The song “The Three Bells” captures the stages of life for all of us. We are born, we live, and we die. Like the three minutes of the song, our lives seem to pass too quickly; the phases of our life seem too simple; and our time on earth is often marked by little more than the dash between the time of our births and deaths.
“The Three Bells” tells the story of little Jimmy Brown. The bells of the village ring out when he is born. They ring again on his wedding day. In time, there is the third bell as the community gathers to mourn his death. The man who made a hit from this song about Jimmy Brown was himself named Jim Ed Brown. While the song was not directly about him, it certainly fit. Even more fitting was Jim Ed Brown’s final performance of the song on the Grand Ole Opry on April 11, 2015, knowing that the third bell for himself was soon to ring.
Years earlier, the song saved Brown’s singing career. Originally, Jim Ed began singing in Little Rock on the “Barnyard Frolic” radio show. After his sister Maxine began singing with him, they signed a recording contract and made a hit of the song “Looking Back to See” in 1952. Performing at the “Louisiana Hayride” and “Ozark Jubilee,” they also went on tour with another up-and-coming singer named Elvis Presley.
Sister Bonnie joined the act in 1955. Now known as “The Browns,” they enjoyed a few more hits. Then their career began to slow down. “You’ve had a bunch of big hit records and you’re still broke,” their daddy told them. Added to that were family burdens. Maxine, although in a bad marriage, was pregnant with a second child. The trio decided it was time to call it quits.
But another call was made before that call. Chet Atkins, best known for his guitar skills, was also the Browns’ producer. Atkins reminded them that they had a few months left on their recording contract. “Why don’t the three of you come on back to Nashville and do one last session? We’ll call it the Browns’ farewell. Pick out any song you’ve always wanted to record, and I promise we’ll do it.”
Bonnie liked a song in French called “Les Trois Cloches” she heard on a local radio station. The siblings began trimming the song down from four to three minutes, which was necessary to get deejays to play it. Arriving in Nashville, they recorded the song on June 3, 1959.
Maxine said, “After our first run through on ’The Three Bells,” Chet was so excited that I thought he was going to pop a vein.” “This is it! Adkins said. “This is the big one. You’ve got the biggest hit ever!” He went to add, “I’ve just recorded you a million-seller. There’s no way you’ll be quitting the business.”
Although Atkins was sold on the record, the Browns still assumed that they their career was over. Normally, they talked, joked, and sang while traveling, but the trip back to Arkansas was silent.
The first reviewers of the song, which was released on early July 3, didn’t help. Billboard listed its sales potential as a three. Cashbox gave the song a B plus grade. One review picked the B-side of the record as the better song. Maxine went home to Little Rock to prepare for her baby’s birth, while Jim Ed went to work in a sawmill. So much for their singing career.
In late July, Maxine’s mother called from Pine Bluff, Arkansas. RCA Recording Company had been calling her continually. “Maxine, I think you better call RCA to find out what they want.”
Maxine drove to her mother’s house, where Jim Ed joined her. Sure enough, the phone rang again, and it was an RCA executive. “Your song is selling thirty to forty thousand copies a day! We’ve never seen anything like it!”
“The Three Bells” went to number one on both the country and pop charts, staying there for ten weeks and four weeks respectively. It also rose to number ten on the rhythm and blues chart. It became a million-seller many times over.
The success of “The Three Bells” revived the career of the Browns, who went on to enjoy other hit records. In 1963 they joined the Grand Ole Opry. Their fans included some boys from England who were working on their own music. When these boys later appeared on American Bandstand, Dick Clark asked them who their favorite American singers were. “The Browns,” answered John Lennon and Paul McCartney of the Beatles.
In 1967 the trio was disbanded, and only Jim Ed continued singing. As a solo artist, his first big hit was a honky-tonk drinking song called “Pop a Top.” Using the sound of a canned beverage opening, Brown would sing, “Pop a top again. I’ve just got time for one more round. Set ’em up my friend, then I’ll be gone, and you can let some other fool sit down.”
Through the 1970’s, Brown continued to score top solo hits and some duets with Helen Cornelius. He hosted television and radio shows and was the national spokesman for the Dollar General Stores, where he popularized the slogan “Every day is dollar day at your Dollar General Store.” Brown’s career didn’t slow down until September of 2014 when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. Brown returned to the stage in early 2015, but then on June 3, fifty-six years after recording “The Three Bells,” he announced that his cancer had returned. The third bell sounded for Jim Ed Brown on June 11, 2015.
In the eighty-one years between the first and third bells, Jim Ed Brown enjoyed quite a successful life. It began on April 1, 1934, when he was born in Sparkman, Arkansas. His father was a farmer and sawmill worker. Jim Ed grew up in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. It was there that, like so many Southerners, the Browns listened to the Grand Ole Opry on WSM in Nashville. Jim Ed imitated the big stars of that time, like Roy Acuff and Eddy Arnold. His Uncle Cecil restrung an old Sears and Roebuck guitar and taught Jim Ed a few chords.
Jim Ed, Maxine, and their brother named Raymond began singing together and harmonizing. People hearing them would say, “Those cute little Brown children who can sing as sweet a harmony as anything you’ll ever hear on the Grand Ole Opry.” In 1952, Jim Ed came in second to a harmonica player in a talent contest in Little Rock. From those beginnings, his successful career was launched.
A Personal Memory
In July of 1969, my parents granted my wish for a vacation trip to Nashville, Tennessee. Tickets to the Saturday night Opry performance were always sold out for months in advance. But for the person going down to the Ryman Auditorium on Friday morning, tickets were available for the Friday Night Opry.
The Friday night show went from 7:30 to 10:30 and featured almost as many country stars as the Saturday show. The Ryman was originally a church building, and it is still called “the Mother Church of Country Music.” With its long church pews, open windows (where fans flocked to hear the show without having to pay), and incredible acoustics, the building was rich in country music history and legend.
With an unrestrained love for country music, I was one happy fourteen-year-old. Just being there was an experience. First up would be the Minit Burger portion of the Friday Night Opry. Then as now, the Opry shows were radio shows, with sponsors and advertisements. At 7:30, as Grant Turner announced the beginning of the show, the curtains raised up, and Jim Ed Brown took his place behind the famous WSM microphone. Standing at least six feet tall, he looked even taller to me. With the sound like a beer can opening, he jumped right in with “Pop a Top.” In the actual recording, it was a Dr. Pepper that was opened to produce that sound. I don’t know how they did it on stage, because the Opry was a family-oriented show. The stars might sing about beer, whiskey, and cheatin’, but the performances themselves were kept clean.
Next on the show were Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper and the Clinch Mountain Clan, who sang old ballads and bluegrass style songs. Then Jim Ed Brown introduced the Carlisles. This family consisted of “Jumping Bill” Carlisle and his two older children. Bill would always launch into several high jumps on the stage. He would continue jumping during songs until he was in his nineties and his jumps were aided with a walker.
There was another advertisement at this time, followed by Grant Turner saying, “Now back to the host of this portion of the Friday Night Opry, Jim Ed Brown.” Turner always beckoned the crowd to applaud , but it wasn’t necessary. Jim Ed introduced a song that he had just re-recorded, a song that had been a hit for him and his sisters some years before.
That was my first time to hear “The Three Bells.” I soon bought a 45 RPM single of the song. It was love at first hearing, and my love for the song continues.
Hear Jim Ed Brown’s Last Performance of “The Three Bells” at the Grand Ole Opry
See More Jim Ed Brown Photos Here