A vocal trio from southern Arkansas, the Browns had several country hits. They were also instrumental in the development of the elegant, often orchestral “Nashville sound,” which replaced the string bands of earlier eras.
The Browns began as a duo featuring Jim Ed Brown, born in 1934 in Sparkman (Dallas County), and his sister Maxine, born in Campti, Louisiana, in 1931. Their sister Bonnie, born in Sparkman in 1938, joined the group in 1955.
The Browns grew up in the piney woods near Pine Bluff (Jefferson County), where their father, Floyd Brown, worked as a log hauler and farmer. The group began its recording career for Fabor Records in southern California shortly after Jim Ed and Maxine graduated from high school. Their first release, “Looking Back to See” (1954), was a hit, but their contract with Fabor Robinson, proprietor of Fabor Records, precluded them from collecting royalties for its sales.
In the early days, the Browns made regular appearances on the Louisiana Hayride radio show (where they met and befriended a young Elvis Presley) on KWKH in Shreveport, Louisiana, and the Ozark Jubilee TV program, broadcast from Springfield, Missouri, though the Browns really started their professional career on Barnyard Frolics on KLRA in Little Rock (Pulaski County). They met and toured with many country stars, including balladeer Jim Reeves, Eddy “The Tennessee Plowboy” Arnold, and Johnny Cash.
After years of second-rate tours and low pay, the Browns met master guitarist and record producer Chet Atkins and signed a lucrative contract through him with RCA Records in Nashville, Tennessee. Though the group had a few hits shortly after teaming with Atkins (including “I Take the Chance” by Ira Louvin and “Money”), 1959 proved to be their most successful year in the music business. Their single “The Three Bells” went to number one on the country and pop charts and sold more than a million copies. Their follow-ups, “Scarlet Ribbons” and “The Old Lamplighter,” did almost as well. Their smooth harmonies not only put the Browns at the forefront of Nashville’s emerging sophistication but fit in with the burgeoning folk music movement, allowing them to capitalize on the popularity of both.
When Jim Ed was drafted into the military, his sister Norma filled in for him until his discharge. Although making somewhat haphazard public appearances after Maxine and Bonnie married and had children, the Browns stayed together until 1967 and kept recording. They cultivated a strong following in Europe, and their albums still sell well there. Jim Ed had begun a solo career in 1965 and continued performing after the group broke up, most notably with singer Helen Cornelius. His biggest solo hit was the jukebox classic “Pop-A-Top,” and he received numerous awards throughout the years for his solo work.
The Browns received many awards. In 1959, they were nominated for Grammy Awards as Best Country Vocal Group and Most Promising Pop Group but did not win. They joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1963 and were inducted into the Arkansas Entertainers Hall of Fame in 1998. In the 1990s, Germany’s Bear Family label released an eight-disc retrospective of the Browns under the title The Three Bells. Other compilations have followed: The Complete Hits (2008) and Complete Pop & Country Hits (2013).
In 2013, the Grand Ole Opry held a commemorative show to celebrate the Browns’ fifty-year anniversary with the Opry. The Browns were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2015. Jim Ed Brown died on June 11, 2015. Bonnie Brown died in Little Rock on July 16, 2016. Maxine Brown died in Little Rock on January 21, 2019.
For additional information:
Brown, Maxine. Looking Back to See: A Country Music Memoir. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2005.
“The Browns.” AllMusic.com. http://www.allmusic.com/artist/the-browns-mn0000630603 (accessed January 22, 2019).
Jensen, Joli. The Nashville Sound: Authenticity, Commercialization and Country Music. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1998.
“Jim Ed Brown and the Browns.” Country Music Hall of Fame. http://countrymusichalloffame.org/Inductees/InducteeDetail/jim-ed-brown-and-the-browns (accessed January 22, 2019).
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
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