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Though we’ve met him already as the lead singer behind Big Jay McNeely with Three Dots And A Dash, the first single of which was a big seller, those were more like sneak previews… preludes to the main event.

This record on the other hand is where Jesse Belvin’s career becomes a viable entity in its own right and not just a case of an ambitiously talented kid taking advantage of randomly available opportunities which were largely reliant on others and may not last. From now on he would be the one in charge of his own musical destiny.

This is true for most kids entering into adulthood, but their career decisions were often merely practical by nature, something to provide them with good future prospects, comfortable living and a measure of status, but the jobs themselves were hardly anything that they’d use to define who they were and how they saw themselves as people.

But for Jesse Belvin music was his whole life and here is where that life begins in earnest.


Gotta Leave You All Alone
There are certain artists who might never have been the biggest stars in the music universe, but their light shone brightly enough to have been seen and followed by countless other luminaries.

You might call Jesse Belvin an entire generation of rock singer’s North Star… or since he was so identifiable as a Californian, their West Star… a guiding light.

It might be quicker to list the names who came of age during his era who weren’t influenced by his approach than those who were, which included everyone from Sam Cooke to Etta James, Marvin Gaye and Barry White. To add those who were disciples of his songwriting too would basically turn this page into a roll call of legends.

Yet Belvin had only a few hits, not all of them even under his own name, and maybe just one song as a performer that endures to this day, usually as a late night sign off for a radio station on the end of the dial.

Tangibly that’s a rather skimpy legacy for someone so revered.

But during his brief life Jesse Belvin defined this generation of rock fans who dreamed of making it as a singer themselves, whose day to day activities revolved around music – listening to it, writing it, singing it, having it as the backdrop to every waking moment and then having it as the soundtrack to their dreams when they fell asleep.

That’s not to say other generations of kids who were deeply invested in other styles, be it jazz or pop or whatever, hadn’t had similar obsessions pay off, but each genre needs somebody like that to make it and show that it can be done and for 1950’s rock ‘n’ roll, particularly those on the West Coast, Jesse Belvin was that guy.

What made him unique is how he cared far less about the usual draws of a professional music career, which was the fame and adoration gotten from having hits and being on stage in front of screaming fans night after night. He’d already had a hit with McNeely, All That Wine Is Gone, and went on the road with him and obviously Big Jay’s shows could incite pandemonium, yet Belvin quickly grew weary of it and quit mid-tour and retreated into the studio, crafting songs and singing for whoever was interested in recording him.

The first – of many – to enlist his services was Art Rupe of Specialty Records who didn’t treat Belvin as a typical new signee, a teenager at that, by making him earn his keep before seeing fit to promote him.

Instead right out of the gate with Baby, Don’t Go, Rupe seemed to know that he had a rare talent in his midst. A songwriter who had his fingers on the pulse of rock’s biggest fan base… a singer with the stylistic finesse of a jazzman and the rhythm and soul of a rocker… and, most importantly of all for his company’s prospects, an artist with an unquenchable desire to record as much as possible, payment be damned, just so he could get all of that music swirling around in his mind down on tape for the world to hear.


Know I Really Do
There are some singers with voices that knock you out. Their power is immense, their control first rate, their tone and vocal clarity is off the charts. They could sing the proverbial phone book and make it sound good.

Jesse Belvin wasn’t exactly lacking in any of those attributes but he had one thing that most all-time greats came up short on by comparison… when singing that phone book, Belvin was probably the only one who could convince you that it contained some deeper meaning just by how he phrased it.

Lots of singers used quirky personal traits – gimmicks really – as an identifier. Early Elvis Presley’s vocal hiccups, Sam Cooke’s “Whoah-oh”, James Brown’s grunts, Wilson Pickett’s blood curdling screams, Michael Jackson’s trademarked “he-he” effect, Mariah Carey’s venturing into whistle register.

Jesse Belvin’s was equally distinctive, yet more pliable than those, as he seemed to wrap the notes around his larynx and stretch them, twist them and let them rise and fall like a shuttlecock on a windy day. On Baby, Don’t Go he uses these tricks so effectively that it transforms a fairly simple tale of trying to get over the departure of his live-in girlfriend into the aural equivalent of how an expert mime would relate the story.

The verses have some of these characteristics embedded into them but for the most part are pretty straightforward as he gives it an gently gliding melody to let it go down easy and stick in your mind. But it’s the choruses where he displays genuine anguish in a way that’s both exaggerated and controlled, as if he’s trying to rein in his REAL emotions and just about failing at every turn.

Movin’ Out Baby
Imagine someone trying to physically recall somebody’s name or number and almost physically dragging it from the inner reaches of their mind with their body language and you’ll get the idea of how he transforms Baby, Don’t Go into a vivid visual scene.

Belvin is clearly pained by the revelation she’s leaving him and is not letting her go without protest, but he’s also smart enough to know that she’s made up her mind and his futile efforts to get her to reverse course not only won’t work, but will also make him look weak and thus cut down on the chance she reconsiders on her own.

It’s a masterful acting job, as he vacillates between desperation and casual acceptance of the turn of events in the course of a line or two. He doles out only a little information along the way but manages to present a clearly defined set-up, the plot twist and reactionary response followed by subdued resignation and blame shifting all in the course of two minutes. By the end you feel as if you know all of the pertinent facts despite him using far fewer words than most would need to convey half as much, as the moans, groans, held notes and breathy asides are far more telling than most anything you could find in the English language.

With a sax solo that fills in whatever blanks Jesse left in the narrative, the record is a one-act play on a single barren set that is made to appear like a full show… and he was just getting started.


Came Home And Found A Letter
In the future Jesse Belvin would be given the nickname “Mr. Easy” and a more apt description could never be found.

Everything he did seemed effortless, and maybe to him it was, from coming up with new songs at the drop of a hat, turning an arrangement on its head upon request, to singing whichever part was needed in group settings from bass to falsetto and finding new and innovative ways to bring added wrinkles to a melody, Belvin truly had no peer.

The amazing thing about it was that Jesse was still a teenager, he wouldn’t even turn 19 until December for goodness sakes, and he was already as good as he’d ever be even though as a record Baby, Don’t Go, through strong in every regard, isn’t even close to his best.

But what it is when you take a step back and look at it from modern times is the manifestation of kids growing up in a world where rock ‘n’ roll to them was already classic music. That he also dug Nat Cole and their ilk shows that, like any really creative soul, his mind was a musical sponge, but for his generation the primary moisture they’d all soak up would come from rock records.

This one, his very first effort as singer and songwriter, has a lot packed into it and yet never ceases to appear casual and unassuming while remaining captivating from start to finish.

All in all just another day in the life of a kid who for whom there wasn’t enough time to absorb and distill all the sounds he encountered.


(Visit the Artist page of Jesse Belvin for the complete archive of his records reviewed to date)