but almost never listened to. I’m sure a fair many DM readers know that whole drill.
One night back then, a friend was over for company and cans of cheap beer, and he played DJ with one of my crates of weirdo records. Most of it was boring dross, as was to be expected, but soon enough, lo, a gem didst shine out for us. It was, as I’m sure you’ve guessed, the aforesaid Jeffries LP, sporting a K-Mart price tag of 77¢, probably purchased for more like a quarter.
As soon as the needle settled into that thick old slab of Golden Tone Hi-Fidelity vinyl, a potent, red-blooded, exotic rhythm underpinned a horn section’s dramatic spy-movie stabs, and then the delightful vocalist entered the fray, crooning in a huge, unlikely wail and a surely fake, vaguely Mediterranean/Caribbean/somethingorother accent,
YOU’RE NOT HUMAN WOMAN YOU’RE A DEBBIL DOOOOOOOOOOON’T BOTHER MEEEEEEEE!
I’ve searched for a freakin’ hour, dear reader, and unless my Google Fu is just totally garbage today, the entire song is nowhere to be found online. The 30 second sample on Last FM is crystal clear and representative. Also there’s this:
The rest of the album is similarly filled with eye-widening delights, so there my friend and I sat, two newly minted fans of - who? Jeffries’s name is set in uncommonly tiny type on the cover, which may be just as well, as it’s misspelled. But off I went to find more, and so I did. Not only more recordings under his own name, but I learned that this odd pop singer was also pedigreed as the golden Jazz voice atop Duke Ellington’s very large hit “Flamingo.”
And it gets weirder - Jeffries initially became known in the ‘30s singing for the Earl “Fatha” Hines orchestra (he’s the lone surviving member of both Hines’ and Ellington’s bands), and improbably parlayed that into a career as a singing cowboy in low-budget western films with all African-American casts. Well, all African-American save for Jeffries himself, whose background, in reality Irish/Sicilian unless he’s still bullshitting even now, was a matter of some chicanery throughout his career, and even now, it seems like no two bios are in exact agreement on the matter of his ethnicity. His astonishing passing himself off as black in everyday life during the segregation era - how that might sit in relation to blackface performance is a discussion I’d love to hear from people better informed on such matters than I - earned him the nickname “The Bronze Buckaroo,” from the title of one of the films. This film, in fact.
Per his Wikipedia biography, Jeffries discovered his birth certificate in 2007, learning then that his birthdate is September 24, 1913, making this performer with a crazy back story a centenarian as of today. And so we salute and congratulate Herb Jeffries on his 100th birthday. Here’s a short documentary celebrating his career, showing him spry as a damn kitten and in full possession of his faculties even in his nineties.