Brown-eyed handsome men (Part Two)

Note: In the months since I posted this article, I have been discussing the Little Rock concert with Jesse Belvin Jr and others, sharing information and contacts. Having found significant errors in the reporting done by Eric Lenaburg, I no longer have faith in any of the information he provided. (For example, I have discovered that Jackie Wilson was indeed, as one would have expected, the headliner for the event.) As my own research progresses, I may revise or delete this article. As of now, I caution readers against accepting Lenaburg’s assertions, including even the assertion that the concert’s audience was integrated. I have now changed the font of these portions of the article to “strikethrough.” Needless to add, the questions I posed at the article’s conclusion are now more complicated.

In Part One of this posting, I mentioned that “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” was not the only popular song to reflect the realities of race in America during 1955-1968, the years of the African American Civil Rights Movement.

In July 1958, Anthony Gourdine charted the first hit of many he made with his group, Little Anthony and the Imperials. The A-side, “Tears on My Pillow,” became the group’s signature tune; however, the B-side, written by the group’s own Ernest Wright, got ample play and became a performance staple for the group. “Two People in the World” has very few words, but its point cannot be missed or misinterpreted: The voice is male and Black. The Great Taboo was on the turntables again.

Little Anthony and the Imperials circa 2011

[Note: I could not find a YouTube posting of the original B-side version, but there is a wonderful alternate version here and an utterly spectacular live a cappella performance by the group which must have occurred sometime after 2010, given the lineup. Ernest Wright (second from the left) and Anthony would be close to seventy years old. If you are young and do not already know why so many of us old people love doo wop and revere its singers, either of these performances should provide all the necessary explanation.]

There are just two kinds of people in the world
Why can’t we fall in love?
There are just two kinds of people in the world
They are a boy and girl

Little Anthony and the Imperials hailed from New York City, of course, but the tune I want to direct attention to next was recorded in the state of Texas by southern white guys.

Running Bear and Little White Dove. You can find numerous postings of the Johnny Preston recording of “Running Bear” on YouTube, and I will let you take your pick of them. Although many of the videos “illustrate” the song, the fascinating thing is that not one of these renderings alludes to the song’s actual subject matter. Maybe the creators of these videos are too young to know the song’s context.

When this song was No. 1 in the nation, none of us listening to it thought the lovers were Native Americans. Little White Dove was white and Running Bear was Black, and the river in which they drowned was racism. The river had no bridge, so young love perished.

[Update: There is now a YouTube post of Johnny Preston doing a lip sync of the song on Dick Clark’s Beechnut gum show.]

Running Bear
(Words and music by J P Richardson)

On the bank of the river
Stood Running Bear
Young Indian brave
On the other side of the river
Stood his lovely Indian maid
Little White Dove was-a her name
Such a lovely sight to see
But their tribes fought with each other
So their love could never be

Running Bear loved Little White Dove
With a love big as the sky
Running Bear loved Little White Dove
With a love that couldn’t die

He couldn’t swim the raging river
‘Cause the river was too wide
He couldn’t reach the Little White Dove
Waiting on the other side
In the moonlight he could see her
Blowing kisses ‘cross the waves
Her little heart was beating faster
Waiting there for her brave

Running Bear loved Little White Dove
With a love big as the sky
Running Bear loved Little White Dove
With a love that couldn’t die

Running Bear dove in the water
Little White Dove did the same
And they swam out to each other
Through the swirling stream they came
As their heads touched and their lips met
The raging river pulled them down
Now they’ll always be together
In that happy hunting ground

Running Bear loved Little White Dove
With a love big as the sky
Running Bear loved Little White Dove
With a love that couldn’t die

J P Richarson aka The Big Bopper

J P Richarson aka The Big Bopper

“Running Bear” was written by J P Richardson, who was better known as The Big Bopper and, unfortunately, was best known for dying in the same plane crash as Buddy Holly. In life Richardson was a talented and sensitive young man who had become a disc jockey, a performer, and a songwriter before his death at age twenty-nine. He gave this simple but potent song to his friend Johnny Preston, who eventually had a monster hit from it. Among the voices chanting in the background of the recording are country music legend George Jones and The Big Bopper himself. Richardson, Holly, and Ritchie Valens died on February 3, 1959. Although “Running Bear” was recorded in 1958, it was not released until August 1959, and after a slow start it ended up No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for three weeks in January 1960.

Back to Little Rock. Immediately after “Running Bear” peaked on the charts, the first-ever rock concert performed by Black entertainers to an integrated audience in Little Rock, Arkansas took place. According to investigative journalist Eric Lenaburg, when Jackie Wilson, Arthur Prysock, and Jesse Belvin took the stage the night of February 6, 1960, racists interrupted the show several times to walk through the audience and demand that white teenagers leave.

How many times do you think these same teenagers had listened to “Running Bear” and whispered about its coded lyrics in the weeks before the concert? How much do you think that song offended the racists who tried to make the young people leave?

