Jim Ed Brown, a star of the Grand Ole Opry for more than fifty years and a newly elected member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, died June 11, 2015, at Williamson Medical Center in Franklin, TN, after battling cancer.
Mr. Brown scored major country hits as a solo artist, as a duet singer, and as a member of the Browns with his sisters Maxine and Bonnie. The Browns’ 1959 crossover smash, “The Three Bells,” topped Billboard’s country chart for ten consecutive weeks, and it spent four weeks atop Billboard’s all-genre singles chart.
“If you listen to the Browns, it’s a very pretty sound,” Mr. Brown said earlier this year, in an interview with Peter Cooper of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “It was sibling harmony, a sound that was very pleasing. I’ve never heard anybody that could come close to that particular sound. It couldn’t be imitated.”
James Edward Brown was born April 1, 1934, in Sparkman, Arkansas. He spent the first decade of his life on a farm, without electricity or running water. On Saturday nights, the family would tune a battery operated radio to WSM-AM (650) and listen to the Grand Ole Opry. As a teenager, Jim Ed would mimic the vocal styles of Opry stars—his Hank Snow impersonation was particularly effective—and in 1952 Maxine entered him into a talent competition at KLRA radio in Little Rock.
He didn’t win the contest, but was asked back to appear on the station’s Barnyard Frolic show. Soon, he invited Maxine to sing with him on the Frolic, and their harmonies impressed touring musician Wayne Raney, who championed Jim Ed and Maxine to record labels. In 1954, they signed with Abbott Records and recorded their first Top Ten country hit, the Jim Ed-and Maxine-penned “Looking Back to See.” Bonnie Brown soon joined her siblings, and the duo became a trio.
As the Browns, Jim Ed, Maxine, and Bonnie notched Top Twenty country hits with “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow,” “I Take the Chance,” “Just As Long As You Love Me,” “Money,” “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing,” “Would You Care,” and “Beyond the Shadow.” But in 1959 the trio was pondering retirement. Mr. Brown’s service in the U.S. Army and the sisters’ family lives had distracted musical attentions, and Mr. Brown was running his father’s sawmill. The Browns—who by then were signed to RCA Records—told producer Chet Atkins that they were thinking of quitting the music business, but Atkins asked them to come to Nashville and record again.
“Chet asked if there was anything we wanted to do that we hadn’t recorded,” Mr. Brown said. “We told him about a song called ‘The Three Bells’ that we sang coming from Pine Bluff to Nashville. We recorded it [at Historic RCA Studio B], and after the session Chet said, ‘You kids may think you’re about to retire, but I think you’ve just recorded the biggest song we’ve ever done.’”
Mr. Brown was driving a truck in Arkansas in 1959 when he parked, walked into a drive-in to buy a Coca-Cola, and heard “The Three Bells” playing on the radio. The song resonated with country and pop audiences, impressed and inspired the Beatles, and ensured that Mr. Brown need not spend his life at the sawmill. The Browns joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1963, on the strength of “The Three Bells” and follow-ups, including “Scarlet Ribbons (for Her Hair),” “The Old Lamplighter,” and “Send Me the Pillow You Dream On.” But in 1967, Maxine and Bonnie decided to retire. Mr. Brown stayed in Nashville as a solo artist on RCA, and he recorded his signature solo song in 1967, “Pop a Top,” a #3 country single revived later by Alan Jackson on Jackson’s album Under the Influence.
From 1967 through 1974, Mr. Brown also reached the Top Ten of the country charts with singles “Morning,” “Southern Loving,” “Sometime Sunshine,” and “It’s That Time of Night.” In 1976, he began recording duets with Helen Cornelius, logging a #1 country hit with “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You.” With Cornelius, Mr. Brown won a CMA Vocal Duo of the Year award and reached country’s Top Ten with “Saying Hello, Saying I Love You, Saying Goodbye,” “If the World Ran Out of Love Tonight,” “Lying in Love with You,” "Fools,” and “Morning Comes Too Early.”
Mr. Brown’s easygoing manner made him an effective host on the Opry and on numerous television programs, including the syndicated Nashville on the Road and The Country Place and The Nashville Network’s You Can Be a Star and Going Our Way. In 2003, he began hosting syndicated radio program Country Music Greats Radio Show.
O. Henry Award-winning author Rick Bass based his 2010 novel, Nashville Chrome, on the lives of the Browns, drawing attention to the vocal group’s triumphs and struggles, and to the impact the Browns had on the Beatles.
In September 2014, Mr. Brown was diagnosed with lung cancer. While he was undergoing treatments, Plowboy Records released In Style Again, Mr. Brown’s first solo effort in forty years. Fellow Opry stars Vince Gill and Sharon and Cheryl White joined him on the critically acclaimed album. In March 2015, Mr. Brown and the Browns were elected, along with Grady Martin and The Oak Ridge Boys, to the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“Fame is fleeting, hit records change every week, award show winners and nominees change every year, but being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame will be forever,” Mr. Brown said, in response to receiving country music’s highest honor.
The Browns’ official induction will come in October, but CMA CEO Sarah Trahern, Country Music Hall of Famer Bill Anderson, and Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Kyle Young visited Mr. Brown in the hospital on June 4 to present him with a medallion commemorating his Hall of Fame membership.
His Hall of Fame designation capped a life enriched by music, and the music Mr. Brown made will continue to enrich listeners’ lives.
“I’ve always loved to sing,” he said. “My grandmother nicknamed me ‘Jaybird,’ because I’d go around singing all the time. I’ve gone through some hard times, but some good times, too. If push comes to shove, I’ll do it again.”