Born: December 15, 1932, in San Antonio, Texas
Died: February 6, 1960, near Hope, Arkansas
Bands: The Shields, and solo. Co-writer of The Penguins’ “Earth Angel”
Jesse Belvin is hardly mentioned in the annals of rock, but his contributions are significant to its early development. Belvin could croon like Nat King Cole or roar, sounding like a combination of Little Richard and Elvis Presley. Belvin was a prolific songwriter and was known to sell them off to other doo-wop groups in the LA area for $100 a piece. Jesse Belvin co-wrote “Earth Angel,” which was a major hit for the Penguins in the mid-fifties, peaking at the rhythm and blues charts and even crossing over to a respectable #8 on the pop charts. Frank Zappa paid homage to the song and the LA doo-wop scene that he grew up with on Weasels Ate My Flesh. “Earth Angel” was recently recorded by both Death Cab For Cutie and Weezer.
RCA Records signed Belvin in 1959 and decided to promote him as much as possible. Jesse recorded a slew of singles and Dick Clark ended up using Belvin’s “Goodnight My Love” as the closing theme for American Bandstand for several years.
February 2, 1960, Belvin played for the first segregated audience in the history of Little Rock, Arkansas. White supremacists hailed racial epithets and managed to halt the show twice. Belvin had received several death threats since his tour started in the still-segregated south, and he was scared for his life. Four hours after the show ended, Belvin was on the road near Hope, Arkansas, with his manager/wife JoAnn and a driver when the black Cadillac skidded off the road. Jesse and the driver died on impact while JoAnn died at the hospital later that night. A trooper on the accident scene stated that the rear tires had “been tampered with.” No more details surfaced, but The 27s book tells another version of what happened that night. Belvin is largely forgotten, but his songs and recordings live on.