Category Archives: Racism

The Louisiana Weekly, July 1960

Front page July 23 1960

Here is the account from The Louisiana Weekly on July 23, 1960, published the week after the infamous New Orleans “riot” at the Jackie Wilson show . . .a show at which Jackie was never able to perform. I have transcribed the text from the front and back pages of the paper several paragraphs below.

Reading this edition of the newspaper, which was intended for the Black community in New Orleans half a century ago, I was once again stunned to recall the conditions in which Jackie Wilson and all Black Americans lived and worked. The stories and advertisements capture the environment. They include:

  • A front-page story about a white  employer who shot five of his Black workers who had come to discuss their distress at his striking one of them. The employer’s children watched as he shotgunned the workers, killing three at the scene and wounding the other two critically.
  • A half dozen large advertisements urging readers to vote for various men for judge or other elected offices. The men are all white.
  • A story of a meeting of Black citizens gathering to discuss community concerns that ended with forty-five of the attendees being arrested for attempted murder. (The charges were dropped when a demand was made to address the police brutality at the scene.)
  • There is a plea to boycott Budweiser beer after a local distributor barred Blacks from participation in a drawing for prizes. The prizes were hotel and restaurant services at locations that did not serve African Americans.
  • Note that the small space near the end of the article (pictured below) is filled with a reminder to register and vote.

That front-page article next to the one on the concert actually details a situation repeated across the country. Women on welfare could not receive public assistance money to feed their children if a man lived in the same household, because it was expected that he should support the children. However, if there was no man in the household and the woman gave birth to another child, she was considered morally reprehensible and therefore unworthy of the taxpayers’ help.

The article on the concert itself is amazing, particularly the arrests for “reviling the  police” and “being boisterous.” Here is my transcription of the text:

In the aftermath of the near riot at Sunday night’s jazz concert at the Municipal Auditorium, charges of disturbing the peace against “rock and roll” idol Jackie Wilson were dismissed here Monday and $10 fines were lodged against three other persons in Judge Edwin B. Babylon’s municipal court.

The New York singer had been charged in second municipal court with two counts of disturbing the peace and assault on a police officer.

The charges followed a near riot at the auditorium that was provoked by a misunderstanding which resulted in a “free for all” fight that broke out. Several bottles and one brick were tossed at the police. Seven persons were arrested in all.

The commotion started when Larry Williams to sing from a sitting position on the edge of the stage and put on his act on the auditorium floor. Ptn. [Patrolman?] John Raphael, one of 12 officers detailed to the concert, reported that another officer, Ptn. Perry White, went to Williams and told him not to come down to the floor as is was against the policy of the auditorium. A white officer allegedly pushed Williams while talking to Ptn. White.

It was at this point that Wilson jumped down off the stage and pushed the policeman. Five members of the band, playing on the stage began leaping from the stage and hurling objects at the police. Raphael was pasted across the hear with a big sound amplifier.

“Everything then broke loose” Raphael said. Several bottles of whiskey then began to fly. Patrons, which numbered at 3,000  began scrambling toward the exits. Auditorium officials then got the fire hoses ready to break up what looked was the beginning of a riot. Ten (10) patrol wagons came blasting their sirens to the scene.

The show was nearing the end and everyone was waiting for Jackie Wilson to appear at the end of the show, but this was the end of “jumping” show.

LW end of article on riotIn addition to Wilson who was booked with disturbing the peace, inciting a riot and assault on an arresting officer, others arrested were:

Calvin A. Watkins, 19, 536 Webster, for attempted murder and allegedly throwing a brick at an officer; Lionel Pichon, 21, 4508 Allen, obscene langauge [sic] and being boisterous; Thelma Roberts, 17, 2524 Desire St.; and Lloyd Burton, 19, 1124 So. Galvez, both booked relative to reviling police [,] and William Frazier and Johnny Jones, 28, no local address, both booked relative to refusing to move on. They were released on bond and three were later meted out small fines.

Wilson was parolled [sic] at 2:40 Monday by Judge Thomas Brahney “for attorney F. Klein.” Judge Edwin A. Babylon said he had no choice other than to dismiss the charge when Wilson failed to appear and since there was no place to look for him.

A flood of phone calls to the Louisiana Weekly on Monday, all voiced the opinion that it was a white police officer that provoked the misunderstanding that wound up in a near riot. These “eyewitnesses” said Larry Williams was pushed by the white officer and this led to bedlam.

In court Monday, Pichon who hollered about his civil rights was given a lecture on observing the civil rights of others.

The line “William Frazier and Johnny Jones, 28, no local address, both booked relative to refusing to move on” refers to Jackie’s valet, Bill Frazier, and JJ, Jackie’s boyhood friend who was at the time part of Jackie’s traveling entourage.

