My iPod has quite a variety of tunes, and it stays on shuffle all day long while I’m at work. Since I listen to it to and from work as well, I could hear anything from ABBA to ZZ Top…from Sinatra to Scorpions…from Buddy Holly to Babyface. You get the picture.
As you may have gathered from previous posts, I’m a big fan of soul and R&B music. Today, one of my favorite tunes from the mid-50’s came from my little desktop Altec speakers… “Goodnight My Love” by Jesse Belvin. It’s really more of a smooth pop ballad than an R&B tune, and it’s really beautiful. It was co-written by Belvin, and reached #7 on the R&B charts in 1956. It featured an 11-year-old Barry White on piano…isn’t that incredible? To play on a #7 tune at 11 years old? Alan Freed was so taken with the song that he used it as the closing theme to every one of his radio shows.
Jesse was born in 1932 and was raised in Los Angeles. In 1950, he became a back-up singer for Big Jay McNeely, and after a stint in the army, he wrote the smash hit “Earth Angel” for the Penguins, and it became one of the first R&B songs to cross over onto the pop charts. It sold a million copies in 1954, and landed Belvin a contract with Modern Records. His biggest hit on Modern, or any other label, was “Goodnight My Love”. He earned the nickname “Mr. Easy”, and was being groomed to crossover to white audiences.
His career came to a sudden end on February 6, 1960 near Hope, Arkansas.
The following account comes from Eric Lenaburg via“Fuller Up: The Dead Musicians Directory”:
Some 32 years before a presidential candidate made it one of America’s most famous small towns, Hope, Arkansas was the site of a horrific car accident. Though very few fans of modern rock and pop music are aware of it, the crash snuffed out the life and career of Jesse Belvin, a major figure in the fusion of black soul and white folk music. The fatal car crash came less than four hours after Belvin had performed the first integrated concert …that is, to an integrated audience…in Little Rock. It had been an ugly scene: White supremacists managed to halt the show twice, shouting racial epithets and urging the white teenagers in attendance to leave at once. There had been at least six death threats on Belvin, so speeding away from Arkansas was truly a relief, and a cause for celebration. Belvin’s wife, JoAnn, died from her injuries at the Hope Hospital, while his driver, like Jesse, died at the scene. As word reached the black community in Belvin’s hometown, Los Angeles, there were immediately rumors of foul play. One of the first state troopers on the accident scene stated that both of the rear tires on Belvin’s black Cadillac had been “obviously tampered with.” He gave no more details, causing even more speculation. The fact that Belvin had phoned his mother twice in the last three days, every time telling her about the hostile receptions he received, made suspicions stronger. He rarely called home from the road, and never more than once a month. Belvin’s two children were left orphans, until their paternal grandmother agreed to assume legal custody.
There was no further investigation, no further questions.
Even though nothing was proven, I find it easy to believe that 27-year-old Jesse Belvin…a talented performer, a husband, a father, a son…was killed because of the color of his skin. It saddens me…it infuriates me…it’s just incomprehensible to me.
I’ve read dozens of stories like this. Performers on the Motown reviews were constantly harassed when they traveled through the south. Sam Cooke was once arrested as soon as he came to a southern town for a performance, and was not allowed to leave until he was stripped naked and forced to perform in front of a small group. Nat King Cole, performing in Alabama at the height of his success, was chased offstage with the rest of his band and beaten, an incident that made him vow never to perform in the south again…a vow that he kept for the rest of his life.
The world is full of senseless tragedy…Jesse Belvin’s death was one of them.