Jim Ed Brown, whose easygoing vocal style led to a seven-decades-long career that included Grand Ole Opry membership and 2015 election into the Country Music Hall of Fame with his sisters Maxine and Bonnie Brown, died Thursday at Williamson Medical Center in Franklin, Tennessee, after a lengthy battle with cancer. He was 81.
Brown made the country charts as a solo artist, a duet singer, and with the Browns, whose spine-chilling 1959 classic, “The Three Bells” was a Number One country song for 10 weeks and also spent four weeks at the top of the pop singles chart. The singer was diagnosed with lung cancer in September of 2014. While undergoing treatment, Plowboy Records released In Style Again, his first solo effort in 40 years. The LP featured guest appearances from fellow Opry stars Vince Gill and Sharon and Cheryl White.
Brown was born April 1st, 1934, in Sparkman, Arkansas, and spent the first decade of his life on a farm, without electricity or running water. On Saturday nights, the family would gather to listen to the Grand Ole Opry. In 1952, his sister, Maxine, entered him into a talent competition at KLRA radio in Little Rock. In spite of not winning the contest, Brown was invited to appear on the station’s Barnyard Frolic show. He was soon joined there by Maxine and in 1954 the duo signed with Abbott Records, scoring their first Top Ten country hit, “Looking Back to See,” which the pair had also written. Sister Bonnie soon joined the act, which notched hits with “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow,” “I Take the Chance,” “Just As Long As You Love Me,” and “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing,” earning rave for their close sibling harmony.
Although they were all considering retirement in the early Sixties, Brown, who had served in the U.S. Army and was running his father’s sawmill, was encouraged by RCA producer and label chief Chet Atkins to return to Music City, where they would record the story song based on a French tune titled “Les Trois Cloches.” “The Three Bells,” the tale of newsboy Jimmy Brown, was a favorite of the Beatles and would go on to be recorded by dozens of acts, including the Carter Family, Roy Orbison and Alison Krauss.
The Browns joined the Opry in 1963, scoring more hits, including “Scarlet Ribbons (for Her Hair),” “The Old Lamplighter” and “Send Me the Pillow You Dream On.” Although his sisters retired in 1967, that same year Brown recorded the classic “Pop a Top,” one of his best-loved solo singles, which would again scale the charts in 1999, as Alan Jackson covered it on his Under the Influence LP.
From 1967 through 1974, Brown had Top Ten hits which included “Morning,” “Southern Loving,” “Sometime Sunshine” and “It’s That Time of Night.” In 1976, he teamed with Helen Cornelius for the chart-topping “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You,” also earning a CMA Vocal Duo of the Year award. More Top Ten hits would follow.
By the Eighties, Brown had also hosted several TV series, including Nashville on the Road, The Country Place and the TNN (The Nashville Network) talent showcase, You Can Be a Star. In 2003, he hosted the syndicated Country Music Greats Radio Show.
The Browns’ official induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame will take place in October, but CMA CEO Sarah Trahern, Hall of Famer Bill Anderson and Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum CEO Kyle Young visited Brown in the hospital on June 4th to present him with a medallion commemorating his Hall of Fame membership.