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Jesse Belvin: "Mr. Easy"

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Jesse Belvin Back in the 1950s, the record industry was thrown open to hundreds of black songwriters, musicians and performers. Thanks to the rise of magnetic tape, the LP and vinyl 45, there was a sudden demand for talent in  the blues, R&B and jazz categories to meet increased production quotas. Los Angeles quickly became a center of blues and R&B recording at a growing number of small labels including Speciality and Imperial. Among the many R&B artists in L.A. was singer-songwriter Jesse Belvin.

Though more black artists were recording in the '50s than in previous decades, they also were most often victims of song theft, sub-par payments, skimmed royalties and other forms of chiseling. Belvin was no exception. His early records didn't gain much traction, and though he co-wrote Earth Angel in 1954, a crossover hit, ackowledgment of partial credit didn't come until years later. The same was true for other songs he helped write.

In the late '50s, as the 12-inch LP became standard in record-store music bins, Belvin's wife (and manager) encouraged him to retool his style—shifting away from R&B and toward pop. With a voice that combined Nat King Cole's round tones and Sammy Davis Jr.'s casual intensity, Belvin began to reach a wider audience. He also was admired by Sam Cooke and other honey-voiced black R&B singers moving in the same crossover direction.

In 1959, Belvin signed with RCA and recorded an album called Mr. Easy—his nickname. But before the album was released the following year, he went on tour with Cooke, Jackie Wilson and Arthur Prysock in February.

At the Robinson Auditorium [pictured above] in Little Rock, Ark., it's not clear whether all three singers fled the dance hall after being threatened by a white supremicist crowd for attempting to perform for an integrated audience. Or if Jackie Wilson had refused to perfom for an all-white audience as a protest against segregation, causing the performers to be threatened.

When they went to leave the hall, the tires on Wilson's 1960 Cadillac and Prysock's 1959 Lincoln Continental reportedly had been slashed. The rear wheels of Belvin's Caddy had reportedly been tampered with. Several hours later, in Hope, Ark, the Belvins along with Belvin's friend Charles Ford and driver Max Nohl were killed in a head-on collision. Belvin was 27 years old and his wife was 25.

The album Mr. Easy is important from a jazz standpoint because it was arranged by Marty Paich [pictured above] and featured solos by alto saxophonist and clarinetist Art Pepper and trumpeter Jack Sheldon. Paich's charts are among his finest for a singer and include band and strings tracks. All are glorious.

Most impressive is Belvin's ability to inflate his singing style to meet the size and scope of Paich's charts. His relaxed style clearly offered enormous pop-soul promise. There were three recording sessions in December, using three different orchestral configurations:

Tracks on the strings session: Angel Eyes, Imagination, What's New? and The Very Thought of You. The jazz musicians joining the strings were Jack Sheldon (tp), Russ Freeman (p), Bill Pittman (g), Joe Mondragon (b) and Mel Lewis (d).

The band-only tracks: Something Happens to Me, The Best Is Yet to Come and Let There Be Love and It's All Right With Me. The band: Conte Candoli, Jack Sheldon, Al Porcino, Ray Triscari, Stu Williamson (tp); Marshall Cram, Vern Friley, Frank Rosolino, Harry Betts (tb); Red Callender (tu); Art Pepper (as); Larry Bunker (vib,perc) Russ Freeman (p) Bill Pittman (g) Joe Mondragon (b) Mel Lewis (d) Marty Paich (arr,cond).

The band-plus-strings tracks: In the Still of the Night, Blues in the Night, I'll Buy You a Star and Makin' Whoopee. The band: Al Porcino, Conte Candoli, Stu Williamson, Dick Collins (tp); Dick Nash, Harry Betts, Pete Carpenter, Marshall Cram (tb); Art Pepper (as, cl); Milt Holland (vib,perc); Russ Freeman (p) Al Hendrickson (g) Joe Mondragon (b) and Mel Lewis (d).

Sheldon [pictured above] plays solos on What's New?, Let There Be Love, Imagination, Angel Eyes and The Very Thought of You.

Pepper [pictured above] plays superb alto sax solos on It's All Right With Me, Something Happens to Me, In the Still of the Night, Let There Be Love, The Best Is Yet to Come and Makin' Whoopee. He plays clarinet on Blues in the Night

To my ear, this album is one of the finest and successful marriages of soul, jazz and pop in the '50s—excluding Nat King Cole and Ray Charles, of course. Interestingly, Sam Cooke was signed to RCA in January 1960—a month before Belvin's death in February. As good as Cooke was, I can't think of a single album for RCA that he recorded that tops Belvin's sole effort with Paich, Pepper and Sheldon.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find Jesse Belvin's Mr. Easy—with Marty Paich's arrangements and solos by Art Pepper and Jack Sheldon—here.

JazzWax clip: Here are two tracks from Jesse Belvin's Mr. Easy—It's All Right With Me and Angel Eyes...


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
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