It may be that no one who is willing to talk knows the true circumstances of the death of R&B singer Jesse Belvin nearly 53 years ago, but the suspicion abounds that he and his wife were murdered.
Had he lived, Belvin would turn 80 on Dec. 15.
What is known is that Belvin, his wife JoAnn and their driver were involved in a horrific head-on collision in Hope, Ark., on Feb. 6, 1960, about four hours after the singer completed a concert in Little Rock, the state capital.
Belvin, 27, and the driver died at the scene; JoAnn, 23, died later at Hope Hospital.
According to a report, one of the first state troopers investigating the accident said both of the rear tires on the Belvins’ black Cadillac had been tampered with. Other reports said the tires had been slashed.
Belvin had reportedly received six death threats prior to the concert, which was to be the first in the city with an integrated audience. The show was stopped twice because of belligerent Whites–angry over the idea that Whites and Blacks were mingling together in a concert setting–who kept shouting racial slurs and urging White teens to leave.
Belvin had uncharacteristically called his mother twice to complain about the hostility he and other R&B stars, including Jackie Wilson and Arthur Prysock, were experiencing.
Investigative journalist Eric Lenaburg, who is co-writing a book titled, “Good Night, My Love,” on Belvin’s life with his son Jesse Belvin Jr., has been investigating Belvin’s death off and on for 32 years and has completed more than 100 interviews.
“Further statements were made to me personally by Arkansas State Troopers, Hope police and sheriff’s office spokespersons, and though many of these statements contradicted one another in some details, all were in unison that it was no accident,” says Lenaburg.
“From eyewitness accounts outside the concert, at least five young men were seen hovering near both Jesse Belvin’s and Jackie Wilson’s vehicles. One person stated that two men were trying to block the view of the Belvin car while another was underneath it.”
In the book, “Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke,” author Peter Guralnick discusses the Belvins’ death. “It was the same old ugly peckerwood story: the show was booked to play a segregated dance, and when Jackie refused to do a second show for Whites, after a “hot dispute with (the) dance manager, Wilson and his group were allegedly ordered out of town at gunpoint.”
“Investigators believed that … disgruntled White dance fans were responsible for slashing Belvin’s tires, a conclusion bolstered by the rumor that both Wilson and Prysock also suffered problems as they drove to their next date in Dallas.”
What that “car accident” did, some feel, was quiet one of the most gifted and promising R&B voices the nation has produced.
The late singer Etta James was quoted as calling him “The most gifted of us all. Even now I consider him the greatest singer of my generation. Rhythm and Blues, Rock and Roll, crooner, you name it, he was going to be bigger than Sam Cooke, bigger than Nat Cole.”
Stevie Wonder, quoted on a Youtube video produced in 1976, said: “There is one person (Jesse Belvin) that is my favorite of all-time. He did a song called ‘Guess Who.’ The late Jesse Belvin, was my favorite artist. I would almost die to meet him. I really loved the music he gave us. There is so much sincerity in his voice.”
Marvin Gaye is quoted as having said, “When I saw Sam Cooke and Jesse Belvin, I’d try to avoid my friends and family for days. I didn’t want to talk or be talked to cause I was busy practicing and memorizing everything I heard those singers do.”
[This reporter met Barbara Cooke, Sam Cooke’s former wife, in Jonesboro, La., during a visit. She showed me a bag that included all of Cooke’s albums. The only other artist in the bag was Belvin. She had included Belvin’s RCA album, “Guess Who,” along with her late husband’s work.]
“Belvin was a prolific songwriter who wrote such R&B classics as “Earth Angel” for the Penguins [Cleve Duncan, lead singer on the recording, died a month ago, on Nov. 7], “Girl of My Dreams” and “Goodnight My Love.” “Guess Who” was written by JoAnn.
When the Penguins recorded “Earth Angel,” the then-11-year-old Barry White was the pianist during the session. “Earth Angel,” which was eventually co-credited to Belvin and Hollywood Flames singers Curtis Williams and Gaynel Hodge after a legal dispute, became one of the first R&B singles to cross over onto the pop charts, selling a million copies in 1954/55. It can still be heard some times on the Art Laboe show on HOT 92.3 Old School FM.
Alan Freed used to close his nationally syndicated radio show with “Goodnight, My Love” and Harold Melvin used to close the Blue Notes concerts by singing the song.
When BB King celebrated his 87th birthday on Sept. 17, he closed his show with Belvin’s, “Guess Who.” The Mississippi-born bluesman also performed the number before Muhammad Ali and George Foreman’s famous “Rumble in the Jungle’ in Zaire on Oct. 30, 1974.
“Goodnight My Love,” which hit No. 7 on the R&B chart, was recorded for Modern Records, with which he signed in 1956. In 1958, Belvin formed a vocal quintet, The Shields (which included Johnny “Guitar” Watson) and Charles Wright, noted for the song “Express Yourself,” to record for Dot Records.
They produced the national Top 20 hit “You Cheated.”
Shortly afterward, Belvin was signed to RCA Records, which harbored plans to shape him in the mold of Nat “King” Cole and Billy Eckstine. He hit it big with RCA. Perhaps his greatest work was on recorded on the album “Mr. Easy,” featuring Art Pepper, with the Marty Paich Orchestra. But Belvin would be dead before the album was released.
According to Lenaburg, both birth and death certificates state that Belvin was born Dec. 15, 1932, in San Antonio, Texas. The family moved to Central California, settling in Vallejo for three to five years, while Jesse was still a toddler. The family then moved to Los Angeles when he was around 5. He attended Jefferson High School, which also produced such notable stars as Dorothy Dandridge, Alvin Ailey, Johnny “Guitar ” Watson, Roy Ayers and Etta James.
Jeanette Baker, a well-known actress and singer whose great aunt was the legendary Josephine Baker, was a friend and admirer of Belvin’s. She has begun a petition to have Belvin placed on the 2013 ballot for induction into in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The OurWeekly staff assisted with researching this article.