Tribute: Jesse Belvin

Jesse Belvin

Jesse Belvin was a soulful crooner and gifted songwriter, gaining a reputation as "the black Elvis." He had the potential of building a career and legacy on a par with Nat King Cole and Sam Cooke. But his life was mysteriously cut short in 1960. (Much appreciation to Fuller Up: The Dead Musician Directory, for filling in the gaps.)

Jesse Lorenzo Belvin was born on 15 December 1932, in Texarkana, Texas. When he was five, his family moved to Los Angeles. In 1950, he joined the vocal quartet behind saxophonist Big Jay McNeely, Three Dots and a Dash. Two years later he joined Specialty Records. His fourth record, "Dream Girl," by Jesse & Marvin (Marvin Phillips, saxophone) reached #2 on the R&B charts in 1953. Belvin was then drafted into the army. While on leave he wrote "Earth Angel," which became a hit for The Penguins, selling a million copies in 1954-55.

Throughout the following years, Belvin would switch record labels several times and record under a variety of names. His biggest hit was "Goodnight My Love", which reached #7 on the R&B chart. The song was, for years, the closing theme for Alan Freed's rock & roll radio show.

Jo Ann and Jesse Belvin

Jesse Belvin and wife, Jo Ann

In 1958 Belvin recorded "You Cheated" with The Shields. The record reached #15 on the US pop charts. Inspired by his manager (and wife), Jo Ann, he signed with RCA Records in 1959, and scored a Top 40 hit with "Guess Who." Belvin acquired the nickname "Mr. Easy", and RCA began making him into a potential crossover star for white audiences, similar to Nat "King" Cole or Sam Cooke.

In 1960, Belvin was set to release Mr. Easy, on which he covered songs like "Blues in the Night", "In the Still of the Night", and "Makin' Whoopee." Belvin would never see its release.

Mr. Easy album cover

On 6 February 1960, Belvin performed a show in Little Rock, Arkansas on the same bill as Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and Marv Johnson. The show was Little Rock's first with an integrated audience; Belvin reportedly received at least six death threats prior to the concert. Belvin rarely called home from the road, and never more than once a month. But he phoned his mother twice in the three days preceeding the concert, each time worried about the hostile receptions he received. The show had to be stopped twice because of whites shouting racial slurs and urging the white teenagers present to leave. It was while leaving Little Rock (less than four hours after the performances) that Belvin and his wife were involved in a head-on automobile crash.

Jesse Belvin and his driver both died at the scene. Belvin was 27. Jo Ann Belvin succumbed to her injuries at Hope Hospital; she was 23. According to Fuller Up: The Dead Musician Directory, 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." No other details were offered. The scorched earth on the highway at the accident site in Hope is supposedly still visible.

Grave of Jesse and Jo Ann Belvin

Grave of Jesse and Jo Ann Belvin in Evergreen Cemetery, Los Angeles.