When singer/songwriter Jesse Belvin died in a car accident on February 6, 1960, he became the first artist of the rock ‘n’ roll era to join the as-yet-unnamed 27 Club. And while some members of that most gruesome assembly are more notable for the age at which they died than for the work they left behind, Belvin’s music is worth remembering.
Even if you think you’ve never heard a Jesse Belvin song, you actually have. In 1954 a song co-written by Belvin, “Earth Angel,” was recorded by the Penguins and reached #8 on the Billboard singles chart. It stands as one of the greatest songs of the decade, and although Belvin had no small amount of subsequent R&B success over the next few years — 1956’s “Goodnight My Love” hit #7 on the R&B chart — he struck out for a new record label and a new sound in 1959.
Guided by his wife and manager Jo Anne, Belvin found a home on the RCA Victor imprint and attempted re-cast himself in the mold of a smooth crooner à la Nat King Cole. Late in 1959 Belvin released his first long-player for the label, Just Jesse Belvin. It featured the singer floating over sharp arrangements by the likes of Shorty Rogers and was heavy on contemporary orchestral pop.
With the release of Just Jesse Belvin, it was clear that Belvin and RCA were taking direct aim at the coveted crossover white audience of the late ’50s. And yet there was one song, tucked away in the middle of the album, in between lush takes on standards like “My Funny Valentine,” “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart,” and “Love Is Here to Stay” that stood apart for two reasons. For one, it was an original composition by Jo Anne Belvin, and for another, it perfectly encapsulates an artist in transition.
“Guess Who” at first sounds like a thousand other doo-wop/R&B songs of the era, although Belvin’s smooth but earthy delivery elevate it almost instantly. But within the next 30 seconds the song takes a slight left turn with both sweet (almost saccharine) backing vocals and a supremely effective drop from F# to D# at the end of the chorus (if my abysmal music theory skills haven’t failed me). Honestly, there’s not a whole lot separating this song from a typical Countrypolitan number of the era, and that’s no insult.
“Guess Who” actually predates the release of Belvin’s first album by several months. Released in February 1959, the single (b/w the Broadway number “My Girl Is Just Enough Woman for Me”) made its first appearance on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on March 30, 1959 — the same week as another song I’ve featured here, “Poor Jenny” by the Everly Brothers. It began a slow climb up both the Hot 100 and R&B charts, where it peaked during the week of April 20 (#33 Hot 100, #7 R&B). Bolstered by the moderate success of “Guess Who,” Jesse Belvin returned to the studio in late 1959 to record what would become his second studio LP — Mr. Easy.
Notably, the “Guess Who” earned Belvin two Grammy Award nominations in 1959: Best Male Vocal Performance, where he lost to Frank Sinatra, and Best Rhythm & Blues Performance, where he lost to Dinah Washington.
On February 6, 1960, Belvin joined Sam Cooke, Marv Johnson, and Jackie Wilson for a concert in front of a racially integrated audience in Little Rock, Arkansas, a rarity at the time. After finishing the show — which was interrupted several times by whites shouting racial epithets — Belvin and his wife got in a car and headed toward Dallas for another show.
As part of a caravan with Wilson, Belvin made it as far as Hope, Arkansas before his driver likely fell asleep, swerved off the road and collided with a car in the opposite lane. The driver (who had been fired by Ray Charles for drinking and poor driving) and Jesse were killed instantly; Jo Anne drifted in and out of a coma in a nearby hospital and died from her injuries soon after the accident. There were rumors at the time that Belvin’s car had been tampered with but they were never proven.