Born Jesse Lorenzo Belvin, 15 December 1932, San Antonio, Texas
R&B balladeer Jesse Belvin has been called the "Godfather of Los Angeles Doo-Wop". In L.A. Belvin was the shining light for his generation of singers. His cool, accomplished vocal style could have guaranteed him a lengthy career, but his life came to an untimely end in a car crash, at a time that he was about to cross over to a white audience.
Born in San Antonio, Belvin moved to the northern California coast with his family when he was four. By 1940, following his father's death, the family was living in Los Angeles. His early vocal training came from his mother, the director of the Mount Olivet Baptist Church. In church Jesse also learned to play the piano. In 1948 he won a talent contest held by Johnny Otis. Two years later, he joined Three Dots & A Dash, an R&B styled vocal group that was part of Big Jay McNeely's orchestra. The other members were Marvin Phillips, James Huff and female singer Undine Harris. With Belvin on lead vocals, McNeely recorded two singles for Imperial in January 1951, the first one of which - "All That Wine Is Gone" - became a minor hit on the West Coast. But Jesse soon left McNeely after a dispute over money.
He joined the Specialty label in 1952 as a solo singer and had his first release with "Confusin' Blues"/"Baby Don't Go". For the next Specialty single Jesse teamed up with his pal from Three Dots & A Dash, Marvin Phillips. Their "Dream Girl" (credited to Jesse & Marvin) was a big R&B hit (# 2) in early 1953. After two singles for John Dolphin's label Recorded in Hollywood, Belvin was drafted and served most of his army stint in West Germany.
Many sources claim that Jesse wrote "Earth Angel", the big 1955 hit by the Penguins (and Crew-Cuts). But the 1950s pressings show only one writer on the label, Curtis Williams. The history of the song is clouded by conflicting opinion, although over the years a consensus has been reached that its roots can be traced, at least in part, to Jesse Belvin. Curtis Williams either wrote or co-wrote with Gaynel Hodge a revised "Earth Angel". After several law suits, some as late as the 1980s (after "Earth Angel" had been featured in the hit movie "Back To the Future"), the BMI database now lists three authors of the song : Jesse Belvin, Curtis Williams and Gaynel Hodge.
After his discharge in late 1954, Belvin signed with Modern Records, though he would also often record with various vocal groups (the Sheiks, the Gassers, the Californians, the Cliques and others). Sometimes he sang lead, sometimes background, but all these group recordings obscure his career. This discography http://www.electricearl.com/dws/belvin.html tries by create some order in the confusion.
In 1953-54 Marvin Phillips had a few hits on Modern with his partner Emory Perry as Marvin and Johnny. When Perry was temporarily unavailable, Belvin became the new "Johnny" and recorded four Modern sides with Phillips as Marvin and Johnny (including a cover of "Ko Ko Mo"). Next he teamed up with Eugene Church for two singles as The Cliques ("The Girl In My Dreams" was a # 45 pop hit in May 1956), before he finally had his first solo release on Modern. The romantic ballad "Goodnight My Love" was a # 7 R&B hit in late 1956, with the help of deejay Alan Freed, who made the song the closing theme of his radio show. While under contract to Modern, Jesse also had releases on Money, Specialty, Federal, Empire and Cash, most of them not under his own name.
Belvin was a prolific songwriter, but his business approach was rather cavalier. In a period in which millions of dollars were sometimes earned on a carefully protected copyright, Belvin wrote songs as a way of raising quick cash and often sold them outright for as little as $ 100. The result was dozens upon dozens of songs that Jesse was responsible for as writer and singer on the demo or guide track, few of which he actually received credit for.
In 1958 Belvin was a member of The Shields, a group formed by L.A. producer George Motola with the sole purpose of covering "You Cheated" by the Slades. Originally released on Motola's Tender label, the Shields' version became a # 12 pop hit after it was leased to Dot. Frankie Ervin was the lead singer, Jesse sang falsetto in the background, and the group also included Johnny 'Guitar' Watson. Also in 1958, Belvin recorded for Aladdin and Knight (an Imperial subsidiary), but his big break came when he was signed by a major label, RCA. His first 45 for the label was a cover of the Italian smash "Volare", which was no match for the versions of Domenico Modugno and Dean Martin, but the subsequent single, "Funny", went to # 25 on the R&B charts and # 81 pop. Then, in the spring of 1959, came his biggest pop hit, "Guess Who" (# 31 pop, also # 7 R&B), which was written by his wife and manager, Jo Anne.
Despite his RCA contract, Jesse continued to moonlight for other labels, most notably Class. He is present in the background chorus on Eugene Church's 1959 hit "Pretty Girls Everywhere".
RCA's A&R man Shorty Rogers tried to steer Belvin in the direction of a pop crooner a la Nat King Cole and Billy Eckstine, and recorded two albums with him in 1959, featuring predominantly pop, jazz, and easy listening standards. Jesse's nickname was now "Mr. Easy", which was also the title of his second LP for RCA. But he lost much of his black fanbase. Wanting to reclaim his past glory, Belvin joined an R&B caravan tour at the beginning of 1960. But on February 6, 1960, shortly after finishing a performance in Little Rock, Arkansas, on a bill with Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Marv Johnson, Belvin and his wife were killed in a head-on car collision.
Jesse was only 27. His 'replacement' at RCA was Sam Cooke, his friend and admirer. Belvin never gained the legendary status that Cooke would achieve, but he was one of the most gifted and influential black performers in L.A.
More info : http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jesse_Belvin
Discographies : http://www.electricearl.com/dws/belvin.html
Acknowledgements : Steve Propes, Bruce Eder (All Music Guide), Billy Vera.
Dik, June 2014
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