To tell this tale of rock and roll I feel I need to tell another short tale first. Context is everything.
On the 2nd September 1957 a group of nine black students, chosen by the Arkansas branch of the NAACP attempted the radical act of going to school. Their destination, Little Rock Central High School – a formerly all white school established in 1926. Only a few years earlier, on 17th May 1954, the US Supreme Court overturned a ‘separate but equal’ ruling established in 1896 via Brown v Board of Education. The case they overturned, Plessy v Fergusson established even an ‘Octoroon’ (someone with 1/8 African American heritage, 7/8 European) named Homer Plessy could be barred from the white compartments on a train so long as the black compartments were nominally equal. This ruling legitimized a state of apartheid in American life for over half a century. The Brown case established, around schooling, but in the same way as Plessy relating to all aspects of life – separate but equal is never equal, and put a sizeable sector in American society at a huge disadvantage. Some southern states particularly fought bitterly against the ruling, and by 1957 the order to desegregate the schools had yet to be challenged.
How did first day of school go for the Little Rock Nine? Terribly. Eight of the group car pooled in. Elizabeth Eckford, whose parents did not have a phone, missed the memo and walked in by herself. The photo of her walking in all on her lonesome – surrounded by screaming white people is one of many sad indictments of racism among some white Americans in the civil rights era. The nine arrived to find Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus had ordered in the National guard to block them from entering.
The incident escalated. Federal justice Ronald Davies began legal proceedings against the Governor. US President Dwight D. Eisenhower stepped in to ensure the nine would go to school. On the 20th September Governor Faubus was legally forced to call the guard off. On the 23rd September the nine tried again. This time they were escorted past 1,000 white protesters by a police guard. When the protesters began rioting, the Little Rock Nine were led away from the school. On the 24th Eisenhower ordered in 1,200 military from the 101st Airbourne to protect the nine, and on 25th September they finally made it through their first full day at Little Rock Central High. The tale of the schooling of the Little Rock Nine is one of bullying and harassment, though one of the teens stuck in there till graduation day.
Keep this tale in mind as I share with you another tale from Little Rock Arkansas, 6th February 1960. Those brave nine broke new ground, but they hardly cured Little Rock of such malignant racism.
Now… let’s talk about Jesse Belvin. Many of you may not have heard of Mr Belvin – and that is absolutely understandable – cultural amnesia really is the norm and the stars we remember the rare exceptions. It is worth knowing however in 1960 Jesse Belvin was a star on the rise, billed by RCA, his record company as the ‘Black Elvis’. He had several successful years of writing and performance behind him – and had squandered much of it by selling his share for money up front. He had a song which topped the R&B charts with an earlier duo, a songwriting credit on the song with which all other Doo Wop classics are measured, and, in my opinion, the most beautiful lullaby ever written – used by Alan Freed to close his radio show and covered by dozens of artists. His history is labyrinthine, but let’s see if we can run through it in a paragraph or two.
Having started right out of the gates in 1951 with a gig as the vocalist for fellow Jefferson high school alum and legendary saxophonist Cecil ‘Big Jay’ McNeeley’s R&B act Three Dots and a Dash – Belvin saw some early success with ‘All the Wine is Gone’ – an answer record to Stick Mcghee’s ‘Drinkin’ Wine Spo-dee-O-dee’. The track did respectably in the R&B charts but by 1952 Belvin had gone solo, with the decent but non charting ‘Baby Don’t Go’. Restlessly he abandoned his solo act to form a duo with Marvin Phillips, known as Marvin and Jesse. The two scored a #2 hit on the R&B charts in 1952 with ‘Dream Girl’. It is also at this time that Jesse got together with Gaynel Hodge and Curtis Williams, formerly of the popular R&B vocal group ‘The Hollywood Flames’ and co-wrote the song which would become the archetype for almost all doo wop ballads. He would be drafted into the army before Hodge and Williams were to see any success with the song, under the moniker The Penguins.
The song, Earth Angel, would sell five million copies for the Penguins… twenty million records when you count the slew of cover records of the song – but the Penguins would be cheated of their royalties by their record head Walter ‘Dootsie’ Williams, who refused to pay the group a cent for breach of contract. Jesse Belvin, however would successfully manage to sue Dootsie (Dootsie himself a particularly litigious lawyer by trade) for some share of the royalties on his release from armed service.
Upon his release from the army, Jessie Belvin was a dynamo – constantly developing new musical projects. Writing and performing for whoever would have him – and on occasion waiving his rights to various songs for a quick couple of hundred dollars in pocket now. He would occasionally get together with Marvin Phillips, who was now performing as ‘Marvin and Johnny’ with a rotating roster of Johnnys. He recorded with a group called The Californians, having a minor hit with ‘My Angel’, The Sheiks who charted with ‘So Fine’, The Cliques whose ‘The girl of my dreams’ also charted. The Gassers whose ‘Hum de Dum’ didn’t do a lot – which is a shame. I think the song has so many great hooks – even if it is one in a line of knock offs of Gene and Eunice’s Ko Ko Mo. With the Saxons he charted with ‘Is it true’. He provided backing vocals on The Shields ‘You Cheated’ one of an extremely small number of songs from this era where a song released by a white artist on a major label was stolen by a black group on a small label – and the black group ended up having the bigger hit. My touchstone on all things rock and roll, Andrew Hickey stated in his episode on Jesse Belvin the above list is not even half of what he was involved in from 1954- 58.
