Jackie at the Apollo (Two)

jw stage profileThanks again to Doug Henderson Jr for giving me permission to share a second passage from his book, Endeavor to Persevere, with the readers of this blog. As I noted in Jackie at the Apollo, one of the first entries in this blog, Doug has been a lifelong admirer of Jackie Wilson. In this anecdote, as with the earlier one, Doug’s sister Effie has taken him to the Apollo to see Jackie. At the time, Doug was a few months shy of his tenth birthday.

In November of 1967, I went to see Jackie at the Apollo with Effie. I was in the cadets (a young person’s version of the military) and proudly wore my Marine uniform that day. In the middle of his show, Jackie sat on a stool at the edge of the stage, talking to the audience between songs and signing autographs, while introducing “Danny Boy.” As he dedicated the song to the troops fighting in Vietnam, I asked my sister for a piece of paper so that I could get his autograph. After rummaging through her pocketbook, all she could find was the back of one of her blank checks. She promptly tore it off from her checkbook. I anxiously took it and made a beeline to the stage. As I approached, I caught Jackie’s eye. Staring straight at me, he proclaimed to the Apollo audience, “Here comes the soldier boy.” I handed him the piece of paper and, as he was about to sign it, he hesitated. Turning it over and seeing that it was a check, he laughed, and with his sweat dripping down on the back of the check, autographed it. It is now framed, and proudly hanging on my living room wall—sweat drops and all.

Doug’s thoughtful and thought-provoking book, which explores the question of how excellence is achieved, is available as an e-book from Amazon. The full title is Endeavor to Persevere: A Memoir on Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, Tennis and Life.

Berry Gordy on “Reet Petite”

To be loved book coverAn item from Radio.com turned up in a “Google Alert” today. It says pretty much what Berry Gordy’s autobiography, To Be Loved, has to say on the song, so perhaps it is taken from that book. Radio.com does not mention the first Motown superstar, Mary Wells, when describing the successes of that enterprise. That’s a pity. She is another great artist slipping from the public consciousness. Gordy’s book, by the way, is now available in electronic format. Find the Kindle version here.

And you can find the Berry Gordy quote on “Reet Petite” here, on Radio.com.

A Shirelle speaks of Jackie

For my money, THE girl group of all time was The Shirelles. For those of you too young to know about them, here is a taste of them from YouTube:

The Shirelles had hit after hit after hit. Among the biggest were “Tonight’s the Night,” “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” “Dedicated to the One I Love,” “Soldier Boy,” and “Mama Said.” Throughout the Sixties, the Shirelles worked many a venue with Jackie Wilson.  In Showtime at the Apollo: The Story of Harlem’s World Famous Theater, author Ted Fox quotes Beverly Lee, a founding member of the group, about Jackie Wilson’s appearances on the Apollo stage:

He would bring the house down when he sang “To Be Loved” and they put that little red pinlight on him. He drove the women crazy. We were friends with him and we were drooling. But he was always a very warm and friendly person. He was magnetic. He had such drawing power. He loved to greet you with a nice kiss and a smile; always up and up, a lot of energy. He was like a very slinky, powerful leopard onstage. There was nothing he couldn’t do there. He was very sexy. When he would do his little shadowboxing, as I call it—his little movements, and how he handled the mike—he was just amazing.

The Louisiana Weekly, July 1960

Front page July 23 1960

Here is the account from The Louisiana Weekly on July 23, 1960, published the week after the infamous New Orleans “riot” at the Jackie Wilson show . . .a show at which Jackie was never able to perform. I have transcribed the text from the front and back pages of the paper several paragraphs below.

