Jim Ed, Maxine and Bonnie Brown helped turn Nashville into Music City. 21-song compilation contains their early sides on Fabor Records and their later smashes on RCA
The Browns were a sibling vocal trio comprised of Jim Ed Brown and his sisters Maxine and Bonnie. Their ascent from small-town Arkansas to the top of not only the country charts but the pop charts of the late '50s and early '60s is one of the unlikeliest stories in country history. Tracing their mid-'50s origins all the way to their waning days of the late '60s, Collectors' Choice Music has assembled The Browns: The Complete Hits, a 21-song compilation featuring their work on both the small, regional Fabor label and later RCA Records. Annotated by music historian Colin Escott, the reissue is set for a street date of May 27, 2008.
Jim Ed Brown was born in Pine Bluff, Ark., home of blues artists such as Sonny Boy Williamson and CeDell Davis. His father owned a lumber business and it was a foregone conclusion that Brown would take over the enterprise. However, he heard a stronger calling on the Grand Ole Opry, careening onto the Brown family porch from Nashville's WSM-AM. Singing first at weenie roasts and later at regional Opry-like revues throughout the South, the Browns -- at this point a duo of Jim Ed and Maxine -- eventually recorded a demo that intrigued Fabor Robison's Fabor label, also the home of future stars Jim Reeves and Johnny Horton. In 1954, Robison set up a radio station appearance in Shreveport, La. for the Browns' first recorded session. Maxine wrote their first hit, Looking Back To See," inspired by their younger sister Norma's tale of sneaking glances back to see a boy who was glancing at her. The song was followed closely by another hit, Here Today and Gone Tomorrow." By 1955, sister Bonnie had joined them. Two years of hard work and charted hits had resulted in no money, so they followed Jim Reeves to the greener pastures of RCA.
The Browns' first RCA hit was a cover of the Louvin Brothers' composition, I Take The Chance," in 1956. Jim Ed reported to the Army the day after it was recorded, but continued to perform and record with his sisters when he could. In 1957, I Heard the Bluebirds Sing" became their biggest hit to that point. Still, as Jim Ed said later, The music business was just a hobby." The Browns' father's health was declining and they considered returning to the family lumber business.
In what they believed to be their last recording session before retiring, Jim Ed pushed for a favorite song titled The Three Bells," an English translation of a 1940s hit by French cabaret singer Jen Villard and later Edith Piaf. Jim Ed Brown was drawn to the song, which centered on a character named Jimmy Brown." Jim Ed pushed the song to producer Atkins, engineer Bill Porter and arranger Anita Kerr. Now a staunch believer in The Browns' artistry, Atkins flew from Nashville to RCA's corporate headquarters in New York with an ultimatum: Either you promote this song, or you lose Chet Atkins." The Big Apple brass took heed, sending the single to chart No. 1 pop and country in 1959. It became Atkins' first pop crossover. Needless to say, The Browns never returned to logging in Arkansas.
The next recordings were late '40s and early '50s standards: Jo Stafford's Scarlet Ribbons" and Sammy Kaye's The Old Lamplighter." Both became country and pop smashes in '59. The group appeared on rock 'n' roll caravans, toured Europe and recorded prolifically. Their stride was broken only by sibling Bonnie's failing health, which nearly paralyzed her. In October 1967, she announced her retirement from the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. The Browns' golden era had drawn to a close. By then, they had helped formulate the Nashville sound," and crossed it over to pop.
In the years to follow, both Jim Ed and Maxine pursued solo careers. Maxine retired from music, but Jim Ed racked up more than 50 solo hits and still performs today.
The group's 21 biggest hits appear on The Browns: The Complete Recordings, and the liner credits include Fabor and RCA catalog numbers and release dates for the singles.