Though he had few hits and a short star-crossed career, there are many in music who will adamantly insist that Jesse Belvin was the most talented rock ‘n’ roll singer of the Nineteen Fifties. In addition to his skills as a vocalist he was a prolific songwriter who often sold his compositions outright for cash and no credit and although he was barely in his twenties he served as a mentor to countless kids only a few years younger than he was, many of whom went on to hitmaking careers of their own.

With that kind of résumé it’s easy to see why Belvin’s name endured long after even more successful contemporaries had been largely forgotten.

Jesse Lorenzo Belvin was born in December 1933 in Texas but moved to Los Angeles as a child where he went to Jefferson High School, by far the most fertile ground for musical talent of any public school in America. There he was taught by Samuel Browne, who had broken the faculty’s color barrier at the school and instituted the most diverse musical classes anywhere, teaching jazz (to among others Dexter Gordon, Buddy Collette and Chico Hamilton) in addition to forming a marching band, a swing band, a classical orchestra and the most enviable choir in existance where Belvin, and most of the prolific L.A. vocal group scene, learned their trade.

Unlike most of them however, Belvin didn’t even wait to graduate before making his professional debut, playing piano on a session in late 1951 before joining an older Jefferson High grad, Big Jay McNeely, as the frontman of the vocal group Three Dots And A Dash, scoring a hit with “All That Wine Is Gone” and going on tour with them before quitting the road and returning home to finish school and decamp to the studio and start his own career.

Signing with Specialty Records he soon scored a hit in a duet with Marvin Phillips, his former cohort with Three Dots And A Dash, though at the same time Belvin cut the identical song as a solo artist for John Dolphin’s Recorded In Hollywood label which made the charts first in Los Angeles before the superior duet version took off nationally.

Over the next year Belvin wrote and sang at every opportunity, both solo and with Phillips, as well as co-writing The Penguins smash “Earth Angel”, before he was drafted into the Army. His girlfriend – later his wife – Jo Ann desperately tried keeping Jesse’s name recognition high by constantly asking radio stations to play his records.

When he was discharged he picked up where he left off with a succession of excellent records on Specialty before releasing his most enduring single, “Goodnight My Love”, on Modern, a Top Ten national R&B hit.

But it was his side gigs during this era that really cemented his legend among the music world of the day. He and much of the cream of the L.A. vocal group scene had been friends since childhood and would drive around at night drinking and smoking weed and singing, working up new material as they went, or creating complex arrangements to familiar songs – his radical re-working of “Old MacDonald” was later done almost note for note by The Diablos.

In the mid-1950’s he sang on so many records under so many group names for so many labels – while taking on any role from bass to tenor to falsetto in addition to his natural baritone – there’s a chance some aren’t even known today. Along the way there were plenty of hits and enduring classics with The Cliques (“Girl In My Dreams”), The Sheiks (“So Fine”), The Gassers (“Hum De Dum”), The Turks (“It’s You”), The Shields (“You Cheated”), The Feathers (“This Is My Love Song”), The Fellows (“Pretty Girls Everywhere”) and The Saxons (“Is It True”) all of which led to his being signed by RCA Records where he was groomed to become a crossover pop star, trying to use his rock credentials to pull in younger listeners and get them interested in more mature styles.

While Belvin had some hits here, even was the first rock singer nominated for a Grammy for Best Male Vocal in 1959 – losing to some guy named Frank Sinatra – much of his output during this time consisted of standards with elaborate orchestral arrangements and while at times he managed to inject more authentic soulful personality into them, it was not what he excelled at which was self-penned songs in group settings with more intricate head arrangements he’d make up on the spot. But if nothing else it spread his name recognition well beyond Southern California and with his wife taking over the business side, which Belvin had been notoriously lax in handling, selling songs he’d written for fifty or a hundred dollars, he began to finally take steps towards building a proper career.

One of the necessary steps to do so was hitting the road, something he’d been reluctant to do ever since his first tour with McNeely in 1952, as it took him away from the studio for too long. In the winter of 1960 though he set out on tour with Jackie Wilson and others across the South. In Little Rock, Arkansas they were headliners on the first show for an integrated audience in the city and dealt with the usual racist abuse which marred the show, but which also may have led to his death.

Jackie Wilson had car trouble on the road after the show which was believed to have been caused by foul play. He made it safely to the next stop in Dallas however, but Jesse Belvin and his wife, traveling in another car, weren’t so fortunate.

Though Belvin’s chauffeur had previously been fired by Ray Charles for erratic driving, the belief was the car had been tampered with which led to the crash that claimed his life and that of Belvin who tried shielding Jo Ann who was rendered unconscious. The hospital refused to treat her until Wilson showed up with money but she died of her injuries – and perhaps a broken heart – days later. Because they were black there was never even an investigation into the suspicious nature of their deaths.

You would think that his death, especially in a non-romantic manner, combined with only a few hits, most of which came out without his name being officially attached to them, would mean his career would be quickly forgotten. But in years to come the number of artists who had grown up collecting his records, or literally learning the business at his feet, kept his legacy alive. From long distance fans like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder at Motown, Lou Rawls and Sam Cooke, who essentially replaced Belvin on RCA’s roster, to contemporaries like Etta James, Richard Berry and Johnny “Guitar” Watson, and those like Charlies Wright, The Mighty Hannibal and Barry White who were taken under his wing, Belvin’s name was held in the highest regard by those who knew best.

Jesse Belvin was rock’s ultimate stylist, able to sing anything and make it distinctly his own. He was also the first rock singer to make the studio, rather than the stage, his primary outlet as an artist, using it as a laboratory to create whatever came to his fertile musical mind. Along the way he was dubbed Mr. Easy which reflected his most unique quality in that he made everything sound effortless, truly a one of a kind talent.

JESSE BELVIN DISCOGPRAHY (Records Reviewed On Spontaneous Lunacy):

(Imperial 5115; March, 1951)
As member of Three Dots And A Dash… Though just 17, Jesse Belvin’s prodigious vocal talent is fully evident here, sounding eager yet staying tight in the pocket, leading the group with a soulful urgency while Big Jay McNeely basically provides support on his own record. (9)

(Imperial 5115; March, 1951)
As member of Three Dots And A Dash… Unfortunately Belvin’s role is limited here, taking a back seat to Jimmy Huff who handles the majority of the lead while Big Jay McNeely gets a good solo but little else to do. (4)

(Imperial 5130; June, 1951)
As member of Three Dots And A Dash… Only Belvin comes out of this looking okay as Big Jay McNeely practically sits out entirely, handing over the lead instrumental chores to trumpeter John Anderson who thinks it’s a pop song and mars the record with his mere presence. (3)

(Specialty 435; July, 1952)
A fairly basic composition but one imbued with a lot more meaning thanks to Belvin’s expressive lead using every trick in the book, from drawing out notes to carefully chosen pauses to create an atmospheric record that shows off his natural skills. (7)

(Specialty 435; July, 1952)
The first gem of Belvin’s songwriting career gives a well-rounded look at the ups and downs of falling in love with the wrong girl in surprisingly deep, yet compact, fashion, as his vocal adds emotional gravity while the lithe Maxwell Davis arrangement handles the rest. (8)