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.

Billy Ward and His Dominoes

At nineteen years of age, Sonny Wilson becomes Jackie Wilson, lead tenor for the nationally known Billy Ward and His Dominoes

Some people erroneously believe that Jackie Wilson had training as an opera singer. The  famous (or infamous) audiotape of Norm N. Nite interviewing Jackie Wilson may be the source of this misconception.

Norm N. Nite: “People have described your singing voice and style almost to be operatic.
Did you ever have any formal training in this area?”

Jackie Wilson: “Well, I can give credit to Mr. Billy Ward for that. He was a vocal coach at Carnegie Hall. I studied under him for about—well, for two years straight.”

Those unacquainted with Jackie Wilson or Billy Ward might assume the singer visited Ward once a week for voice lessons aimed at preparing him for a Met audition. In reality, Ward was Jackie Wilson’s employer.

The Nite interview contains some deliberately deceptive statements and several outright lies (see Quotes and Common Sense), so I have no idea whether or not this particular exchange was intentionally misleading. Whatever the case may be, Jackie Wilson did not even read music and certainly was not trained for opera. However, it is likely true that Ward actively coached Wilson in vocal technique for at least two years.

Jackie the valet. At age eighteen, Jackie Wilson went on tour with Billy Ward and His Dominoes, a well established and nationally popular act, as a valet for the performers. The Dominoes were a vocal quartet, and Ward composed some of their music, arranged it all, played keyboards, and occasionally sang with the group.

At the time, Jackie was under consideration for a spot in the quartet and quickly became the unofficial understudy for Clyde McPhatter, who was preparing to leave to form The Drifters. During this tour, Ward began coaching Wilson in vocal technique, almost certainly working on his breathing, phrasing, and diction. It is probably at this point that Jackie began to regularly sing scales, which he would later do routinely in preparation for performances.

After this first tour with the group, Jackie stayed in Billy Ward’s Greenwich Village apartment for several months until a new tour commenced, and the vocal coaching most likely continued throughout that time and the next tour. Legend has it that at some point during this period of training, Ward gave Wilson a photograph inscribed “To a rough stone I am polishing into a diamond.” Ward was not overstating his role. Aside from the singer himself, no one else did as much as Billy Ward to develop Jackie Wilson as a performer.

A few weeks after his nineteenth birthday, Jackie Wilson, who had by then officially replaced McPhatter on tour, was recording as the tenor lead of Billy Ward and His Dominoes. Between late 1952 and spring 1956, Billy Ward’s instruction and rehearsals would combine with the performance and recording experience as the leading voice in the quartet to ready Jackie Wilson for his solo career.

Marv Goldberg. Billy Ward and His Dominoes hold a prominent place in the history of rhythm and blues. Music historian Marv Goldberg has done the best research on the group, and I strongly recommend visiting his Web pages at www.uncamarvy.com for details about The Dominoes and other groups of their era. Goldberg interviewed a number of former Dominoes and some of their associates, learning the following from Joe Lamont’s son about recording in the primitive King/Federal studios:

Yusuf Lamont told me that his father said it was difficult to be in a studio with Jackie Wilson because he was basically a solo singer with a powerful voice that needed to be baffled. “Your ears would hurt after being around him in a studio.” Whereas microphones were usually placed fairly close to the singers, in Jackie’s case, it was located several feet away.

I refer everyone to Marv Goldberg for substantial and fascinating details about both Ward himself and the group, but I want to introduce a few facts here to help illuminate how life as a Domino shaped Jackie Wilson’s solo career.

Background on Billy Ward and His Dominoes. Billy Ward was a gifted musician, arranger, songwriter, and vocal coach. As a teenager, he won a national competition for a work he composed for the piano. When he returned to civilian life after service in the army, he studied both graphic art and music, eventually leaving Julliard to find employment in New York City as a vocal coach. While applying himself to paid positions in this capacity, he also took on helping young Black vocal groups around town. It was among these young people that he found Clyde McPhatter and the other early members of the group he formed and would later call The Dominoes.

Clyde McPhatter

Although most of the leads for The Dominoes were arranged for high tenor Clyde McPhatter, one of the group’s most famous recordings, “Sixty Minute Man,” featured bass singer Bill Brown boasting of his sexual prowess. Composed by Billy Ward and Rose Marks, an agent who ran the business end of the act, “Sixty Minute Man” is considered one of the first rock and roll records. It made the pop charts, although many radio stations refused to play it, and it became a number one hit on the Rhythm and Blues chart in 1951. For the next two years, The Dominoes would appear regularly on that chart, reaching number one again with “Have Mercy Baby,” one of McPhatter’s leads, but the group did not chart another record on the Hot 100. Throughout this period, Ward had the quartet touring on the Chitlin Circuit.

