Little Rock Revisited (Three)

For several months I pondered what Eric Lenaburg had to tell me. Bits and pieces had to be wrong. He told me that Jesse Belvin had received death threats for the week before the concert. Belvin wasn’t in Little Rock for the week before the concert, so how did he receive these threats? In those days, entertainers on the road communicated by telephone or Western Union telegrams. To reach them, you had to know exactly where to find them.

Lenaburg also told me some story about Bill Clinton being close enough to the crash site to hear the noise. He claimed to have contacted Clinton’s office. I happened to have a friend whose college roommate grew up in Hope, Arkansas, with Clinton. She said that Bill’s family moved out of Hope that year.

And there was the billing Lenaburg insisted on, with Jackie, “Mr. Excitement,” going on before Jesse, “Mr. Easy.” Over time it seemed less and less likely to me. After all, if you only wanted a tamed-down Jackie Wilson on the bill, why not just get another entertainer, someone who would keep people quietly in their seats?

The little things became one big question mark about Lenaburg’s “investigations.”

First steps are important. After a while, Jesse Belvin Jr and I decided to see what we could find as a team, and my early research brought me to a quick conclusion that nothing Lenaburg said could be trusted.

I asked myself what the first step should be for anyone looking into these events, and then I took that first step: through Inter-Library Loan, I ordered microfilm of the local newspapers for the pertinent dates. Although Lenaburg insisted that he had made many trips to Little Rock over the years, he apparently did not bother to check the newspapers—or perhaps he just thought no one else would.  Looking for news stories about the accident, I also uncovered an advertisement for the concert itself. It was in the Friday, February 5, edition of the Arkansas Gazette, a morning paper at the time.

Ark Gazette 60.02.05 (Fri)Who would you say is at the top of this bill? And does this bill not promise more than three acts? Note that there is only one time listed for the show, so there is a possibility that the seating was integrated, but it is also quite possible that the seating was segregated within the venue.

Two entertainers from this bill, Bobby Freeman and Bobby Lewis, may still be living, but I have not been able to contact either of them. Still, I hold out hope of hearing from someone who can say for certain whether the seating was integrated or segregated. Perhaps  someone reading this now will have information on the important issue. One thing is clear from the advertisement: the concert was not a dance concert. Robinson Auditorium would not have accommodated that activity.

Another thing is significant: the Little Rock, Hope, and Texarkana newspapers I scoured had no information about the concert itself and no mention of any altercation. All the information was about the collision and the results of the accident.

Could the newspapers have suppressed information about the entertainers having been run out of town?

Not likely. Three years earlier, Little Rock had been the focus of national attention for racial confrontations over the integration of Central High School. As a national focal point on racial conflict, I doubt such a story could be hidden. Also, I found (online) a court document from a lawsuit filed against Twin City Amusement Co. (the ticket agent listed on this ad). The suit resulted from a racially-charged incident that occurred in a parking lot after one of their concerts, a concert that took place only a year after the one Jackie headlined. Race was everyday news in Little Rock. In short, I think it’s unlikely that the papers would refrain from reporting on performers having been run out of town by an angry mob.

Anyway, the “run out of town” scenario relied on the concert not taking place. And it did.

Jesse Belvin’s cousin. Jesse Belvin Jr kept urging me to call his cousin—actually his father’s first cousin—a man who lived in Texarkana then and who lives there now, a man who was the last member of the family to see Jesse Sr alive.

I am not going to identify the cousin by name. I asked him if I could write what he told me, and that was fine with him, but when I asked if he would read it online, just to see if I got everything right, he said he did not have a computer and did not know how to use one. I figure that if he has gotten to age seventy-two without the Internet, it’s not fair to drag him onto it now, so I will just call him Billy.

Jesse Belvin’s mother came from the Texarkana area, and prior to the Little Rock and Dallas concerts on Jesse’s schedule, Jesse and Jo Ann set aside a week to visit with family. Among those family members was Billy, a young man who loved cars and was immediately taken with the vehicle Jesse pulled into his driveway: a 1959 “aqua-colored” Cadillac Sedan de Ville. To his surprise and delight, Jesse tossed him the keys and told him to take it for a spin. (You may want to check out a twin of the vehicle on YouTube.)

Billy was one of the most charming people I have ever spoken with, and we talked about the music of the Fifties and Sixties, Jackie Wilson, and Sam Cooke, in addition to the events in Little Rock back in 1960. Billy told me that Jesse and Jo Ann stayed with the family about a week before going off somewhere in Texas for rehearsals. Everyone had a great time, and Jesse told Billy that he and  Jo Ann would stop back in Texarkana again for a day or so in between a couple concert dates and driving back to Los Angeles.

Instead, Billy would see Jo Ann unconscious in a hospital bed and identify Jesse’s body in a morgue.

Kirk Davis. I spoke to Billy prior to receiving the microfilm of the newspapers, so I was unaware at that point that there had been a fourth person in the Belvin vehicle. In addition to the driver, Charles Ford, and Jesse and Jo Ann, all of whom rode in the front seat of the car, there was a guitarist named Kirk Davis in the back seat, possibly asleep at the moment of the crash. Davis survived the wreck and was hospitalized in Texarkana for many weeks after the accident. Kirk was far from his wife and home in Detroit, and Billy visited him regularly through his weeks of hospitalization. When Kirk was finally released from the hospital, he stayed at Billy’s house until his wife could drive down from Detroit to take him home.

Kirk’s injuries were severe (indeed one newspaper account said there was little hope for his recovery), and he was somewhat disfigured by his injuries. Once he regained consciousness, he endured a great deal of pain. Out of consideration for the ordeal Kirk had been through, Billy did his best to steer their conversations away from the accident and its aftermath, but Kirk did tell Billy that he had secured the gig as Jesse’s guitarist through his union, and he said that he had been very eager to work with Jesse, because Jesse was a rising star. Kirk also spoke of the concert itself, and he did not mention anything amiss or unusual about the performance.

The concert definitely took place.

3 thoughts on “Little Rock Revisited (Three)

  1. echoesoftheozarks

    Thank you for this series on Jesse Belvin. I’m a writer in Arkansas and long wondered if Belvin’s death was a result of foul play. You did a nice job of clearing up rumors and misconceptions. Perusing old newspapers via different archives, I’m convinced the rumor of foul play started in Los Angeles (as newspaper articles at the time suggest); not Arkansas.

    Reply

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