Reading this edition of the newspaper, which was intended for the Black community in New Orleans half a century ago, I was once again stunned to recall the conditions in which Jackie Wilson and all Black Americans lived and worked. The stories and advertisements capture the environment. They include:

  • A front-page story about a white  employer who shot five of his Black workers who had come to discuss their distress at his striking one of them. The employer’s children watched as he shotgunned the workers, killing three at the scene and wounding the other two critically.
  • A half dozen large advertisements urging readers to vote for various men for judge or other elected offices. The men are all white.
  • A story of a meeting of Black citizens gathering to discuss community concerns that ended with forty-five of the attendees being arrested for attempted murder. (The charges were dropped when a demand was made to address the police brutality at the scene.)
  • There is a plea to boycott Budweiser beer after a local distributor barred Blacks from participation in a drawing for prizes. The prizes were hotel and restaurant services at locations that did not serve African Americans.
  • Note that the small space near the end of the article (pictured below) is filled with a reminder to register and vote.

That front-page article next to the one on the concert actually details a situation repeated across the country. Women on welfare could not receive public assistance money to feed their children if a man lived in the same household, because it was expected that he should support the children. However, if there was no man in the household and the woman gave birth to another child, she was considered morally reprehensible and therefore unworthy of the taxpayers’ help.

The article on the concert itself is amazing, particularly the arrests for “reviling the  police” and “being boisterous,” Here is my transcription of the text:

In the aftermath of the near riot at Sunday night’s jazz concert at the Municipal Auditorium, charges of disturbing the peace against “rock and roll” idol Jackie Wilson were dismissed here Monday and $10 fines were lodged against three other persons in Judge Edwin B. Babylon’s municipal court.

The New York singer had been charged in second municipal court with two counts of disturbing the peace and assault on a police officer.

The charges followed a near riot at the auditorium that was provoked by a misunderstanding which resulted in a “free for all” fight that broke out. Several bottles and one brick were tossed at the police. Seven persons were arrested in all.

The commotion started when Larry Williams to sing from a sitting position on the edge of the stage and put on his act on the auditorium floor. Ptn. [Patrolman?] John Raphael, one of 12 officers detailed to the concert, reported that another officer, Ptn. Perry White, went to Williams and told him not to come down to the floor as is was against the policy of the auditorium. A white officer allegedly pushed Williams while talking to Ptn. White.

It was at this point that Wilson jumped down off the stage and pushed the policeman. Five members of the band, playing on the stage began leaping from the stage and hurling objects at the police. Raphael was pasted across the hear with a big sound amplifier.

“Everything then broke loose” Raphael said. Several bottles of whiskey then began to fly. Patrons, which numbered at 3,000  began scrambling toward the exits. Auditorium officials then got the fire hoses ready to break up what looked was the beginning of a riot. Ten (10) patrol wagons came blasting their sirens to the scene.

The show was nearing the end and everyone was waiting for Jackie Wilson to appear at the end of the show, but this was the end of “jumping” show.

LW end of article on riotIn addition to Wilson who was booked with disturbing the peace, inciting a riot and assault on an arresting officer, others arrested were:

Calvin A. Watkins, 19, 536 Webster, for attempted murder and allegedly throwing a brick at an officer; Lionel Pichon, 21, 4508 Allen, obscene langauge [sic] and being boisterous; Thelma Roberts, 17, 2524 Desire St.; and Lloyd Burton, 19, 1124 So. Galvez, both booked relative to reviling police [,] and William Frazier and Johnny Jones, 28, no local address, both booked relative to refusing to move on. They were released on bond and three were later meted out small fines.

Wilson was parolled [sic] at 2:40 Monday by Judge Thomas Brahney “for attorney F. Klein.” Judge Edwin A. Babylon said he had no choice other than to dismiss the charge when Wilson failed to appear and since there was no place to look for him.

A flood of phone calls to the Louisiana Weekly on Monday, all voiced the opinion that it was a white police officer that provoked the misunderstanding that wound up in a near riot. These “eyewitnesses” said Larry Williams was pushed by the white officer and this led to bedlam.

In court Monday, Pichon who hollered about his civil rights was given a lecture on observing the civil rights of others.

The line “William Frazier and Johnny Jones, 28, no local address, both booked relative to refusing to move on” refers to Jackie’s valet, Bill Frazier, and JJ, Jackie’s boyhood friend who was at the time part of Jackie’s traveling entourage.

