Brown-eyed handsome men (Part One)

Jackie Wilson was a “brown-eyed handsome man.” So were two of his good friends, Sam Cooke and Jesse Belvin. Owing to the nature of American racism in the 1950s and 1960s, especially in the southern states, brown-eyed handsome men in show business were at risk for harassment and bodily harm.

JW in concert with fan

Jackie Wilson in concert singing to an attentive fan

American racism has mutated decade by decade since World War II, manifesting itself differently over time. Most historians date the African American Civil Rights Movement from the mutilation/murder of Emmett Till in 1955 to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr in 1968. During these most turbulent and dangerous times, Jackie Wilson and his friends Sam Cooke and Jesse Belvin reached the peaks of their careers, and Sam Cooke and Jesse Belvin met their untimely deaths.

Each of these men was making every possible effort to have his music “cross over” to white audiences, the people in America who had the money to buy the 45 rpm records rated on the Billboard Hot 100. By 1960, teenagers were a major segment of the record-buying public, and teenaged girls were the target market. The conventional wisdom was that boys spent their money maintaining their cars and paying for movies and burgers on dates while girls spent their money on clothes and records.

Simultaneously, racists in the southern states were engaged in often violent efforts to discourage and retaliate against “race mixing” in public accommodations and schools. This resistance to integration in schools, restaurants, hotels, and entertainment venues was maintained to prevent the ultimate mixing of races, sexual intercourse between a white person and a Black person. Most abhorrent to these racists was the prospect of a Black male in intimate relations with a white female. This was The Great Taboo.

The Great Taboo and the potential for violence. Many of these racists considered rock and roll itself a danger. Asa Carter, head of the North Alabama Citizens Council, led a campaign to induce establishments with jukeboxes to purge recordings by Black artists. The April 18, 1956 issue of Time quotes Carter: “Rock and roll music is the basic, heavy-beat music of Negroes. It appeals to the base in man, brings out animalism and vulgarity.”

Some of Carter’s associates in the Ku Klux Klan of the Confederacy (one of many different organizations to use the KKK label) were averse even to the mild-mannered Nat “King” Cole singing  love songs before an audience that included white women. They charged the stage and assaulted Cole at a 1956 performance in Birmingham, Alabama. Cole suffered a back injury during the beating and never again performed in southern states.

Can you imagine how enraged such men would be at the thought that a white girl might take the place of the Black girl pictured above at a Jackie Wilson concert?

The rage racist white males felt at the thought of “their” women finding Black men attractive was a risk Jackie Wilson faced on every tour (see Bruised . . . and beaten?). That same rage may have been the root cause of Jesse Belvin’s death, which occurred after a concert Jackie and Jesse performed in Little Rock, Arkansas (see What happened in Arkansas?). The Little Rock concert was the first in that city to be performed to an integrated audience.

Chuck Berry’s song. The phrase brown-eyed handsome man, code for “irresistibly sexy Black man,” is the title of a brilliant song written by Chuck Berry. He recorded it in April 1956, and his record company released it as the flip side of “Too Much Monkey Business” in September of the same year. The lyrics touched on a range of stereotypes about Black men, including their athletic prowess and their likelihood of being arrested for things that were not and should not be crimes; however, the central focus of the song was how much a woman would do or endure to win or protect a brown-eyed handsome man.

Brown-Eyed Handsome Man
(Words and music by Chuck Berry)

Arrested on charges of unemployment
He was sittin’ in the witness stand
The judge’s wife told the district attorney
She said, “Free that brown-eyed man
If you want your job, you’d better free that brown-eyed man”

Flyn’ across the desert in a TWA,
I saw a woman walking ‘cross the sand
She been walkin’ thirty miles en route to Bombay
To meet a brown-eyed handsome man
Her destination was a brown-eyed handsome man

Way back in history three thousand years
In fact, ever since the world began
There’s been a whole lotta good women sheddin’ tears
For a brown eyed-handsome man
A lot of trouble with a brown-eyed handsome man

Dutiful daughter couldn’t make up her mind
Between a doctor and a lawyer man
Her mother told her “Darling, go out and find
Yourself a brown-eyed handsome man
Just like your daddy, he’s a brown-eyed handsome man”

Marlo Venus was a beautiful lass
She had the world in the palm of her hand
She lost both her arms in a rasselin’ match
To meet a brown-eyed handsome man
She fought an’ won herself a brown-eyed handsome man

Two, three, the count with nobody on
He hit a high fly into the stand
Rounded third, he was headed for home
It was a brown-eyed handsome man
That won the game, it was a brown-eyed handsome man

Coded lyrics. This song, by the way, was later recorded by many artists in addition to Chuck Berry, among them Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash. Chuck Berry’s version is a subject of discussion on The Million Dollar Quartet tapes, where Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis can be heard trying to sing it and failing to get the lyrics straight. These tapes were recorded in November 1956, roughly two months after the record’s release, and the group’s interest in the song is worth noting—especially since it was a B-side that had become a hit only on the rhythm and blues (or “race”) charts.

