THE BROWNS

The "Nashville Sound" of the late 1950s incorporated pop production values as a way to broaden its appeal to mainstream listeners, though it endured widespread criticism from C&W purists. Yet it was successful in terms of record sales and provided greater opportunities for singers and musicians like Marty Robbins, Sonny James, Ferlin Husky and Jim Reeves, some of whom adjusted their approach to performing as early as 1956. The Browns may well be the first country group to employ this style, easing into the sound quite naturally. Coming up at the same time as Elvis Presley, the Browns had very little in common with his technique, but appealed to the same general audience. Touring together during those first couple of years, it turns out they were teamed with the future King of Rock and Roll more than any other music act (with the exception, perhaps, of his late '60s and '70s backing group The Sweet Inspirations).

Floyd Brown and his wife Birdie had five children: Ella Maxine (born in 1931 in Campti, Louisiana), James Edward (who came along in 1934), brother Raymond, little sis Bonnie (born in '38) and littler sister Norma (the latter four born and raised in Sparkman, Arkansas, a small town about 90 miles south of Little Rock). Floyd worked at a local sawmill and lumber yard and played guitar in his spare time at square dances with his fiddler brother Wilburn Brown. Maxine and Jim were quite fascinated by it all and decided to form a singing duo in 1952 after Jim sang in a talent contest sponsored by Little Rock radio station KLRA. After that, the two were regularly featured on KLRA's Barnyard Frolic, a live show at the Robinson Auditorium hosted each Saturday by Dutch O'Neal (who later ran for governor of Arkansas). By the early months of 1954 they had reached a much larger audience through guest shots on KWKH's Louisiana Hayride, broadcast on dozens of radio stations out of Shreveport, Louisiana. They met Elvis there when he began performing on the show later in the year, after the regional success of his first Sun Records single, "That's All Right."

Jim Edward and Maxine had already made their first record (in March '54) for the Fabor label. "Looking Back to See" ('...if you were lookin' back at me') featured the Louisiana Hayride Band; the catchy pure-country tune penned by the siblings with maximum fiddling and honky-tonk piano was a top ten hit with country radio disc jockeys, yet held no clue as to the style the soon-to-be expanded act would become famous for. Before long the duo gained further exposure on another syndicated radio show, Ozark Jubilee on KWTO in Springield, Missouri. In 1955 their booking agent, Tom Perryman, forged a deal with Presley's manager Bob Neal for Jim Edward and Maxine to headline a 15-day tour of Texas with Elvis (and his bandmates, guitarist Scotty Moore and bassist Bill Black) as their opening act. By the time the tour got under way in August, their 17-year-old sister had made the act a trio, billed as Jim Edward and Maxine Brown with Bonnie (or slight variations thereof).

Another original composition, fourth single "Here Today and Gone Tomorrow," was a traditionally-arranged ballad that became a top ten airplay hit during the 1955 holiday season. They continued touring in increasingly larger venues, the Browns/Presley billing reversing itself as Tupelo's favorite son's star heated up past the boiling point. Elvis had a huge crush on younger sister Bonnie and at one point he told father Floyd he was going to ask her to marry him. Then everything changed; young women from all corners of the land flocked to the shows, vying for his attention (they didn't exactly overlook Jim Edward, either). Before long, life in a world with "50 million fans" changed Elvis's life forever...and the once-headlining family act became a memorable image in a rear-view mirror.

As with Presley, RCA Victor signed the Browns to a long-term contract, but in their case confined promotional efforts to country radio and its fans. Another top ten C&W hit, "I Take the Chance," written by Ira and Charlie Louvin, was the best-selling disc yet. The Louvins also penned the follow-up, "Just as Long as You Love Me," as a softer harmonic approach became increasingly evident. Their first single of '57, the ballad "Money," came from songwriter and rock guitarist Zeb Turner. Though the group's name had evolved to Jim Edward, Maxine and Bonnie Brown, the autumn '57 single "I Heard the Bluebirds Sing" came right before they shortened it all the way down to The Browns. Jim Edward had just been drafted by the Army and served two years, using his time on leave to join his sisters for studio recordings and live shows. Sister Norma filled in as needed, temporarily making the act an all-female trio; later, Norma made herself available to replace Maxine and Bonnie during their respective pregnancies. Then when Jim Edward's service ended in 1959, the original trio remade one of their favorite French songs and had the hit of a lifetime.

