In his home town of Los Angeles, the late Jesse Belvin was - as Etta James recounts in her autobiography, Rage To Survive - the shining light for his generation of singers. He first recorded in 1951 with tenor sax honker Big Jay McNeely, a year later scoring his first chart hit, Dream Girl, as half of the duo Jesse & Marvin. On leave from the army in 1954, he wrote Earth Angel, one of the all-time classic doo wop anthems. A couple of neighbourhood guys claimed co-authorship, and Jesse had to settle in court for a one third writers' share.
Jesse had a habit of knocking off a tune in the car on the way to a recording session, and then selling it outright for a few bucks. Not long ago an ancient demo surfaced, giving credence to his claims of having penned So Fine, later a hit by the Fiestas. Goodnight My Love composer George Motola told the story of how he'd written the verses of the song some years earlier, but had never come up with a bridge. When Jesse was in his office one day, saying he was going to cut a session with strings, George played him the tune and, in minutes, Jesse came up with the bridge, offering it to George for $400. Songwriter John Marascalco, lyricist on a number of Little Richard hits (Rip It Up, Ready Teddy, Good Golly Miss Molly) was also in the room. He pulled out his wallet, purchasing Jesse's half of what has become a standard.
Goodnight My Love could and should have set Jesse Belvin up for the kind of chart career that an artist of his stature fully deserved. But Jesse's label, Modern, decided to cut back operations not long afterwards, leaving him and almost all of their other acts in the lurch. After a period of hustling a session here and there, Jesse wound up at RCA Victor, a major label with the resources to make him into the next black superstar. After years of struggle, it looked like his time had come.
Once at RCA Victor, Belvin hooked up with the label's West Coast A&R man, jazz trumpeter Shorty Rogers, who quickly pulled the singer's coat to the value of protecting his copyrights. Almost immediately Jesse had a hit on RCA, Guess Who, credited to his wife Jo Ann and published by Michele Music, a company jointly owned by Rogers, Belvin and their wives.
His business straight, it was now time to start making classy albums, the kind that would make for a long term career playing to grown-ups rather than hit singles, which were fine for booking gigs where he performed for teenyboppers. This package features both of Jesse's RCA albums in their entirety, as well as all the 45s he cut that did not make it on either album. Its release marks the first time that all of Jesse's RCA recordings have been collected together in one package, and we're very glad to have it in Ace's catalogue alongside our earlier volume of Jesse's Modern sides "Goodnight My Love" (CDCHD 336).
Both RCA albums feature predominantly pop, jazz and easy listening standards, and most of his singles also leaned heavily in those directions. Collectively they show that Jesse was being groomed by his label to become the next Nat "King" Cole. Jesse and his A&R man Dick Pierce were still finding their way somewhat during the sessions that spawned the first album, "Just Jesse Belvin", but by the time the sessions for the posthumously-issued "Mr Easy" were concluded, Jesse had all his ducks in a row. With dazzling arrangements by Marty Paich, and musical contributions from Art Pepper, Frank Rosolino, Conte Condoli, Jack Sheldon, Mel Lewis and a host of other West Coast masters of jazz, the sessions was inspired and the resulting album was (and still is) an instant hipster classic.
Jesse did something that is really difficult and what only the true masters can do: he made everything he did look and sound easy. If you ask anybody who was someone in black music in 50s Los Angeles, and you will find no one more highly regarded than Jesse Belvin. When I was producing Lou Rawls a few years ago, I asked if he'd known Jesse when he and Sam Cooke first moved to L.A. The usually cool Mr. Rawls lit up, saying "Yeah, I knew Jesse. Man, did you ever hear his album "Mr Easy"? That's gotta be the greatest jazz/pop LP ever made!" (Nancy Wilson also once gave me the same opinion.)
Lou went on to tell of the clique he hung out with in the late 50s, which included Sam, Les McCann, Gene McDaniels, Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Larry Williams and Jesse Belvin, adding that, even among that array of greats, "we all bowed to Jesse, even Sam. Jesse was our leader."
Some years ago, I also spoke with Marty Paich's son, David, leader of the rock group Toto. David told me that his father, who'd recently died, had told him that "Mr Easy" was his favourite of all his work, which included magnificent charts for Ray Charles and countless others.
Tragically, Jesse died in an automobile accident barely two months after the final recording sessions for "Mr Easy". (His RCA 'replacement' was his friend and admirer Sam Cooke). The album, which should have made him an international star, served as his eulogy.
The material Jesse cut for RCA does much more than tell the story of one more might-have-been. Jesse Belvin was the very best, and "Guess Who: The RCA Recordings" fully supports that statement or any like it. Enjoy!
by BILLY VERA