Little Rock Revisited (Three)

For several months I pondered what Eric Lenaburg had to tell me. Bits and pieces had to be wrong. He told me that Jesse Belvin had received death threats for the week before the concert. Belvin wasn’t in Little Rock for the week before the concert, so how did he receive these threats? In those days, entertainers on the road communicated by telephone or Western Union telegrams. To reach them, you had to know exactly where to find them.

Lenaburg also told me some story about Bill Clinton being close enough to the crash site to hear the noise. He claimed to have contacted Clinton’s office. I happened to have a friend whose college roommate grew up in Hope, Arkansas, with Clinton. She said that Bill’s family moved out of Hope that year.

And there was the billing Lenaburg insisted on, with Jackie, “Mr. Excitement,” going on before Jesse, “Mr. Easy.” Over time it seemed less and less likely to me. After all, if you only wanted a tamed-down Jackie Wilson on the bill, why not just get another entertainer, someone who would keep people quietly in their seats?

The little things became one big question mark about Lenaburg’s “investigations.”

First steps are important. After a while, Jesse Belvin Jr and I decided to see what we could find as a team, and my early research brought me to a quick conclusion that nothing Lenaburg said could be trusted.

I asked myself what the first step should be for anyone looking into these events, and then I took that first step: through Inter-Library Loan, I ordered microfilm of the local newspapers for the pertinent dates. Although Lenaburg insisted that he had made many trips to Little Rock over the years, he apparently did not bother to check the newspapers—or perhaps he just thought no one else would.  Looking for news stories about the accident, I also uncovered an advertisement for the concert itself. It was in the Friday, February 5, edition of the Arkansas Gazette, a morning paper at the time.

Ark Gazette 60.02.05 (Fri)Who would you say is at the top of this bill? And does this bill not promise more than three acts? Note that there is only one time listed for the show, so there is a possibility that the seating was integrated, but it is also quite possible that the seating was segregated within the venue.

Two entertainers from this bill, Bobby Freeman and Bobby Lewis, may still be living, but I have not been able to contact either of them. Still, I hold out hope of hearing from someone who can say for certain whether the seating was integrated or segregated. Perhaps  someone reading this now will have information on the important issue. One thing is clear from the advertisement: the concert was not a dance concert. Robinson Auditorium would not have accommodated that activity.

Another thing is significant: the Little Rock, Hope, and Texarkana newspapers I scoured had no information about the concert itself and no mention of any altercation. All the information was about the collision and the results of the accident.

Could the newspapers have suppressed information about the entertainers having been run out of town?

Not likely. Three years earlier, Little Rock had been the focus of national attention for racial confrontations over the integration of Central High School. As a national focal point on racial conflict, I doubt such a story could be hidden. Also, I found (online) a court document from a lawsuit filed against Twin City Amusement Co. (the ticket agent listed on this ad). The suit resulted from a racially-charged incident that occurred in a parking lot after one of their concerts, a concert that took place only a year after the one Jackie headlined. Race was everyday news in Little Rock. In short, I think it’s unlikely that the papers would refrain from reporting on performers having been run out of town by an angry mob.

Anyway, the “run out of town” scenario relied on the concert not taking place. And it did.

Jesse Belvin’s cousin. Jesse Belvin Jr kept urging me to call his cousin—actually his father’s first cousin—a man who lived in Texarkana then and who lives there now, a man who was the last member of the family to see Jesse Sr alive.

I am not going to identify the cousin by name. I asked him if I could write what he told me, and that was fine with him, but when I asked if he would read it online, just to see if I got everything right, he said he did not have a computer and did not know how to use one. I figure that if he has gotten to age seventy-two without the Internet, it’s not fair to drag him onto it now, so I will just call him Billy.

