Jesse Belvin and Little Rock

Jesse Belvin, known as “Mr. Easy,” was a gifted singer and songwriter with a smooth delivery many likened to Nat Cole or Sam Cooke. I’d say much more like Cole, but you be the judge. Here is Jesse with the Marty Paich Orchestra, singing two very sexy numbers, Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me” and a luscious “Angel Eyes” by Earl Brent and Matt Dennis.

If you are unfamiliar with Belvin’s singing but liked this taste of it, treat yourself (and it will be a treat) by going to YouTube to listen to more postings of Belvin’s wonderful voice. Find Jesse’s lovely rendition of “Volare” and hear Jesse’s sumptuous voice accompanied by a full orchestra on a couple of standards: “Blues in the Night” and “It’s All Right with Me.” I’ve also hyperlinked two of Jesse’s hits in a paragraph below. The links should open in separate windows.

Belvin wrote or co-wrote (songwriting credits from this era can be deceptive) both “Earth Angel,” a hit by The Penguins, and the beautiful “Goodnight My Love,” a major hit for Jesse himself. Jo Ann Belvin, Jesse’s wife and manager, wrote the words to another big hit for Belvin,  “Guess Who,” which became Jesse’s signature song. Belvin was handsome, extremely talented, and on the road to major stardom when he met his untimely death at age twenty-seven.

Jesse grew up in southern California and attended the same high school as Etta James, who was his friend and a staunch advocate for him during his life and after his death. He was also a friend of Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson.

Jesse and Jo Ann Belvin were both killed as a result of a car crash that took place outside Hope, Arkansas, on February 6, 1960. Earlier on the night of the crash, Jesse had performed in Little Rock on a bill with Jackie Wilson and Arthur Prysock.

According to Etta James, Jesse and the driver of the car were killed in the crash itself, but Jo Ann survived long enough to be taken to a hospital, where treatment was withheld by hospital administrators until cash was presented. According to James, friends at the scene contacted Jackie Wilson in Dallas, who either returned to Arkansas with the necessary funds or in some other way provided the money. Jackie had left Little Rock earlier than the Belvins, who were among the last cars to depart the venue.

Jo Ann succumbed to her serious injuries, and Jesse and Jo Ann were laid to rest together after a double funeral at which, according to Etta James, Jackie sang as best he could through his tears.

There are conspiracy theories regarding the crash itself, based on accounts of slashed tires, but James apparently did not credit them because she does not mention them in her memoir. (Etta James rarely hesitated to say what she was thinking.)

There are two incompatible descriptions of the Little Rock concert that vary with sources. I have read accounts, at least one of them from a newspaper with primarily Black readership, that insist the event was a segregated, two-part dance concert with the Black audience accommodated first, followed by the white audience. In these accounts, Jackie Wilson refused to perform for the white audience and was ordered out of town by police or left town with a police escort.

Other accounts say this stop on the tour was a concert performance, although not just an ordinary concert performance, but the first integrated concert performance in Little Rock, and that the entire concert did take place. I have read descriptions of racists coming into the concert hall and attempting to intimidate white teenagers into leaving.

The record is not even straight on whether or not there was a second car involved in the crash. At least one newspaper account claimed that Belvin’s car struck a second vehicle and that two white people died in that car.

How such important details have remained so obscure over the five decades since that night suggests that there was and is something being hidden. When the facts aren’t at all controversial, they generally are set down fairly accurately and fairly quickly. In the case of the deaths of Jesse Belvin and those with him in his car, nothing is clear: Was the concert seating segregated or desegregated? Was Belvin’s Cadillac sabotaged? Was it a single-car crash or was it a two-car collision?

It still should be possible to answer some of these questions. There should be people still alive who attended or worked at the concert, and there should be reporters who remember the story. Why do they not speak up?

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