By Kirt Webster
Jim Ed Brown, who at one time was a resident of Pigeon Forge, 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 last Thursday at the 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 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.
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.
Jim Ed began performing on KLRA ‘s Barnyard Frolic show. Soon, he invited Maxine to sing with him on the Frolic. In 1954, they signed with Abbott Records and recorded their first Top 10 country hit, the Jim Ed-and Maxine-penned “Looking Back to See.” Bonnie Brown soon joined her siblings, and the duo became a trio.
But in 1959 the trio was pondering retirement. Jim Ed’s service in the U.S. Army and the sisters’ family lives had distracted musical attentions, and Jim Ed 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,” Jim Ed said. “We told him about a song called ‘The Three Bells’ that we sang coming from Pine Bluff to Nashville. We recorded it, 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.’”
Jim Ed 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.
In 1976, he began recording duets with Helen Cornelius, logging a No. 1 country hit with “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You.” With Cornelius, Jim Ed won a CMA Vocal Duo of the Year award. In 1997 Helen Cornelius joined forces with Jim Ed Brown and Con Hunley to perform at the Eagle Mountain Theatre in Pigeon Forge. Jim Ed returned to Pigeon Forge many times to perform concerts at the Country Tonite theater and at Dollywood.
His easygoing manner made him an effective host on the Opry and on numerous television programs.
In September 2014, Jim Ed was diagnosed with lung cancer. While he was undergoing treatments, Plowboy Records released In Style Again, his first solo effort in 40 years. In March 2015, Jim Ed Brown and The Browns were elected along with Grady Martin and The Oak Ridge Boys as the newest members of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Jim Ed Brown died at peace with himself and with his place in country music.