Jesse Belvin: the most gifted of all

By NORMAN (OTIS) RICHMOND

Barry White, The Whispers, Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and Brenda Holloway are all in Jesse Belvin’s debt.

The legendary Etta James was high on Belvin. She bluntly called him “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 judgment, 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. “Earth Angel”, 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.

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 mold 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 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,” said Cooke. 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?”

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 recording output of Belvin according to J. Alexander Francis. His songs were recorded by the giants of ska and reggae.

“Girl of My Dreams” has been recorded by John Holt and Sly and Robbie featuring Glen Ricketts. The Blues Busters and Alton Ellis are among several artists who 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 institution 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 (Otis) Richmond can be contacted at norman.o.richmond@gmail.com.

  • Gary Levingston said:

    Completed a short documentary film on the Belvins… Gearing up for feature length & book. Look forward to chatting regarding same… Good write-up on the Belvins… ONWARD!

    Thursday December 17 at 1:01 pm

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