The first two singles released with Jackie Wilson singing lead were also hits on the Rhythm and Blues charts. “You Can’t Keep A Good Man Down” rose to number six and “Rags to Riches” went to number two. At this point Ward decided to gamble on establishing a less taxing and more prosperous future. He secured a contract for his group to play extended dates in Las Vegas, taking the act off the Chitlin Circuit in hopes of “crossover” success on the pop charts. “Crossover” success and the main Billboard chart meant catering to audiences that were primarily white, the demographic group that could afford upscale nightclubs and big collections of vinyl recordings.

With Jackie Wilson at center stage, the group became a hit in Las Vegas, but the dramatic reduction in the number of appearances before Black audiences meant that Billy Ward and His Dominoes disappeared from the Rhythm and Blues charts. However, just as Wilson prepared to leave the group for a solo career, his magnificent voice led them to a genuine Billboard Hot 100 hit, “St. Therese of the Roses.” In fact, the record rose all the way to the Top Twenty, peaking at number thirteen.

Lasting effects on Our Hero. Jackie Wilson has been quoted as saying that Billy Ward “was not an easy man to work for.” That opinion was shared by many of the singers Ward employed.

Above all, Billy Ward was The Boss. He paid his singers salaries. They did not share in the gate or record royalties. In fact, discussion of such topics among the singers was forbidden. Ward had exacting standards for personal appearance and conduct onstage and offstage, and he deducted not only expenses but also “fines” from his employees’ paychecks. Among other things, the vocalists could be fined for failing to shine their shoes, for consuming alcohol, or even for leaving the hotel without permission.

Once he figured out the financial arrangements, Clyde McPhatter complained bitterly about them. He was quoted as saying that he could hear his own voice coming out of a jukebox, but he could not afford to buy a coke so that he could sit down and enjoy the experience. Of course, McPhatter, who eventually drank himself to death, probably would not have wanted to restrict himself to Coca-Cola anyway.

But McPhatter wasn’t the only alcoholic tenor Ward groomed and paid. The restriction on drinking must have been difficult for Jackie Wilson as well, for even if Ward could not keep his singers from drinking altogether, the rules and the fines probably did curb their behavior significantly.

Although it was not easy to work for Billy Ward, Jackie Wilson did so for more than four years, and his later reference to Ward in the Nite interview shows that he clearly understood the value of this show business apprenticeship. Anyone doubting what Ward did for Wilson’s singing should listen to the horrid diction on the DeeGee label Sonny Wilson recording “Rainy Day Blues,” then check out the precision of songs Jackie recorded as a Domino, such as “Until the Real Thing Comes Along” or “Three Coins in the Fountain.”

Clockwise: Billy Ward, James Van Loan, Milton Merle, Cliff Givens, Jackie Wilson

More than voice lessons. However, Billy Ward’s influence on Jackie Wilson extended beyond teaching him vocal technique and requiring that Jackie live a disciplined existence. Ward’s determination to establish the Dominoes on the mainstream pop music charts and the steps he took to achieve this goal had to leave a deep impression on the young singer.

Black entertainers at this time faced an unpleasant truth: they could stay with their Black audience alone and remain poor, or they could seek fame and fortune with a broader audience, one that would be predominantly white.

Billy Ward made the choice to pursue that broader audience even though it meant forfeiting the comfort of living and working within the familiar and supportive network the Black community provided.

In the early 1950s, no single location manifested the isolation of Black artists striving for crossover success more starkly than Las Vegas, where audiences were overwhelmingly white and Black performers were not permitted to walk through the front doors of casinos in which they appeared. Today in America it is hard to imagine such a blunt daily affront to human dignity.

The vocal coaching, the discipline of preparing for performances, the years of laboring to please demanding Las Vegas audiences, the opportunity to learn how a successful show business act functioned day in and day out, and adherence to the goal of striving for success in unfamiliar territory were all highly valuable lessons for the very young man with the very extraordinary voice.

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.

Sam Cooke gets a dance lesson

One marvelous bit of fun available on YouTube is this clip of Jackie Wilson and and his good friend Sam Cooke, who is supposed to be performing a lip synchronization of his recording “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha.”

 

There are dozens and dozens of comments on YouTube about the video segment. Most of them are remarks about how wonderful it is that someone preserved this light-hearted moment between two of the greatest singers in history, how handsome they both are, how enormously talented they were, and how tragic that both their careers ended so much too soon.

