Thursday, February 11, 2010

Jesse Belvin: The Most Gifted of All

Jesse Belvin: The Most Gifted of All

By Norman (Otis) Richmond

Barry White, The Whispers, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Brenda Holloway are all indebted to Jesse Belvin.

The legendary Etta James was high on Belvin. She bluntly called
Belvin, "The most gifted of 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."

Why are most of today's youth unaware of Belvin? There are many
reasons for this. In my judgement, Belvin's death is a potato that is
too hot for the U.S. ruling circles to handle. Belvin was killed
along with his manager/wife Jo Ann on Feb 6, 1960 in Hope, Arkansas, the home town of William Jefferson Clinton.

He was only 27 and his wife was a mere 25 when they joined the
ancestors. Belvin was a prolific songwriter who wrote R&B classics
like "Earth Angel", "Girl of My Dreams" and "Goodnight My Love".
'Guess Who' - was written by Jo Ann.

When The Penguins recorded "Earth Angel", the then 11-year-old Barry White was the pianist on the recording session. His composition "Earth Angel", eventually co-credited to Belvin and Hollywood Flames singers Curtis Williams and Gaynel Hodge after a legal dispute, was recorded by The Penguins, and became one of the first R&B singles to cross over onto the pop charts, selling a million copies in 1954/55.

In 1958, Belvin formed a vocal quintet, the Shields (which included
Johnny "Guitar" Watson), to record for Dot Records. They recorded the national Top 20 hit 'You Cheated'.

Shortly after he was signed to RCA Records, which harbored plans to shape him in the mould of Nat 'King' Cole and Billy Eckstine. He hit it big with RCA.

Alan Freed used to close his nationally syndicated radio show
with” Goodnight My Love". Harold Melvin used to close the Blue Notes
shows by singing "Goodnight My Love." He could get away with
performing this song after Teddy Pendergrass had fired the crowd up.

Belvin influenced many vocalists, including Marvin Gaye. Says Gaye,
"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."

I met Barbara Cooke, the former wife of Sam Cooke, in Jonesboro,
Louisiana during a visit with my family. She showed me an album bag which included all of Cooke's albums. The only other artist in the bag was Jesse Belvin. She included Belvin’s RCA, album Guess Who along with her late husband’s work.

Belvin was born in Texarkana, Texas, and moved with his family to Los Angeles at the age of five. He attended Jefferson High School in Los Angeles. Jefferson High also produced Dorothy Danridge, Roy Ayers and Etta James. L. C. Cooke, the brother of Sam Cooke, says he was born on December 14 and Belvin on December 15, 1932.

When he stayed in Los Angeles, Sam sent him to stay with the Belvins. L.C. says Jo Ann said he and Jesse were like two peas in a pod. He remembers seeing the Belvins in Atlanta shortly before they where killed.

"He and Jo Ann hugged me and I bid them goodbye." He didn't realize that would be the last time he'd see them.

Shortly after finishing a performance in Little Rock on a bill with
Jackie Wilson and Arthur Prysock. , the Belvins were killed in a
head-on collision in Hope, Arkansas. Jesse and the driver died
instantly and Jo Ann succumbed a few days later.

In the book, "Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, "Peter Guralnick, talked about how the Belvins died.There had been several death threats on Belvin prior to the concert, and there was speculation that Belvin's car had been tampered with prior to the accident. A Black weekly newspaper,"The Norfolk Journal and Guide", ran a headline, "Did Racism Kill Jesse Belvin?".

Says Guralnick, “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, “the Los Angeles Sentinel reported, “Wilson and his group were allegedly ordered out of town at gunpoint.”

“Investigators believed”, the story went on, “that … disgruntled white
dance fans were responsible for slashing Belvin’s tires, a conclusion
bolstered by the rumor that both Jackie and Prysock also
suffered problems as they drove to there next date in Dallas.”

The Louisiana Weekly, a Black weekly, reported that shortly after the
Belvin affair, Wilson, Prysock and the Larry Williams (he recorded
“Bad Boy in 1958) performed in New Orleans. Wilson, a former boxer,
punched out white police officer in self defence. He was bailed out of
jail at three in the morning and was in the whirlwind.

Belvin had a huge impact on Jamaican music. No one will ever know what would have happened had he performed on the island.

Jamaican record collectors in Toronto, Miami, London and New York treasure the recorded output of Belvin, according J. Alexander Francis. His songs were recorded by the giants of ska and reggae.

“Girl of My Dreams" has been recorded by Johnny Holt and Sly and
Robbie, featuring Glen Ricketts. The Blues Busters and Alton Ellis
and others have also covered Belvin's work.

Etta James remains one of Belvin's staunchest defenders. James
maintains that Belvin should be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

She had this to say about Belvin in her book, "Rage To Survive", which she co-wrote with David Ritz: "Part of me is thrilled to be recognized, but another part resents the lily-white institutions that sends down its proclamations from on high.

They decide who is rock and roll and who isn't; they decide who was
important and who wasn't . Man, I grew up with some cats who should have been inducted years ago – Jesse Belvin and Johnny "Guitar" Watson to name two."
Norman Richmond can be contacted at
Richmond can be heard on Diasporic Music which is aired on Uhuru
Radio. He did a two hour radio tribute to Jesse Belvin on Uhuru
Radio. To listen:


Keith Rylatt said...

This is the best account of Jesse Belvin's tragically short life and career that I have ever read, thank you Norman. Jesse only had one record released here in Britain at the time and so he was and still is pretty unknown but I intend to do a little bit to rectify this with an article on
Thank you

Walter Lee said...

Jesse should be inducted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and R&B Hall of Fame too as well.and to be on TV One Unsung,if people talk about the life and death of Sam Cooke and Otis Redding Jesse Belvin should be talk about more as well even Johnny Ace,Chuck Willis,Smiley Lewis,Clyde McPhatter and more

lalistener111 said...

For more info, see Eric Lenaburg's account at

lalistener111 said...

For a chance to read the entire story of Jesse Belvin's life & death, a new book is available at
I couldn't put it down!

lalistener111 said...

I didn't realize what a major influence he was on the whole music industry, not just R&B. And the story of his death --- a murder --- is gripping.

lalistener111 said...

Eric Lenaburg's account, the book soon to be in all bookstores across America & Great Britain,is one of the most intense true-crime stories I have ever seen. This journalist apparently spent 30 years researching and investigating Jesse Belvin's story, and you owe it to yourself to grab a copy...they don't last long on the shelves.

lalistener111 said...

Eric Lenaburg's account, the book soon to be in all bookstores across America & Great Britain,is one of the most intense true-crime stories I have ever seen. This journalist apparently spent 30 years researching and investigating Jesse Belvin's story, and you owe it to yourself to grab a copy...they don't last long on the shelves.

shagger4u said...

Certainly appreciate your love and appreciation for Jesse Belvin, but if you're going to write about the man's music, then check your facts beforehand: The young pianist who played on one of Jesse's signature recordings was indeed 11-year-old Barry White, but the song was not the Penguins' greatest hit "Earth Angel", but Jesse's own memorable rendition of "Good Night, My Love" which was actually written by his lovely wife JoAnne, who also died tragically on that horrific night in February 1960. What a loss !!

JEK said...

It's sad that Jessie Belvin's life was cut so short. I know if he would have lived there would have been so many more beautiful songs sung by a truly gifted talent. I as a white person have always leaned toward black singing artists such as Johnny Mathis, Brook Benton, Jackie Wilson, Nat King Cole and so many, many others. The black entertainment world can raise their heads up high for their contribution to the music industry.