Jesse Belvin’s mother came from the Texarkana area, and prior to the Little Rock and Dallas concerts on Jesse’s schedule, Jesse and Jo Ann set aside a week to visit with family. Among those family members was Billy, a young man who loved cars and was immediately taken with the vehicle Jesse pulled into his driveway: a 1959 “aqua-colored” Cadillac Sedan de Ville. To his surprise and delight, Jesse tossed him the keys and told him to take it for a spin. (You may want to check out a twin of the vehicle on YouTube.)

Billy was one of the most charming people I have ever spoken with, and we talked about the music of the Fifties and Sixties, Jackie Wilson, and Sam Cooke, in addition to the events in Little Rock back in 1960. Billy told me that Jesse and Jo Ann stayed with the family about a week before going off somewhere in Texas for rehearsals. Everyone had a great time, and Jesse told Billy that he and  Jo Ann would stop back in Texarkana again for a day or so in between a couple concert dates and driving back to Los Angeles.

Instead, Billy would see Jo Ann unconscious in a hospital bed and identify Jesse’s body in a morgue.

Kirk Davis. I spoke to Billy prior to receiving the microfilm of the newspapers, so I was unaware at that point that there had been a fourth person in the Belvin vehicle. In addition to the driver, Charles Ford, and Jesse and Jo Ann, all of whom rode in the front seat of the car, there was a guitarist named Kirk Davis in the back seat, possibly asleep at the moment of the crash. Davis survived the wreck and was hospitalized in Texarkana for many weeks after the accident. Kirk was far from his wife and home in Detroit, and Billy visited him regularly through his weeks of hospitalization. When Kirk was finally released from the hospital, he stayed at Billy’s house until his wife could drive down from Detroit to take him home.

Kirk’s injuries were severe (indeed one newspaper account said there was little hope for his recovery), and he was somewhat disfigured by his injuries. Once he regained consciousness, he endured a great deal of pain. Out of consideration for the ordeal Kirk had been through, Billy did his best to steer their conversations away of the accident and its aftermath, but Kirk did tell Billy that he had secured the gig as Jesse’s guitarist through his union, and he said that he had been very eager to work with Jesse, who was a rising star. Kirk also spoke of the concert itself, and he did not mention anything amiss or unusual about the date. The concert definitely took place.

Little Rock Revisited (Two)

After Jesse and Jo Ann Belvin died, their two small sons were reared by Jesse’s mother. The older son, Jesse Jr, was less than five years old at the time. As I have said in an earlier post, he has lived his life in hopes of separating rumor and fact about his parents’ deaths. Jesse Jr is also a singer. We became acquainted at first after I commented on his vocal uploads on YouTube and he told me that his grandmother spoke of Jackie Wilson as a great friend of his parents.

Jackie’s phone call. According to what Jesse Jr was told growing up, the first indication his Los Angeles-based family got that something had gone wrong was a telephone call from Jackie Wilson. Jackie had reached Dallas, the next stop on the tour, but Jesse and Jo Ann had not arrived. He stated that he had had car problems, that he thought someone had messed with his tires, and that as a result had gotten to Dallas late. Even though Jackie had left Little Rock before Jesse and Jo Ann, they should have arrived in Dallas before him, he felt, and he wanted to know if they had called home.

This call does not fit the scenario of “all those on the bill being run out of Little Rock at gunpoint.” It is too much of a stretch to believe that Jackie would make this call and yet not divulge anything about so dramatic an experience.

The “run out of town” urban legend. In all likelihood, The Los Angeles Sentinel is the source of the story that the performers on the bill were run out of Little Rock. Jesse and Jo Ann both grew up in Los Angeles, and Jesse had been a fixture on the LA music scene for years before he became a national success. Consequently, the Sentinel covered the deaths and the funeral and ran several other related stories.

On February 18, less than two weeks after the concert and crash, the Sentinel ran an article headlined “Slashed Tires On Belvin’s Auto Probed.” The story began with these two paragraphs:

A pressing investigation got underway this week to probe reports that tires on singer Jesse Belvin’s car had been willfully slashed hours prior to the fatal accident that claimed the life of the singer, his wife, and three others [their driver and the two occupants of the other vehicle] Feb. 5.

