Category Archives: Jesse Belvin

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.

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

Riot: New Orleans, 1960

Dream Boogie coverThe following excerpt from Peter Grualnick’s biography of Sam Cooke (Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, 2008) describes a concert that Jackie Wilson headlined in New Orleans on July 17, 1960. Jackie’s close friend Jesse Belvin had been killed just six months earlier after a concert that Jackie headlined in Little Rock (February 5). Guralnick is trying both to string together a narrative of the racial tension of the times and to connect Sam Cooke to the Civil Rights Movement. He has already written about Jackie’s good friend, Jesse Belvin, and the deaths of Belvin, his wife, and their driver. Because virtually everyone in the entertainment business was certain the crash was not an “accident,” Black entertainers performing in the South were on edge, concerned about the segregation of their audiences, their treatment at the hands of local civic leaders and law enforcement, and the developing national movement.

Sam Cooke was in no way involved in the the Little Rock concert, and the only thing associating him with this New Orleans concert of Jackie’s was that he would play the same venue a few weeks later (August 3). At that point, Guralnick reports, Cooke would find “a security force of fifty policemen on hand.” I am taking up Guralnick’s account of the New Orleans show mid-paragraph:

The Jackie Wilson Show, which continued to inflame audiences all across the South (it had already led to a direct ban on all rock ‘n’ roll revues in Birmingham), had hit New Orleans on July 17, with Larry Williams and Arthur Prysock (the co-headliner in Little Rock in February) on the bill. “The commotion started,” the Louisiana Weekly reported, “when Larry Williams attempted to sing from a sitting position on the edge of the stage.” A black policeman informed that it was against auditorium policy to sing from the floor, “and then a white officer allegedly pushed [him].” Williams, the man who wrote and recorded “Bad Boy” for Specialty Records in 1958 (he was a follower of the Johnny “Guitar” Watson/Johnnie Morisette school of thinking, in which music frequently fought a losing battle with pimping), was never one to avoid a confrontation, but it was Jackie Wilson, a former boxer, who at this point jumped from the stage and pushed the policeman, followed by five members of the band. There was no question in mind of anyone in the crowd as to who provoked the confrontation, and bottles and bricks began to fly, as “patrons [scrambled] for the exits . . . auditorium officials got the fire hoses ready [and] ten patrol wagons came blasting their sirens toward the scene.” Jackie, who never even got to perform, was bailed out at three in the morning and promptly left town, thereby avoiding charges (if the defendant couldn’t be found, the judge pragmatically ruled, there was no choice other than to dismiss), but the bitterness lingered on all sides, as some of the performers grumbled that none of this would be happening if the white man would leave them alone, others that Jackie and Larry were so damned hotheaded they just helped bring it on themselves.

I thought it would be interesting to contrast the account of the same event as presented by Tony Douglas in Jackie Wilson: Lonely Teardrops. Guralnick’s account was drawn largely from a newspaper account and focused on placing the riot in the context of other events. Guralnick, an American with knowledge of the cities, cultural upheaval, and events in play, is keenly aware of the pressures on the performers of this era. Douglas lacked Guralnick’s knowledge and insight, of course, but judging by the book as a whole, Douglas would not have been interested in these topics anyway.

Nonetheless, the Douglas account is more entertaining than Guralnick’s, in large part owing to the sources, singer Chuck Jackson and Midnighters’ guitarist Billy Davis. Yes, this is the wonderful Chuck Jackson of many hits, a true friend of Jackie Wilson’s and a great singer still performing today. As to the Billy Davis quoted in this account: this Billy Davis is the one the groupies called “The Face” (see photo below, where his dimple is pretty much the focal point of the picture). “The Face” should not be confused with other Billy Davises of the era.

Hank Ballard (lower right) and the Midnighters

Hank Ballard (lower right) and the Midnighters

Here’s what Douglas writes about the riot:

One steamy July night in 1960, at the Municipal Auditorium in New Orleans, a riot broke out at one of Jackie’s performances. Up to 5000 people were said to be present. Singer Chuck Jackson, a long-time close friend of Jackie’s was with The Dell Vikings at the time. He remembers: ‘I was there when Larry Williams was performing. The police told us before we got there, “Don’t come off this stage, black boy.”

‘They had police lined up all around the stage. Larry Williams had his foot up on the piano like Little Richard; he was doing “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” and he ran to the edge of the stage, but didn’t jump off. He got down on the of the stage and women came forward – white women! Jackie was standing backstage and the cops took Larry and pulled him into the audience and started beating him with their sticks. Jackie came from backstage like he was Johnny Weissmuller. He ran like he was Tarzan and he leapt, like he was leaping into a lake, into the crowd of policemen. When he hit the floor, he was like a little rabbit. He went down on his knees and when he came up, like he does on stage, he hit this cop, a big red cop. He messed him up bad. They beat him and nearly killed him.

‘We finally pulled him out and had to take him to the hospital. They took him to jail and we got him out. It took us a matter of minutes to get out of town. They had his picture in the paper, where he hit the cop.’ The riot received coverage in the newspapers, which stated that police laid charges which ‘ranged from attempted murder to assaulting police and inciting a riot. Wilson was booked with disturbing the peace, inciting a riot and assaulting an officer’.

Also present was Midnighters’ guitarist and friend, Billy Davis. “Larry would jump off the stage into the audience. The police said, “Don’t you do that no more.” The second the show started, Larry jumped out again. Jackie jumped up and the big cop pushed him back, then Jackie punched him out cold and Jackie could punch like George Foreman for a little guy. The cop was six foot one, 225 pounds; Jackie was 150 pounds and five foot nine. We were all locked up, but only for a few hours.

For the record: Jackie was actually only five foot seven. His beautifully proportioned physique made him appear taller. And except for roughly a year in the early 1970s, during which time he gave up on his career and life as a whole, Jackie stayed pretty much at the top of the welterweight limit, the weight at which he boxed as a teenager. (And, no, Jackie was not a Golden Gloves champion. Despite what you read or heard, he boxed in only a few actual matches and apparently lost most of them.)

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.

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 . . .

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.