Jesse Belvin, his wife, and their driver died as a result of a car crash after that concert. It is widely believed that someone tampered with their car, at least cutting the tires in a way that would encourage one or more blowouts once the vehicle was on the highway.

Jackie Wilson’s role in the concert. One fact Eric Lenaburg brought to light about the concert itself really startled me: Jesse Belvin, not Jackie Wilson, was the headliner. Why would a promoter have Mr. Excitement cede the stage to a balladeer? Jackie’s career was at its zenith. In the two years prior to this date, he had no fewer than six hits in the “Top Forty” (the AM deejay’s basic playlist) of the Billboard Hot 100, and two of those (“Lonely Teardrops” and “You Better Know It”) had reached #1 on Billboard’s Rhythm and Blues chart. No one was better suited to top the bill for an integrated audience. Furthermore, Jackie took pride in his stardom. Why would he agree to the lower billing?

The billing explained why Jackie Wilson was well on his way to Dallas when Jesse Belvin’s car crashed. If Jackie performed before Belvin did and was eager to leave Little Rock behind (as everyone performing that night probably was), he was free to leave earlier than Jesse and JoAnn.

But Mr. Excitement performing before Mr. Easy did not make sense . . . or did it? Jackie Wilson was a showstopper, the man promoters wanted doing the finale. That’s the reason he remained the headliner even in “oldies” revues for Murray the K and Dick Clark in the early 1970s.

Furthermore, most entertainers did not like taking the stage after Jackie. The most famous emcee of the era, Gorgeous George, said that even Sam Cooke hated to follow Jackie because Jackie’s performances left the women in a state of frenzy.

Recalling that anecdote about Sam Cooke jolted me into seeing the obvious regarding this particular concert: The last thing a promoter would want on that night was Jackie Wilson doing his Sleeping Stud variation on Sleeping Beauty (see Jackie at The Apollo) or feigning injury to induce women to run to his side to—uh—tend to his needs (see Teddy sees Jackie perform).

Of course, there could have been some humdrum reason for getting Jackie Wilson on and off the stage earlier in the show. Maybe he was nursing an injury and didn’t want to do his knee drops and back bend splits. But it would take a substantial injury for promoters to know far enough in advance that Jackie could not “go all out.”

It seems more likely that from the beginning, there was an understanding that Jackie would refrain from doing his usual provocative stage show. It also seems the event was carefully planned.

Jesse Belvin

Now I have more questions than ever about this concert. Who had the idea to put Jesse Belvin in the headliner role? Which artist was first booked for the concert? Was the decision to make Jesse the top of the bill made from the outset, or were plans changed at some point?

Why even risk having Jackie Wilson on the bill? True, Jackie had huge drawing power at the time, but if you wanted this experiment in integration to go smoothly, why not just book a tamer act?

And if the concert was planned carefully to forestall trouble, why were the performers’ cars left unprotected?

What did Jackie perform that night? Did he stick mainly to ballads in lieu of the rockers?

Jesse was to perform in Dallas, too, of course. What was the billing supposed to be at that venue? Did the tour promoters expect trouble at more than one location? Did the Dallas concert take place, or was it canceled?

How much did Jackie and Jesse know in advance about possible problems in Little Rock? How seriously did Jackie and Jesse take the potential for violence?

I hope someone who attended the Little Rock concert or the Dallas concert reads this and takes the time to get in touch. Even if you did not attend either, if you heard details from a source you consider reliable, perhaps a parent or grandparent who attended, what you know could help those of us interested in this event better understand what happened. I and others would really appreciate your efforts.

As I have said before, even memories of small details would be of interest most of all to Jesse Belvin Jr, who who lost his beautiful parents when he was only five years old.

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

  1. jackiesam

    Both Jesse Belvin and his son are very talented singers. I enjoyed those songs. I hope Jesse Belvin JR gets the answers to what really happened that night and some closure to the story. Something is off or out of line here, I agree. It seems like no coincidence that Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson’s deaths were shrouded with mystery as well. RIP all of you wonderfully talented superstars that died to young. We may not know exactly what happened but, we know we smell a rat. It was foul play and a cover up :(

  2. Genevee Swanagan

    Not sure where to reply. I knew you went out but with this blog you went all out. So many cool facts and knowledge. I’m glad you mentioned the Dominoes where my man kind of got his start too. My browser must be acting up because some pages kept slipping away but it gets better each time I log on. I love this blog and I will return. I just love the way you did this up. Totally professional appeal! :) Ms. Boomerang905

    1. jackiewilsonlover Post author

      Okay, don’t make me beg. How do you know? Did you see it on his dressing room table? When? Please, details, details! I never saw it in the stores when I was a looking at scents, but of course, Jackie would have seen much more in New York than I could locate in Ohio. As I said, don’t make me beg for details!


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