Of course Jesse Belvin also had a solo career. As a solo artist he released a diverse, interesting portfolio of songs – but the song he has become best known for was 1956’s Goodnight My Love – a smooth ballad, a lullaby really – which has gone on to be covered by everyone from Paul Anka, to Gloria Estefan, Evanescence’s Amy Lee, to Los Lobos. Harry Connick Jr to Aaron Neville. The song did very respectfully – #7 in the R&B charts – but Goodnight My Love earned it’s place in the great American songbook after the famed DJ Alan Freed made a ritual of using the song to close his radio show. There has been controversy over whether Jesse sold his share of the songwriting credits or not to record producer John Marascalco. Marascalco himself was a talented songwriter who penned a number of classic rock and roll songs, including last week’s bonus episode song (Little Richard’s Rip it Up), but a story persists Belvin sold him the co-write needing just $400 at the time.
It was in the midst of this period that Jesse met his wife Jo Ann. Far more business-minded, Jo Ann Belvin began to focus Jesse on a career path set to bring him greater success – and to finally step up as the star he deserved to be. The new Jesse Belvin was to be a smooth balladeer in the mold of Nat King Cole. He was to focus on one project only and follow through accordingly. The major label RCA jumped at the opportunity to work with Jesse, however saw his path slightly differently. He was the ‘Black Elvis’ he could croon, he could belt out rockers as well as anyone. Besides being extremely talented and charismatic he was the likeable face they needed to break into an untapped market of white teens in – dare I say it – horrendously racist towns like civil rights era Little Rock Arkansas.
And so it was that Jesse Belvin found himself on a tour of the South, alongside Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Marv Johnson – an all black roster, on what would be billed as ‘The first rock and roll show of 1960’.
There is a great deal of speculation about exactly what happened on 6th February 1960 at Little Rock’s Robinson auditorium. What can be said for certain was Little Rock was little changed, if changed at all, in the few years since the Little Rock Nine. There were protests over their arrival, and allegedly death threats made against the performers. The show that night was likely played to the first integrated audience in the town’s history, further enraging the town’s racists. There is an unverified line in this tale, which states the Belvins were increasingly concerned this tour was going to end badly and were ringing Jesse’s mother daily – where normally they would touch base one or twice a month.
The show was allegedly stopped twice due to groups of white protesters throwing glass bottles down from the mezzanine and fighting with black concertgoers– though if local police managed such incidents, they failed to keep any records. However bad the show was, at the very least it is fair to say the night was unpleasant, and jarring.
The claim has been made that racist elements in the town tampered with the performers vehicles. This may be true – Jackie Wilson had car trouble which caused him to run late on his way to Austin, Texas after the show. There is no evidence of tampering on the black Cadillac carrying the Belvins, guitarist Kirk Davis and their driver Charles Shackleford – but this is because there is NO evidence preserved from the crash scene, no notes, photos – if a report was ever filed it is long lost to history. A bystander claims the police officer at the scene exclaimed their back wheels had been tampered with. There was a rumour someone may have slashed their tyres. At the end of the day we just don’t know what happened – thanks to, at the very least, lazy or incompetent police work. At most horrendously racist and complicit through their inaction.
What can be said for certain is the Belvins’ black Cadillac, on its way towards towards Hope, Arkansas, collided head on with another vehicle. Jesse and Shackleford were killed instantly, while Kirk Davis was badly injured. Jesse, it appears, had attempted to shield Jo Ann, possibly saving her life in the immediate aftermath. Jo Ann Belvin was taken to hospital, badly injured, but still alive. Not believing Jo Ann had either insurance, or the money to pay for her treatment, hospital staff left her on a gurney -refusing treatment until Jackie Wilson arrived. Wilson convinced the staff he could cover the costs of treatment, however at this stage Jo Ann had been left for hours to die. Wilson himself had lost precious time getting to Austin due to his own car troubles. When he arrived to find the Belvins had yet to show up, he first called Jesse’s mother, then doubled back till he found out what had happened. Jo Ann would too pass away days later, leaving their two young children orphaned. Within a few weeks of their passing rumours spread throughout the town that tyres had been slashed that night. Those whispers reached a high enough pitch that newspapers got wind of them and reported that the Belvins and Charles Shackleford had in fact been murdered. Was there a thorough police investigation into the scuttlebutt? As if you even had to ask… of course there wasn’t.
Jesse Belvin is by far my favorite member of the 27 club, and it breaks my heart that I can make that statement about him.