Jesse Belvin was born on December 15, 1932 in the Texas city of San Antonio. He died on February 6, 1960 in a fatal car accident, not caused by him but by the driver of the vehicle he was riding in. At the time of his death he was 27 years and 53 days old, an early member of the club populated by famous musicians who died at 27. He was a singer, pianist, and songwriter who had attained a degree of success in the rhythm and blues genre in his short life, and was looking to be a bigger success in the future. He was on a major package tour in Arkansas when he died, and the tragedy cut short a very promising career.
Although he was a native Texan, Belvin and his family relocated to Los Angeles California in 1937, when he was 5 years old. In a pattern that would be repeated many times in the lives of musicians, the move changed his life. As he grew up, he became involved in singing and playing the piano, and found kindred spirits in the progressive atmosphere of southern California. Immediately after graduating from high school he joined a vocal group backing a saxophone player. As a member of Three Dots and a Dash, he got his first experiences in the recording studio as well as on stage. After a couple of years he decided to strike out on his own, and after a few failed attempts at a hit record, he released a single called “Dream Girl” that made it to number 2 on the R&B charts. Belvin was 21 years old at the time of his first hit song.
The draft soon snagged the young man and he went into the army, but his songwriting efforts continued. In 1954 he had a huge hit with a song called “Earth Angel,” recorded by the Penguins. It sold over a million copies over the next couple of years and was the first notable crossover song from the R&B world into the mainstream pop charts.
The next period of his life saw Belvin refining his craft, singing his songs under various names for different labels, and trying to have another hit song, with only minor successes. By 1959 he had made a decision to change his style, at the behest of his wife and manager Jo Anne, to a more salable and popular crooning type of singing. His model for this change was Nat “King” Cole, and it was the right move – he had a hit single in the top 40 with “Guess Who,” written by Jo Anne. This success led to renewed attention and promotion from his new label, RCA, who wanted to make him a crossover smash. He was on a tour of the south with Sam Cooke and Jackie Wilson when he met his untimely end.
Because the package show was the very first Little Rock show featuring black artists, there was some controversy surrounding the accident. The performance was marred by white audience members yelling racial slurs and making threats, and there were reports that the members of the troupe had reason to fear for their lives. However, it was definitively shown that the cause of the crash was that Belvin’s driver was sleepy (the driver had recently been fired from a similar job for falling asleep). Ironically, Jesse Belvin’s life was cut short by the very success he had been courting – a common if unfortunate occurrence in the forever 27 club.
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