The lost promise of Jesse Belvin
Sixty years ago last month, the singer Jesse Belvin was travelling with his wife Jo Ann from a show in Little Rock, Arkansas, where he had performed at the city’s first integrated show, to his next engagement in Dallas, Texas, a journey of 300 miles. In the early hours of the morning they were outside Hope, Arkansas on I-30 when their driver, a friend named Charles Ford, veered into the wrong lane and ran head-on into an oncoming car. All three occupants of Belvin’s Cadillac were killed, as were those in the other car, a couple from Milwaukee.
Belvin was 27, already established as a key figure on the Los Angeles R&B scene, with a new RCA Records contract and realistic ambitions of crossing over a much wider audience. His smooth voice and musicianship allowed him to deliver a grown-up Broadway song as convincingly as a greasy teenage ballad. Had he survived, we might never have heard of Sam Cooke — who signed with RCA immediately after Belvin’s death — or Marvin Gaye, whose background and aspirations were very similar.
Born in San Antonio, Texas, Belvin had moved to South Los Angeles with his mother at the age of five. He sang in church, becoming a choir leader during his teens, before gravitating to the local doo-wop scene. At 20, he had a hand in writing “Earth Angel”, a massive hit for the Penguins and a doo-wop template. The song’s authorship was long disputed, but it seems to have had its origins in Belvin’s habit of sketching a snatch of a song and passing it on for other hands to complete. He may even have written the whole thing. The Fiestas’ “So Fine” was his, even though it’s usually credited to Johnny Otis, as was “Dream Girl”, a hit for Belvin in 1952 when recorded for one of the small labels run by the Hollywood record store owner John Dolphin.
He had also joined the band of the popular tenor saxophonist Big Jay McNeely, who had put together a vocal group — three men and one woman — called Three Dots and a Dash . Leaving McNeely in 1953, he re-recorded “Dream Girl” as a duo with Marvin Phillips, a fellow Dot, for Art Rupe’s Specialty label; released under the names of Jesse and Marvin, the song enjoyed even better sales. That success, however, was temporarily derailed by a draft notice.
Two years later, on returning home from army service, he resumed his activities within the LA scene, working with a variety of vocal groups, including the Feathers, the Chargers, the Cliques and the Sheiks, and alongside such ambitious young men as Johnny “Guitar” Watson, Charles Wright and his cousin Tony “Nite Owl” Allen. A set of demos recorded the ’50s show a mastery of a variety of R&B styles to match that of his LA contemporary Richard Berry, the versatile composer of “Louie Louie”.
Late in 1956 he recorded another doo-wop ballad, the gorgeous “Goodnight My Love (Pleasant Dreams)”, for the Bihari brothers’ Modern Records. George Motola had written the outline of the song, but invited Belvin to add a middle eight and polish it up. Declining a credit, Jesse asked instead for $400 — which was provided, in exchange for half the song’s copyright, by another songwriter, John Marascalo. Featured every night as the closing music to Alan Freed’s radio show, it became a long-lasting favourite.
In 1958 he was signed to RCA by the jazz trumpeter and bandleader Shorty Rogers, then in charge of the label’s West Coast A&R department. This was his break, giving access to big budgets and big promotion, with the eye on the audience captured by Nat King Cole. His first album, Just Jesse Belvin, featured rather anonymous MOR arrangements by Ray Martin and Dennis Farnon on songs like “My Funny Valentine” and “Secret Love”. His version of “Volare” was released as a single; not his finest hour, it fared poorly in competition with Domenico Modugno and Dean Martin.
Shorty Rogers put the great Marty Paich in charge of the arrangements for his second album, giving the singer more stimulating settings and a band including such jazz greats as the trumpeters Conte Candoli and Jack Sheldon, the alto saxophonist Art Pepper, the pianist Russ Freeman and the drummer Mel Lewis. The album was titled Mr Easy, and its versions of “What’s New” and “Angel Eyes” stand comparison with the best ballad singers of the era. In this environment Belvin showed immaculate control of his suave tenor voice and a beautifully understated gift for phrasing a line.
I was exaggerating, of course, when I suggested that we’d never have heard of Sam Cooke or Marvin Gaye. But were you to spend a day with Belvin’s legacy, recorded between 1952 and 1959, you might agree that this was an artist of prodigious quality who, until fate struck, was on course for a great career. And there’s no telling where it might have led.
* Jesse Belvin’s recordings are collected on The Blues Balladeer (Specialty); Goodnight My Love (Ace); a fascinating album of unreleased 1958 demos titled So Fine (Night Train); and Guess Who: The RCA Victor Recordings (Ace), which includes Just Jesse Belvin and Mr Easy. The latter is also available coupled on a single CD with Ethel Azama’s Cool Heat on the Fresh Sound label. Much of the information in the above post is gleaned from sleeve notes by Steve Propes, Ray Topping, Jim Dawson and Tony Rounce, whose ischolarship is gratefully acknowledged.