What’s going on in the video. Some comments, however, indicate serious misunderstanding of what is happening. Some younger viewers think this video has another, “original” track, that it’s a video of a live performance, or that the video was made to deliberately mislead people.

In truth, when the camera light came on, Sam Cooke assumed he was just doing another day’s work, performing a routine task for a Sixties recording artist on tour: stop by the local television station, maybe record a brief interview, and make a lip synchronization video of your recent hit in the setting of the local teen dance party show. Only this time, Sam’s good friend caught him by surprise and provided a lesson in the cha cha cha.

The history of this video is covered in a book. The venue was Memphis, and the local television program was Talent Party. George Klein, who became host of the show in 1964, has written a book entitled Elvis, My Best Man: Radio Days, Rock ‘n’ Roll Nights, and My Lifelong Friendship with Elvis Presley, and one of the chapters is about Klein hosting Talent Party, a gig he landed with a little help from Elvis.

The program had at one point been a typical sort of local version of American Bandstand, but according to Klein, the station decided to stop having teenagers dance on the show due to fear that whites and Blacks would start dancing together on live television.

I am skeptical about some of the facts given in this excerpt, but I will reserve my comments and questions until you have the chance to read it.

One of my favorite Talent Party moments occurred in my first year as host, when, with the help of Wink Martindale, I got Sam Cooke booked to do the show. He was coming through Memphis as part of a co-headlining tour with Jackie Wilson, in which they’d take turns city-by-city as to who opened and who closed that night’s show. I’d met Sam before at a show at Ellis [Auditorium], and we got along well enough that I decided to ask him for a favor: I wondered if he’d invite Jackie Wilson to come along with us. Sam did, and Jackie said yes, though Sam gave me a firm warning: “Jackie loves the ladies, and if you don’t lead him by the hand out of here after the show, you can forget about seeing him again tonight.”

I worked hard to get them both to the studio quickly after the show, and couldn’t wait to shoot a couple songs each with such great talents. But as Sam was doing a practice take of his song “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha,” I noticed that Jackie was mouthing along with every word and I got an idea.

“Jackie, you really know Sam’s stuff,” I said.

“Man, we’re like brothers. I know everything he’s ever done.”

“Well, tell me what you think of this. When we start really shooting this one, why don’t you sneak around back, and when Sam’s done with the first verse, you pop through the curtains and take over the song.”

Jackie loved the idea, and while he certainly surprised the heck out of Sam, Sam loved it too, and they were both having a ball as they tried to match each other line for line and dance move for dance move. Footage of the magical moment is still out there on the Internet, and you can’t help but smile when you see the smiles on their faces.

The date of the video. So here is my problem: I have trouble believing that this clip is from 1964. The date “1960” appears at the conclusion of the clip, and that makes sense, as Jackie and Sam were definitely touring the South together that year.

The date “1964” does not make sense. “Everybody Loves to Cha Cha Cha” was a hit in 1959, when it reached position #31 on the Billboard Hot Hundred. Between the success of “Cha Cha Cha” and 1964, Sam Cooke placed fifteen hits on that same chart, and ten of those were in the coveted Top Twenty. Why would he be making a lip synch clip for an old song that was a lesser hit? The record business then was about selling what was current. Artists promoted the vinyl available in the record stores.

Klein’s claim. Well, what if the correct date is 1960, and 1964 is just a typographical error in the book, or perhaps a mental slip of the author’s memory? Sorry, but neither of those explanations work. Klein took over the show in 1964, and his book makes the claim that he integrated the program that year, putting on the program’s first Black artist, Fats Domino. I’m not certain of many things in life, but I think both Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke were African Americans. If Klein’s claim to integrating Talent Party was to hold up, he had to explain away a video that was available on the Internet at the time his book was being published.

So the issue becomes this: did Klein make up his part in producing this historic video clip, or is his account accurate? His position would be bolstered if Sam and Jackie toured the South together again in 1964. I do not happen to know that they did that, but maybe someone reading this will know.

There would still be, however, the awkward matter of the date at the end of the video segment.

Is the history of American music “real” history? Why am I making a fuss about this? After all, isn’t it just a bit of “infotainment”?

For me, no. I take the history of music seriously, particularly the history of American popular music of the Fifties and Sixties, when badly exploited Black artists did so much to raise the consciousness of young white teenagers about racism.

Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke were not only two massively talented, hard-working men who created great music: they were also flesh-and-blood human beings living in a land where success was segregated and a second-class experience for them, two singers every bit as great and arguably better than Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley. We owe it to what they achieved and to their memories to get their stories straight.

Does anyone reading this know if Sam and Jackie toured together again in 1964? Does anyone reading this have any further information on the making of this wonderful video clip?