Investigators said it has be definitely established that tires on the cars of entertainers Jackie Wilson and Arthur Prysock, who were also en route to Dallas from Little Rock, were slashed, [sic] before the trio left the city.

The article continues with what appears to be an accurate description of the vehicles owned by the three artists−one that conflicts with information in Etta James’s book, by the way—and states clearly that the concert was a segregated “dance” concert of the sort that was common at the time: one show for a Black audience and one for a white audience.  The article states that Jackie Wilson played for the Black audience, but “the bandleader” refused to play for the white audience because it “failed to appear on time.”

Huh? How does an audience fail to appear on time? Performers can fail to appear on time, but how does a whole audience get the time wrong? We should also note that a segregated dance concert does not fit at all with Lenaburg’s contention that this is the first integrated concert (not dance concert, just concert) in Little Rock’s history.

Another thing about the Sentinel story that I found troubling was the absence of any quotations from either Jackie Wilson or Arthur Prysock. Either or both could have been reached by telephone. Why is there no first-person account from anyone present at the concert that night? If what the Sentinel printed was true, why does the article not specify the source of the information?

Slashed tires. Finally, of course, there is the problem of how “slashed tires” left the performers with functional vehicles. If the tires had to be replaced before the entertainers could leave, how would that fact align with being run out of town? And if the tires were replaced on the Belvins’ automobile, what would “slashed tires” have to do with the collision that took five lives?

In fact, the concert was not a “dance concert” but a standard concert. It took place in an auditorium, and it began at 7:00 pm on Friday, April 5, 1960. The crash that took Jesse Belvin’s life and the lives of four others took place on Highway 67, well beyond the town of Hope, at around 6:00 am the next morning.

Eric Lenaburg’s account. At this point I will turn to the story according to Eric Lenaburg, who contacted me after reading my original posts about the Little Rock concert and the car crash. He provided two email addresses and a telephone number and encouraged me let him know if I heard from anyone else with information beyond what he knew about the events. He also provided me with a summary of what his “years of investigation” had uncovered.

The concert, he assured me, was the first concert ever performed in Little Rock in front of an integrated audience. Jesse Belvin, he told me, was the headliner, and Jackie Wilson and Arthur Prysock were the only other acts on the bill. How, I wanted to know, did Jackie end up second on the bill. Eric insisted that Jesse was the bigger star, and I told him that idea was ridiculous. However, Jackie’s performances were incendiary, and I said (on this blog) that if Eric was correct about the billing, it might have been arranged as a form of “crowd control.” Jesse Belvin, freshly signed to RCA Victor, was to be marketed thereafter as a balladeer. If concert promoters wanted to avoid any overly exuberant behavior on the part of the audience, perhaps it was deemed best to have “Mr. Excitement” followed by “Mr. Easy.”

I was uneasy about much of what Lenaburg had to say, but I took him at his word and believed he had done the investigative work he described. Yes, I bellieved him for many months, actually. Then Jesse Belvin Jr and I set out to test Mr. Lenaburg’s findings. In the end, I don’t accept anything from Lenaburg, and you shall read why in the next installment.

Little Rock Revisited (One)

One of the first posts in this blog dealt with the deaths of Jesse Belvin, Jo Ann Belvin (Jesse’s wife and manager), and the driver of their car, Charles Ford, who were involved in a two-car collision near Hope, Arkansas, on February 6, 1960. Jesse and Charles died in the collision, and Jo Ann succumbed to her injuries the following week. The Belvins were friends of Jackie Wilson, who appeared on the same concert bill with Jesse the night before in Little Rock and figured in the various accounts of the concert and its aftermath.

Theories on the Internet. Many people believed that the Belvin vehicle had been sabotaged, and at the time I started this blog, I knew that a variety of stories about the concert itself, the Belvins, and Jackie Wilson were available on the Internet.

