Black History Month – Jesse Belvin and Robinson Center

jesse-belvin-2The name Jesse Belvin is largely forgotten. As a songwriter in the 1950’s he wrote “Earth Angel.” He also had an R&B hit with “Goodnight My Love.”  If he is recalled for anything today, it is tragically for being part of the mythical “27” club of musicians who died at the age 27.

On February 5, 1960, he appeared in a concert at Robinson Auditorium for what was billed as the “First Rock & Roll Concert of 1960.”  The headliner for the concert was Jackie Wilson.  The next morning, Belvin died at age 27 in a car accident outside of Hope on his way to his next concert in Texas.  Also killed in the wreck were Belvin’s wife, the man driving the car, and a couple in another car which Belvin’s car struck.

Many urban legends have sprung up about the concert at Robinson. Some, no doubt, fueled by Little Rock’s racially divided then-recent past in September 1957.  Most of these purport that the concert in which he appeared was the first integrated concert in Little Rock. Most rumors also state that Belvin had received threats leading up to the concert, that a riot took place at the concert or at least was stopped several times by disruptions caused by white agitators, that Belvin and others were run out of town, and that the accident was caused by damage inflicted to his tires before leaving Little Rock.  There are several variations of these purported facts.

While it is true Belvin performed at Robinson Auditorium the night before he died, it was not before a racially mixed audience.  It was not until August 1961 that the first concert took place in Robinson that did not have segregated seating, and that was a one-time only event.  It would not be standard practice at Robinson Auditorium until the 1965 passage of the Civil Rights Act.

While the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat at the time did not shy away from covering racial issues (each with their own slant), neither paper mentions anything about the discord at the concert.  They do discuss Belvin’s subsequent accident near Hope.  It was apparently caused when the driver of the car containing Belvin and his wife fell asleep at the wheel. (If the tires had been damaged in Little Rock, there is no way the car would have made it to Hope.)

In this day of the internet where it is easy for myths to fester into fact, it is hard to dispel rumors.  What is true is that a life was tragically cut short, and that Jesse Belvin’s last concert was on the stage of Robinson Auditorium.