All these artists understood the coded message of the song. Although it was not the only use of race in a pop song of that era, Berry’s song was an exceptionally daring combination of sexual and racial references. Note the comic reference to the Venus de Milo. All women, even ancient Greek women, fell under the spell of the brown-eyed handsome man. This was a song that encompassed what racists feared most, and it dealt lightly with the topic that was not supposed to be publicly discussed. Furthermore, the record had been released barely one year after the gruesome mutilation/murder of Emmett Till, the event in the national consciousness most associated with The Great Taboo.

Emmett Till. For those of you who do not know this sickening event in American history, here are the basic facts. Emmett Till was a Chicago teenager visiting relatives in the small southern town of Money, Mississippi when, apparently because his companions dared him to do so, he flirtatiously whistled at a twenty-one-year-old white woman who was the proprietor of the store Emmett and his friends were leaving.

The fact that he and the other boys were leaving the store, plus the difference in age between Emmett, who had turned fourteen only the month before, and the woman, who must have seemed an old crone to the youths, would be enough to convince any intelligent person that Emmett was not attempting a serious advance on the woman.

Days later, the woman’s husband and his brother seized Emmett from his uncle’s home and took him to another location. They knocked out his teeth, smashed his nose, gouged out one of his eyes, shot him in the head, weighted down his body, and dumped him in the Tallahatchie River.

Emmett Till

Emmett Till

I was eight when Emmett Till was murdered. My parents were among the first working-class people we knew to invest in a television, which they valued for information as much as entertainment. They tuned in the early evening news every night, and although the news was not a “show” I liked, I sensed it was something important and watched it faithfully with my big sister and parents. I didn’t comprehend the significance of the news stories, but I learned to recognize the faces of famous people.

Emmett Till became one of the most famous people in America. The picture of him shown on broadcasts had been taken the Christmas before his death. He was thirteen in the photo, but he looked younger—baby-faced, innocent, as lovely a child as had ever lived. The story mystified and frightened me.

By the time I went to college in 1965, The Great Taboo was a joke for most people in the northern states, but in the southern states change came about more slowly. Anti-miscegenation laws remained in some states until 1967, and when the laws went away, the attitudes did not always go away with them.

Free that brown-eyed man! When Jackie Wilson and his drummer were arrested in a southern state on what was termed “morals charges” in 1968, the “crime” was that two Black males were in a hotel room with two white females. The youngest person in the room was twenty-four and all parties were present of their own consent. All together, now, let’s sing:

Arrested on charges of unemployment
He was sittin’ in the witness stand . . . 

The nuisance arrest amounted to little in legal terms, but the resultant bad publicity helped propel Jackie into his marriage to Harlean Harris, an event which in turn set up the tragedy of his final years. (See Jackie Wilson Biography.)

To be continued . . .

4 thoughts on “Brown-eyed handsome men (Part One)

  1. stefmagura

    I once read that if you change every instance of the word “eye” in this song, that it is: unmistakable what the song is about and a subversive song to boot. Now I wish I could remember where I read it.

    Reply
    1. jackiewilsonlover Post author

      I am assuming the change you mention is from “brown-eyed” to “brown-skinned,” but believe me, all of us who were around when the song was released knew that the eye color was code for the skin color.

      Reply
    1. jackiewilsonlover Post author

      Thank you, and thanks for leaving a comment. I would love for the site to be more interactive.

      “Lonely Teardrops” made me fall in love with Jackie Wilson’s voice. Even as a child, I was amazed by the combination of power and passion, how he could make those marvelous wailing pleas but still sound so unmistakably masculine. His singing is so perfect but so human that it almost seems as though you can reach out and grasp Jackie’s hand, even after all these years.

      I just don’t want this extraordinary artist lost to the future or maligned any further. The posters over at YouTube are doing a great job keeping his music available, but context is important to appreciating an artist.

      Jackie Wilson achieved greatness against enormous odds. He was oppressed by poverty, racism, exploitation, and betrayal in his life, and both his image and work have suffered from abuse after his death. I cannot do much as one old lady writing a blog, but I will do all I can to help new fans understand his struggles and achievements.

      Reply

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