Jim Ed Brown dies at 81; Grand Ole Opry regular had hit with 'Three Bells'

Grand Ole Opry regular Jim Ed Brown has died. He was 81

Country music sibling act the Browns, which had some mild hits in the 1950s, was about to give up on the music business when legendary musician/producer Chet Atkins convinced the trio to give it one more try.

So, the Browns — Jim Ed, Maxine and Bonnie — went into a recording studio in 1959 to sing “The Three Bells,” based on a French-language song. When they were done, Atkins said: “You kids may think you’re about to retire, but I think you’ve just recorded the biggest song we’ve ever done.”

“The Three Bells” not only topped the Billboard country chart for 10 weeks, it also crossed over to be the No. 1 pop song for a month.

Jim Ed Brown, 81, who was a staple of the Grand Ole Opry for more than 50 years and had numerous additional hits with his sisters and as a solo act, died Thursday at the Williamson Medical Center in Franklin, Tenn.

The cause of death was cancer, according to a statement from the Grand Ole Opry. Last year Brown disclosed he was being treated for lung cancer.

He and his sisters are scheduled to be inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame in October, but earlier this month, Hall of Fame officials visited him in his hospital room to present the medallion signifying his membership in the Nashville institution.

“It was a surprise,” said Brown’s publicist, Martha Moore. “There was lots of tears.”

“The Three Bells” tells the story of a character named Jimmy Brown.

All the chapel bells were ringing

In the little valley town

And the songs that they were singing

Was for baby Jimmy Brown

But the name in the song about three events in a man’s life — birth, marriage, death — was a coincidence. “The Three Bells,” by Jean Villard Giles and Bert Reisfeld, was recorded by several other artists, including the Andrews Sisters, Roy Orbison, Ray Charles and Alison Krauss. Still, the Browns had the hit.

“It was sibling harmony, a sound that was very pleasing,” Brown said of the group earlier this year in an interview with Peter Cooper of the Hall of Fame.

“I’ve never heard anybody that could come close to that particular sound. It couldn’t be imitated.”

Their harmonies lent themselves well to other songs with sentimental themes, including “The Old Lamplighter,” “Scarlet Ribbons” and “Send Me the Pillow You Dream On,” though the Browns never had a hit as big as “The Three Bells.”

Although they endured criticism from some in the country and western community for having a crossover sound, they were popular on the Grand Ole Opry show from 1963 until the group dissolved in 1967. Jim Ed Brown continued as a solo artist, getting a Top 10 country hit with “Pop a Top” (referring to opening a can of beer). And beginning in 1976, he had several hits singing duets with Helen Cornelius.

James Edward Brown was born April 1, 1934 in Sparkman, Ark., and grew up on a nearby farm without electricity or running water. Through listening to the Grand Ole Opry on a battery-powered radio, he became good at mimicking some of the show regulars. This led to appearances on a local radio show that eventually showcased him and his sisters as an act.

The longevity of his career was bolstered by his genial nature as a TV host on cable and syndicated shows such as “Nashville on the Road,” “You Can Be A Star” and “Going Our Way,” co-hosted with his wife, Becky.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by daughter Kim Corwin; son James Edward Brown Jr.; sisters Maxine Brown Russell and Bonnie Brown Ring; and five grandchildren.

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