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.

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