Category Archives: Etta James

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.

Little Rock Revisited (One)

One of the first posts in this blog dealt with the deaths of Jesse Belvin, Jo Ann Belvin (Jesse’s wife and manager), and the driver of their car, Charles Ford, who were involved in a two-car collision near Hope, Arkansas, on February 6, 1960. Jesse and Charles died in the collision, and Jo Ann succumbed to her injuries the following week. The Belvins were friends of Jackie Wilson, who appeared on the same concert bill with Jesse the night before in Little Rock and figured in the various accounts of the concert and its aftermath.

Theories on the Internet. Many people believed that the Belvin vehicle had been sabotaged, and at the time I started this blog, I knew that a variety of stories about the concert itself, the Belvins, and Jackie Wilson were available on the Internet.

A popular version of what happened that night in Little Rock had Jackie Wilson refusing to perform to a white audience, leading to everyone on the bill being run out of town ahead of an angry mob. In this version, while the performers argued with police and promoters inside the venue, racists outside the venue tampered with cars belonging to Arthur Prysock, Jesse Belvin, and Jackie Wilson, causing the Belvin crash as well as damage to the Prysock and Wilson vehicles.

A second version of the Little Rock concert and subsequent auto crash was advanced by a man named Eric Lenaburg, who described himself as an investigative journalist who had been working on the story on and off for decades. This man insisted that there was foul play, that Jesse Belvin’s life had been threatened during the week running up to the concert, and that the concert was the first integrated-audience concert in Little Rock history.

The Etta James account. As I began to follow up on these stories, I had in mind a passage from the Etta James as-told-to biography, Rage to Survive.* Jackie and Etta were friends, and he is mentioned frequently in the book, often coming to Etta’s rescue when she was in difficult straits. Etta claims to have gotten her information on the automobile crash from Jackie, meaning she would have been recalling something from at least two decades earlier. She says that the driver of Jesse Belvin’s car caused the accident by being asleep at the wheel. One paragraph of her account described the accident itself:

Musicians in the car behind Jesse’s told me of this horrible glow they saw up ahead, this red glare that lit the sky where the two cars collided. Charles was killed instantly. And so was Jesse. Jesse had his arm around Jo Ann–they were both asleep–but was so quick that on impact he grabbed her head and shoved it beneath the car radio. The collision was so powerful that when they opened the door they saw that Jesse Belvin, whose head had gone through the windshield, was nearly decapitated. His nose was separated from his mouth. His clothes were in shreds, like a scarecrow. They rushed the bodies to a hospital. Knowing Charles and Jesse were dead, their main concern was for Jo Ann. But the hospital, run by white doctors, wanted to know who was paying. No one had enough money. Jo Ann was left unattended with a crushed pelvis, a crushed chest, a broken arm. She was left in a coma until they could reach Jackie Wilson in Dallas. Jackie drove back to Arkansas to pay the doctors. It turned out that the town, Hope, Arkansas, birthplace of Bill Clinton, was also the birthplace of Jesse Belvin. Jesse died three miles from the house where he was born.

The part of the story about Jackie having to go back to pay the hospital had a familiar ring. There are many stories about hospitals in the South in that era refusing to treat African Americans, and no doubt some of them are true. Unfortunately, many of these stories are not true. For example, the family of Dr. Charles Drew, the brilliant surgeon who developed the system for plasma donation and transfusion, spent years refuting the rumor that Drew was refused medical treatment after an automobile accident in North Carolina in 1950. Recognizing this meme, I was skeptical on that point.

Another paragraph from this book, one describing the funeral, also did not seem quite likely. According to Tony Douglas, Jackie did not attend his own father’s funeral nor his son’s funeral. If he had an aversion to funerals, would he have been likely to sing at Jesse and Jo Ann’s?

I traveled from Chicago to the funeral in Los Angeles. It took them three days to sew Jesse together. The open caskets were devastating. To see two beautiful young people dead, a man and a wife, head to head in matching caskets—man, that was more than we could take. None of us could contain ourselves. Jackie Wilson sang, but he was so broke up he could barely make a sound. We all know Jesse was the next superstar. He’d just gotten the big break with RCA, just gotten started, just . . .

Each account had points I that did not seem likely. In the “riot” account, I could not see why Jackie Wilson would refuse to play for the white audience. African American entertainers played for white audiences routinely. Not playing would mean no one would get paid. Lenaburg’s version was interesting, but it rested entirely on his investigative skills, and I could find no other work by this reporter.