A popular version of what happened that night in Little Rock had Jackie Wilson refusing to perform to a white audience, leading to everyone on the bill being run out of town ahead of an angry mob. In this version, while the performers argued with police and promoters inside the venue, racists outside the venue tampered with cars belonging to Arthur Prysock, Jesse Belvin, and Jackie Wilson, causing the Belvin crash as well as damage to the Prysock and Wilson vehicles.

A second version of the Little Rock concert and subsequent auto crash was advanced by a man named Eric Lenaburg, who described himself as an investigative journalist who had been working on the story on and off for decades. This man insisted that there was foul play, that Jesse Belvin’s life had been threatened during the week running up to the concert, and that the concert was the first integrated-audience concert in Little Rock history.

The Etta James account. As I began to follow up on these stories, I had in mind a passage from the Etta James as-told-to biography, Rage to Survive.* Jackie and Etta were friends, and he is mentioned frequently in the book, often coming to Etta’s rescue when she was in difficult straits. Etta claims to have gotten her information on the automobile crash from Jackie, meaning she would have been recalling something from at least two decades earlier. She says that the driver of Jesse Belvin’s car caused the accident by being asleep at the wheel. One paragraph of her account described the accident itself:

Musicians in the car behind Jesse’s told me of this horrible glow they saw up ahead, this red glare that lit the sky where the two cars collided. Charles was killed instantly. And so was Jesse. Jesse had his arm around Jo Ann–they were both asleep–but was so quick that on impact he grabbed her head and shoved it beneath the car radio. The collision was so powerful that when they opened the door they saw that Jesse Belvin, whose head had gone through the windshield, was nearly decapitated. His nose was separated from his mouth. His clothes were in shreds, like a scarecrow. They rushed the bodies to a hospital. Knowing Charles and Jesse were dead, their main concern was for Jo Ann. But the hospital, run by white doctors, wanted to know who was paying. No one had enough money. Jo Ann was left unattended with a crushed pelvis, a crushed chest, a broken arm. She was left in a coma until they could reach Jackie Wilson in Dallas. Jackie drove back to Arkansas to pay the doctors. It turned out that the town, Hope, Arkansas, birthplace of Bill Clinton, was also the birthplace of Jesse Belvin. Jesse died three miles from the house where he was born.

The part of the story about Jackie having to go back to pay the hospital had a familiar ring. There are many stories about hospitals in the South in that era refusing to treat African Americans, and no doubt some of them are true. Unfortunately, many of these stories are not true. For example, the family of Dr. Charles Drew, the brilliant surgeon who developed the system for plasma donation and transfusion, spent years refuting the rumor that Drew was refused medical treatment after an automobile accident in North Carolina in 1950. Recognizing this meme, I was skeptical on that point.

Another paragraph from this book, one describing the funeral, also did not seem quite likely. According to Tony Douglas, Jackie did not attend his own father’s funeral nor his son’s funeral. If he had an aversion to funerals, would he have been likely to sing at Jesse and Jo Ann’s?

I traveled from Chicago to the funeral in Los Angeles. It took them three days to sew Jesse together. The open caskets were devastating. To see two beautiful young people dead, a man and a wife, head to head in matching caskets—man, that was more than we could take. None of us could contain ourselves. Jackie Wilson sang, but he was so broke up he could barely make a sound. We all know Jesse was the next superstar. He’d just gotten the big break with RCA, just gotten started, just . . .

Each account had points I that did not seem likely. In the “riot” account, I could not see why Jackie Wilson would refuse to play for the white audience. African American entertainers played for white audiences routinely. Not playing would mean no one would get paid. Lenaburg’s version was interesting, but it rested entirely on his investigative skills, and I could find no other work by this reporter.

When I started writing the blog a year and a half ago, I hoped readers might be able to help me sort out the facts about these events. I did find help and some answers, but one person tried to lead me to false conclusions. At this point I am still looking for information, but I have learned a great deal with the help of a university librarian, Jesse Belvin Jr, and some of his family members. The next few posts will cover what I have learned.

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* James, Etta, and David Ritz. Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story. DaCapo Press, 1998