Maxine Brown Russell, a member of the groundbreaking trio the Browns with siblings Jim Ed and Bonnie Brown, died Monday in hospice care in Little Rock, Arkansas, from complications of kidney and heart disease. She was 87.
As one of the premier vocal groups bridging the gap of pop and country music in the late Fifties, the Browns’ silky smooth harmony vocals turned the 1959 single, “The Three Bells,” based on the 1945 French tune “Les Trois Cloches,” into a 10-week Number One hit on the country chart. The trio’s version also topped Billboard’s Hot 100 for four weeks. An influence for decades on acts from the Beatles to Little Big Town, the Browns joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1963, and scored other hits including Jim Ed and Maxine’s Top Ten, “Looking Back to See” in 1954, and the trio’s “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow,” “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing” and the sentimental favorite, “Scarlet Ribbons (for Her Hair).”
Born Ella Maxine Brown in Campti, Louisiana, on April 27th, 1931, Maxine joined her brother and sister to perform at church and other social functions during their teen years. Maxine signed her brother up for a talent contest on Little Rock radio station KLRA’s “Barnyard Frolic,” and although he didn’t win, Jim Ed was invited to become a member of the show’s cast. Maxine would soon join him, and in 1954 they began appearing on Shreveport’s hugely influential Louisiana Hayride, as “Looking Back to See” became their debut hit. Bonnie joined the following year.
The trio toured with Elvis Presley and, like Presley, would sign to RCA Records in 1955. With producer Chet Atkins at the helm, the Brown recorded 250 sides for the label. They also toured the U.S. and Europe where “The Three Bells” would scale the charts in the U.K., Norway, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands. The record also topped the Australian charts. In 1964, the Browns were nominated for a Best Vocal Group Performance Grammy for their LP, Grand Ole Opry Favorites, but lost the award to the Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night. Their second Grammy nod came in 1967 in the Best Sacred Performance category, with the award going to their longtime friend Elvis Presley.
The Browns, which also occasionally included younger sister Norma, formally disbanded in 1967 when Maxine and Bonnie retired to raise their young families. Maxine briefly signed with Chart Records in 1969, recording the minor hit, “Sugar Cane Country.” The trio would reunite occasionally, as they did for the Country’s Family Reunion series in 1999, which featured the above performance, a stunning example of the trio’s sibling harmony.
In 2005, Russell published her autobiography, Looking Back to See, and in 2012, she was honored with the Ella Dicky Literary Award for the memoir. In 2015, the Browns became members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Jim Ed Brown died in 2015, two months after the Hall of Fame announcement was made, and Bonnie Brown died in 2016.
Funeral arrangements are pending.