Les Compagnons de la Chanson (song companions) was a large male vocal group formed in Lyon, France that had as many as eleven members at one time. Some had sung together as parts of other groups including Compagnons de la Musique (music companions) before agreeing on the permanent name in 1946. They backed Edith Piaf on her 1946 recording of songwriter Jean Villard's "Les Trois Cloches" (three bells) and had several major French hits of their own during the '40s, '50s and '60s. In early 1952, their English language version was a hit in the U.S. on Columbia (under its most famous title "The Three Bells," with lyrics by Bert Reisfeld); the song, with its story of the life and death of a fictional Jimmy Brown who lived in '...a village hidden deep in the valley...among the pine trees half forlorn,' had been a favorite of Jim Edward's, the coincidental name match no doubt adding to its appeal.

The trend towards soft-vocal one-man-two-woman acts reached its apex in April 1959 when The Fleetwoods, a pop trio from Olympia, Washington, hit number one with "Come Softly To Me." That summer, as new top 40-formatted radio stations were signing on almost daily in cities across America, the Browns crossed over to the pop charts with "The Three Bells," an abbreviated version of what Les Compagnons had done in English seven years before. Competition came from a cover on Monument by Philadelphia-born singer Dick Flood (with the full set of lyrics), but it was no contest. In August, "A Big Hunk O' Love" by former tourmate Elvis was knocked off the number one spot by the Browns' "Three Bells," which ultimately became one of 1959's best-selling singles.

Maxine Brown, Jim Ed Brown, Bonnie Brown

Older songs got the Browns treatment and the next two were major hits. "Scarlet Ribbons (For Her Hair)," written in 1949 by Evelyn Danzig and Jack Segal and popular at the time by Jo Stafford, was even bigger when the Browns remade it ten years later. "The Old Lamplighter," penned by Nat Simon and Charles Tobias, had gotten Sammy Kaye to number one in '46 and provided the Browns with another top ten pop hit in the spring of 1960. With this release, "featuring Jim Edward Brown" followed the group name as RCA began prepping the lead singer for something bigger. Softer "Nashville Sound" productions alternated with quirkier fare, including Boudleaux and Felice Bryant's "Teen-Ex," concerning a high school couple's marriage and annulment, and Homer and Jethro's rural retelling of catching and eating a "Ground Hog." In 1963, the trio joined the Grand Ole Opry, which led to a Grammy nomination the following year in the fiercely competitive category Best Performance by a Vocal Group; they were up for the album Grand Ole Opry Favorites, but the award went to The Beatles for A Hard Day's Night.

In the summer of 1965, "I Heard From a Memory Last Night" was the first solo-billed Jim Edward Brown single. Within a couple of years he would shorten his name permanently to the less-tongue-twisting Jim Ed Brown. During this period, his solo recordings were issued concurrent with Browns singles and were often better sellers. The Browns broke up in 1967 and Jim Ed scored a major country hit that summer, "Pop a Top," which garnered him a Grammy nomination for Best Country and Western Solo Performance, Male at the same time the Browns got their second nom, this time in the Best Sacred Performance category for the album The Old Country Church (they lost to Elvis for How Great Thou Art). Maxine signed with Chart Records the following year, creating potential for confusion with R&B songstress Maxine Brown, though most country fans probably didn't notice; in fact, radio programmers and fans paid little mind to Maxine's solo breakaway, as she notched only one country chart single over the next few years, "Sugar Cane County" in early '69.

Jim Ed racked up more than 50 country chart singles over the next 15 years, including a solo version of "The Three Bells" in 1969 and "Morning," which crossed over to pop radio in 1970, as well as three other top ten solo discs. Later he teamed with Helen Cornelius, a singer from Monroe City, Missouri who started out in a group with her sisters Judy and Sharon Johnson before composing hit songs for Bonnie Guitar, Liz Anderson and Barbara Fairchild while saving some of her best material for her own singles on Columbia. She hit the big time when she joined RCA and connected with Jim Ed for a string of duets, hitting country's number one spot on the first try with "I Don't Want to Have to Marry You." The pair enjoyed a five-year hot streak that included the Grammy-nominated "If the World Ran Out of Love Tonight" in 1978.

While Maxine and Bonnie Brown settled down to raise families, Jim Ed Brown settled in for a long run as a popular singer and media personality. His television credits include six years as co-host (with comedian Jerry Clower) of the syndicated Nashville on the Road (Cornelius made many appearances on the show) and a long stint through the late-'80s as the host of talent competition You Can Be a Star! (the Nashville Network's answer to Star Search). In 2005, Maxine Brown shared her memories in a fascinating autobiography, Looking Back to See. In December of 2006, The Browns reunited one final time to perform on the PBS special My Music: Country Pop Legends.

- Michael Jack Kirby

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Here Today and Gone Tomorrow The Three Bells The Old Lamplighter