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.

Robinson Redux – February

grand opening adHere are some of the highlights from the annals of the Robinson Center Music Hall nee Joseph Taylor Robinson Memorial Auditorium.  This entry looks at bookings from Februarys in years ending with an 0 or 5.

The building was officially dedicated on February 16, 1940.  A few days earlier a children’s theatre troupe had entertained school kids with a performance in the music hall.  Also that month high school basketball continued in the exhibition hall.  The month had kicked off with a much more glamorous event as the Movie Ball took place in the exhibition hall.

The year 1945 featured a ecumenical Christian Youth Rally on February 4, a concert featuring Tito Guizar on February 7, the operetta Blossom Time on February 8 and the long-running comedy Life with Father on February 19.   In 1950, Robinson’s offerings ran from the Grand Ole Opry featuring Hank Williams (February 5), to Dick Contino (February 8) to the magician Blackstone (February 10 & 11) as well as the opera Il Trovatore (February 15) and a recital featuring Mrs. Rece Price (February 21).

By the mid 1950s, the touring business was changing.  The only notable booking at Robinson in February 1955 was on February 20 as it featured the Duke of Paducah and a little known singer from Mississippi named Elvis Presley.  Five years later, Jackie Wilson and Jesse Belvin headlined a concert on February 5, 1960. The Venable Quartet and several other gospel groups performed on February 12 and the Beaux Arts Bal de Tete took place on February 19.  In 1965, Donald Voorhees and the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra were in concert on February 21.

February 1970 showed much more activity.  Husband and wife Phil Ford and Mimi Hines starred in the national tour of I Do! I Do! on February 6 & 7. That show had been a hit on Broadway in the 1966-1967 season. Another hit from that season, Cabaret, played on February 19 & 20 with Tandy Cronyn starring.  In between, contralto Bernadette Greevy presented a recital.

Musician Jerry Jeff Walker performed at Robinson on February 23, 1975.  Earlier that month (February 19), the national tour of Pippin stopped by with Barry Williams (aka Greg Brady) in the title role.  Five years later, Ballet Arkansas welcomed Cynthia Gregory and Patrick Bissell in a performance on February 7, 1980. Later that month Mason Williams and his Bluegrass Band performed with the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra on February 23.  The next two nights, a tour of Jesus Christ Superstar took the stage.

David Copperfield kicked off February 1985 with two shows on the 1st.  The next day the musical The Cotton Patch Gospel was performed.  Musican Carman performed on February 25.  In February 1990, Peabo Bryson and jazz extraordinaire Billy Mitchell shared the stage on February 22.

In 1995, the focus was on music.  There was “An Evening with John Bayless” on February 7 as part of the Greater Little Rock Community Concert Association.  On February 11, the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra presented an evening of music of Rodgers & Hammerstein.  A few days later on February 17, various musical groups presented an evening of gospel music. The next night, Gladys Knight shook the house in a concert.  The month ended on February 28 with Nancy Griffith and the Blue Moon Orchestra. A February 8 concert with Della Reese was cancelled due to poor ticket sales.

Five years later, highlights included a tour of Camelot on February 15 – 18, and a staged concert version of the opera La Boheme presented by the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra.  In 2005, Kenny Loggins performed with the Arkansas Symphony on the 11 & 12. The ASO also presented an all Tchaikovsky concert with Jon Kimura Parker on piano.  Earlier in the month, President George W. Bush hosted a town hall forum on Social Security at Robinson Center.

In 2010, the ASO Valentine Pops concert featured Christiane Noll and Doug LaBrecque.  From February 16-18 STOMP rang out throughout Robinson.  The month ended on a more quieter note as the ASO and Philippe Quint presented the Violin Concerto by Jean Sibelius.

Little Rock Look Back: Jesse Belvin in concert at Robinson Auditorium

Ark Gazette 60.02.05 (Fri)The 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.

Rebecca Miller, in her blog https://jackiewilsonlover.wordpress.com/, goes into great detail debunking many of the supposed “facts” about the February 5, 1960, concert at Robinson.  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.

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.