When I started writing the blog a year and a half ago, I hoped readers might be able to help me sort out the facts about these events. I did find help and some answers, but one person tried to lead me to false conclusions. At this point I am still looking for information, but I have learned a great deal with the help of a university librarian, Jesse Belvin Jr, and some of his family members. The next few posts will cover what I have learned.


* James, Etta, and David Ritz. Rage to Survive: The Etta James Story. DaCapo Press, 1998

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.

Jesse Belvin and Little Rock

Jesse Belvin, known as “Mr. Easy,” was a gifted singer and songwriter with a smooth delivery many likened to Nat Cole or Sam Cooke. I’d say much more like Cole, but you be the judge. Here is Jesse with the Marty Paich Orchestra, singing two very sexy numbers, Cole Porter’s “It’s All Right With Me” and a luscious “Angel Eyes” by Earl Brent and Matt Dennis.

If you are unfamiliar with Belvin’s singing but liked this taste of it, treat yourself (and it will be a treat) by going to YouTube to listen to more postings of Belvin’s wonderful voice. Find Jesse’s lovely rendition of “Volare” and hear Jesse’s sumptuous voice accompanied by a full orchestra on a couple of standards: “Blues in the Night” and “It’s All Right with Me.” I’ve also hyperlinked two of Jesse’s hits in a paragraph below. The links should open in separate windows.

Belvin wrote or co-wrote (songwriting credits from this era can be deceptive) both “Earth Angel,” a hit by The Penguins, and the beautiful “Goodnight My Love,” a major hit for Jesse himself. Jo Ann Belvin, Jesse’s wife and manager, wrote the words to another big hit for Belvin,  “Guess Who,” which became Jesse’s signature song. Belvin was handsome, extremely talented, and on the road to major stardom when he met his untimely death at age twenty-seven.

Jesse grew up in southern California and attended the same high school as Etta James, who was his friend and a staunch advocate for him during his life and after his death. He was also a friend of Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson.

Jesse and Jo Ann Belvin were both killed as a result of a car crash that took place outside Hope, Arkansas, on February 6, 1960. Earlier on the night of the crash, Jesse had performed in Little Rock on a bill with Jackie Wilson and Arthur Prysock.

According to Etta James, Jesse and the driver of the car were killed in the crash itself, but Jo Ann survived long enough to be taken to a hospital, where treatment was withheld by hospital administrators until cash was presented. According to James, friends at the scene contacted Jackie Wilson in Dallas, who either returned to Arkansas with the necessary funds or in some other way provided the money. Jackie had left Little Rock earlier than the Belvins, who were among the last cars to depart the venue.

Jo Ann succumbed to her serious injuries, and Jesse and Jo Ann were laid to rest together after a double funeral at which, according to Etta James, Jackie sang as best he could through his tears.

There are conspiracy theories regarding the crash itself, based on accounts of slashed tires, but James apparently did not credit them because she does not mention them in her memoir. (Etta James rarely hesitated to say what she was thinking.)

There are two incompatible descriptions of the Little Rock concert that vary with sources. I have read accounts, at least one of them from a newspaper with primarily Black readership, that insist the event was a segregated, two-part dance concert with the Black audience accommodated first, followed by the white audience. In these accounts, Jackie Wilson refused to perform for the white audience and was ordered out of town by police or left town with a police escort.

Other accounts say this stop on the tour was a concert performance, although not just an ordinary concert performance, but the first integrated concert performance in Little Rock, and that the entire concert did take place. I have read descriptions of racists coming into the concert hall and attempting to intimidate white teenagers into leaving.

The record is not even straight on whether or not there was a second car involved in the crash. At least one newspaper account claimed that Belvin’s car struck a second vehicle and that two white people died in that car.

How such important details have remained so obscure over the five decades since that night suggests that there was and is something being hidden. When the facts aren’t at all controversial, they generally are set down fairly accurately and fairly quickly. In the case of the deaths of Jesse Belvin and those with him in his car, nothing is clear: Was the concert seating segregated or desegregated? Was Belvin’s Cadillac sabotaged? Was it a single-car crash or was it a two-car collision?

It still should be possible to answer some of these questions. There should be people still alive who attended or worked at the concert, and there should be reporters who remember the story. Why do they not speak up?