Jesse Belvin was a key figure in the development of rhythm & blues music on the West Coast in his role as a singer and songwriter.
He was born Jesse Lorenzo Belvin in San Antonio in 1932. At age five he moved to Los Angeles with his family, where he sang in his church choir. By age 16 young Jesse was singing with a local band. In 1951 he made his first attempts at recording, with Big Jay McNeely. He recorded for various Hollywood record labels, leading up to a stint in the US Army. In 1953 he recorded Dream Girl, a song that rose to number 2 R&B, and the artist on the recording was billed as Jesse & Melvin, for Jesse Belvin and sax player Marvin Phillips.
Belvin had spent some of his time writing songs and it was during his time in the service that he wrote what would become his first pop hit as a songwriter, Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine). He shared the songwriting credits with Curtis Williams (following a legal dispute), and it became a giant hit on the R&B chart for Williams' group, the Penguins. It was also a number 8 pop hit for the Penguins in 1955, and a cover version by the Canadian artists the Crew-Cuts did even better.
Belvin was beginning to draw notice in West Coast music circles, and after serving his time in the Army he returned to Los Angeles. He resumed recording on various labels, sometimes with a group and sometimes as a solo act, and sometimes under different names. His first recording for Modern Records in 1956 was a soulful tune called Goodnight My Love, a song that disc jockey Alan Freed adopted as the closing theme for his radio program. Some reports say that Barry White played piano on this recording, at the tender age of 11.
Belvin married his songwriting partner and his inspiration, Jo Ann, who was nearly four years his junior, and she became his manager. In 1958 West Coast record producer George Motola assembled a group with the express purpose of recording one song titled You Cheated. Motola had worked with Jesse at Modern Records. The group included Frankie Ervin, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, and Jesse Belvin, among others, and called itself the Shields. You Cheated was a commercial success, and it had a very interesting song on the back of it titled That's The Way It's Gonna Be.
His wife enouraged Jesse to develop a smooth style that he could call his own, and some compared him to Nat King Cole. By 1959 Jo Ann had arranged for a contract for Jesse with RCA. His only top forty pop hit as a solo recording artist, written by his wife Jo Ann, was Guess Who on RCA in 1959. He was working on an album titled Mr. Easy (a nickname Belvin had acquired) as the 50's came to an end.
In February of 1960 Belvin performed before an integrated audience in Little Rock, Arkansas, a performance that was charged with strong racial prejudice that was rampant in the South at the time. Belvin had received a number of death threats prior to the concert. He was on a bill that night with Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, and Marv Johnson. Some white members of the audience were loud, interrupting the concert more than once by shouting racial slurs. Belvin completed his work and left. Just hours after the concert Jesse was traveling in an automobile through Hope, Arkansas (known today as the birthplace of former President Bill Clinton) with others, and there was an accident. Jesse and the driver of the car were killed instantly, and Jo Ann Belvin died later at a hospital in Hope. They left two children. There was speculation, never proven, that the car had possibly been tampered with prior to the February 6 event. Jesse and Jo Ann were buried together at Evergreen Cemetery in Los Angeles.
Although the name Jesse Belvin is not widely known today, and he lived only to the age of 27, his influence on R&B music was extensive, particularly on the West Coast. His style was an influence on Sam Cooke, as well as on the development of R&B music still to come. He is remembered primarily as the author of Earth Angel, and as a member of the Shields on the recording of You Cheated, as well as for his recording of Goodnight My Love.
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