What happened in Arkansas?

One of the first posts in this blog was about the deaths of singer Jesse Belvin, his wife, Jo Ann, and their driver in a car crash after a concert in Little Rock. Jesse Belvin, only twenty-seven at the time, was handsome, talented, and on the verge of major stardom. He had already written hit records like “Earth Angel” for the Penguins, and he himself had a major hit a year earlier with “Guess Who,” a ballad he and Jo Ann wrote together.

First post on Belvin. The original post introduced you to Jesse Belvin’s beautiful voice. Please check it out if you have not listened to him before. Like Jackie Wilson, Belvin did some of his best work with a full orchestra backing him. Not only did he have a great voice, but he was also a great interpreter of songs, especially love songs.

That post also recounted some of the questions that have bothered me over the years since Belvin’s death—questions about the concert, the widely different reports of it, Jackie Wilson’s involvement in the events, and the account Etta James gave in her autobiography, Rage to Survive.

Until I read the Etta James account, I suspected, as many others had, that foul play was involved in the deaths that night. I had read that the tires of the Belvin vehicle had been cut and that Jackie Wilson’s car, which left Little Rock before the Belvins departed, suffered flats on the way to Dallas that may have been caused by cuts. But James, who loved her friend Jesse Belvin dearly, seemed to put rumors to rest by stating unequivocally that the driver caused the crash by falling asleep. Still, I think many of us wonder what really happened.

Jesse Belvin Jr. Jesse Belvin’s son and namesake is also a singer. I particularly enjoy his rendition of “Fever.” Over on YouTube, I commented on a video of the recording the singer had posted, and he thanked me, adding that he liked my screen name, JackieWilsonLover, and telling me that Jackie Wilson had been a very dear friend to his father.

This thoughtful little statement made a deep impression on me. Yes, I reflected, I have wondered for many years what happened after the concert that night, but I am just a music fan. What must it have been like for the five-year-old boy that Jesse and Jo Ann left behind, growing to manhood in a racist society, wondering what really happened to his beautiful parents? I pray the day comes when Jesse Belvin Jr can have answers to the many questions he must have.

I have been able to find answers to one or two of my questions, but even as some of my questions are answered, the most important ones are still there. Most of all, I wish that Jesse Belvin Jr could know more about what happened that night more than fifty years ago.

Little Rock and racism. A little more detail may be helpful here, particularly for readers who are not from the United States. At the beginning of the 1957 school year, Little Rock, a small town but the capital city of the state of Arkansas, was one of the best known cities in America.

Why? The governor of Arkansas, a man named Orville Faubus, stood in front of the doors of Central High School to bar African American students from entering the building. This was in direct defiance of a court order to enroll these students.

Prior to this time in the southern United States, white students went to school only with other white students, while African American students, at that time called Negroes, attended their “own” very inferior schools. All the schools were public schools financed with tax dollars. The local governments that ran the schools kept the schools segregated until federal courts ordered integration.

This Arkansas “school desegregation case” is one of the best-known stories in the history of the American Civil Rights movement. It transformed Little Rock into a symbol of racism. In fact, for most Americans, racism remained the primary association with the state of Arkansas until Bill Clinton ran for President more than thirty years later.

Concert. The event at which Jesse Belvin last sang took place February 6, 1960. Jackie Wilson and Arthur Prysock also appeared that night for what was to be the first rock concert performed in front of an integrated audience—not the two separate, segregated “dance concerts” that were mentioned in some accounts.

Because Jackie Wilson did appear at the concert, the old story that he refused to perform for a white audience is false.

Car crash. The automobile in which the Belvins left Little Rock crashed on the highway passing the nearby town of Hope, which years later became famous as the hometown of Bill Clinton. Indeed, in his first presidential campaign, Bill Clinton was dubbed “The Man From Hope.”

Local newspapers reported that the Belvin vehicle collided head-on with a car carrying two white people who, like Jesse Belvin and his driver, died at the scene of the crash. Jo Ann Belvin was taken to a hospital where she soon succumbed to her massive injuries.

Did you see the concert? If you attended the concert that night, please share what you remember of the evening. Anything remembered about the concert itself, even down to what the performers sang or did as part of their stage acts, whether they signed autographs, or how the audience reacted to their performances, helps complete the picture of that night. All his life, Jesse Belvin Jr has tried to learn as much as possible about the events surrounding the deaths of his parents. If describing what you saw and heard that night serves no other purpose, it is a way to let Jesse Belvin Jr know there are people who care about what happened to his parents—and people who care about him, a man whose lifelong memories of his mother and father must always be bittersweet.

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