Who could have known so much music history was woven into the tapestry of
that one simple-yet-momentous song and the Arkansas siblings singing the
A MUSIC FIRST
During the 1950s, more and more country artists were making inroads on the pop
charts. Elvis Presley, despite his country roots, was always considered rock and
roll, as was Jerry Lee Lewis. Still, no true country acts had hit the top of the pop
charts. The closest was Patsy Cline’s number one country hit, “Walkin’ After
Midnight,” which peaked on the pop charts at number two.
Finally, the very first country song that soared to number one on the pop charts
happened in 1959. The Browns—Jim Ed, Maxine and Bonnie—a family singing
group from Sparkman, Arkansas, had experienced some country success, but
nothing could have prepared them for the RCA Victor Records single, “The Three
Bells,” that skyrocketed to the top of both country and pop charts.
The Browns followed up the success of "The Three Bells" with "Scarlet Ribbons"
and "The Old Lamplighter," recordings that also did very well on both the pop
and country music charts. Then, with a growing multitude of international fans,
The Browns toured around the world. In 1963, they became part of the Grand Ole
The trio formally disbanded in 1967 (Maxine briefly had a solo career during the
late 1960's releasing an album and single for Chart Records titled "Sugar Cane
Country"), and Jim Ed continued to record for RCA. “Pop a Top” was his first top
ten solo hit, still the signature song that fans ask him to sing every concert.
In 1970, he had a crossover hit, "Morning," which went to number 4 on the
country charts and number 47 on the pop charts. Other hits for Jim Ed included
"Angel's Sunday"(1971), "Southern Loving"(1973), "Sometime Sunshine"(1974)
and "It's That Time Of Night"(1974).
Then in 1976, he released a string of major duet hits with Helen Cornelius starting
with the number one hit, "I Don't Wanna Have To Marry You." Other hits for the
duo included "Saying Hello, Saying I Love You, Saying Goodbye"(1977), "Born
Believer"(1977), "I'll Never Be Free"(1978), "If The World Ran Out Of Love
Tonight"(1978), "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" (1979), "Lying In Love With You"
(1979), "Fools"(1979), "Morning Comes Too Early"(1980), and "Don't Bother To
Jim Ed has also hosted the syndicated country shows Jim Ed Brown's Country
Place and Nashville On The Road, as well as hosting The Nashville Network’s
talent show, You Can Be A Star, and the travel show Going Our Way (which also
featured his wife, Becky, as they traveled throughout the country in a RV).
Today, Jim Ed Brown continues to perform regularly on the Grand Ole Opry and
on tour. He hosts two nationally syndicated radio shows, the weekly two-hour
Country Music Greats Radio Show and the Monday through Friday vignette,
Country Music Greats Radio Minute. Both shows are broadcast to over 250 radio
stations nationwide to a weekly audience exceeding two million listeners.
MyBestYears.com caught up with Jim Ed recently. The down-home style that
people love so much in his performances shone through as he reflected on over
a half-century of blazing musical trails.
MBY: You’ve gone through some physical challenges, including the hip replacement
surgery. Your fans are always interesting in know how you are doing, health-wise?
JEB: The surgery was back in November of 2007. Since that time I’ve kind of took off for
about several months to recuperate. Now I’m doing well, and I am back on the road.
MBY: You have always been so busy your entire life, so how did you handle this time off?
JEB: Good point. There’s always an awful lot of things I’ve been wanting to do. As you go
through life, people often ask you to do things with them—to get together, and it seems as
if you never get to do them. Every so often it’s good, I suppose, to get a chance to step
back and take a look at things, and ask, “Hey, why don’t I do that now?” This past few
months have been good for that.
Born in 1934, the native of Sparkman, Arkansas was one of five children (two
boys and three girls) of a struggling lumberman and his wife. Some of his earliest
memories are of close family times, when all of the members of the houshold
would gather on Saturday nights to listen to the Grand Ole Opry on a battery
powered radio. Jim Ed and his older sister, Maxine, were fascinated by what they
heard and soon began harmonizing together. A few years later, Jim Ed and
Maxine began to perform occasionally on the local radio shows.
By Jim Ed's second year in college, he and Maxine were regular members of the
Barnyard Frolic on KRLA in Little Rock, and together, they penned what was to
become their first hit record, “Looking Back To See.”
Released on a small label in 1954, “Looking Back To See” soared to number eight
on the country charts and provided the necessary momentum to bring the pair to
national attention. They became members of the Louisiana Hayride, and went on
to join Red Foley in 1955 as featured regulars on the Ozark Jubilee, the first
national country music television show. The weekly program averaged an
amazing 20 million viewers and has been credited with launching numerous other
careers, including Country, Rock and Roll and Hit Parade Hall of Fame member
Later that year, younger sister Bonnie joined them as The Browns, and they
scored immediate top-10 country hit, “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow.” The
group signed with RCA Victor in 1956, and two top five releases followed in quick
succession—“I Take the Chance” and “I Heard the Bluebird Sing.”
MBY: Going back just a few years, a lot of people don’t realize how influential your family
was with Elvis during the early years. How did that friendship happen?
JEB: It came about because Maxine and I had just started
recording. We were getting some pretty good songs out on the
charts. We were working quite a few dates, especially around
south Arkansas, east Texas and Louisiana. We were already on
the Louisiana Hayride by then. It was around then that Elvis came
out with “That’s All Right, Mama.” My mother first told me about
him. She said, “There’s a new boy that’s come out with a record
that I really like.” Finally, after two or three weeks, she heard the
song again and got his name. Not long after that, it was 1954 by
then, Bob Neal, who was managing Elvis at the time, called me
and said, “Jim Ed, you’re playing a lot of dates down there where
we’re planning to book Elvis Presley. Why don’t you all team up
and do some shows?” So we did. The first tour was fifteen days
with his band—Bill Black on bass and Scotty Moore on guitar—
backing us up. Believe it or not, we were the headliners at first.
(laughs) That didn’t last long. We did quite a few dates together
for about two years or so as Elvis was just getting started.
MBY: Did you have any idea then—did anyone, even Elvis, have any idea how big it would
JEB: He brought something different to the table, didn’t he? If I would have known how big
he was going to get, I would have taken a bunch of pictures and had him sign everything in
sight! (laughs) Who did know? I don’t think anyone could have predicted how big he would
get. Something like that only comes along once in awhile.
MBY: What was he like?
JEB: He was a nice young man, very polite.
We enjoyed being around him. He spent a
lot of time at our home, since Pine Bluff was
on often on the way from wherever he and
his band were playing. Sometimes, on days
between shows, he would stop at our place
instead of returning to Memphis. He'd play
the piano, and we'd sit up all night and sing
hymns. He stayed there many nights.
Nobody had much money back in those
days, so he knew he was always welcome
for a hot meal and a bed if he needed it on
his way through town. When his car broke
down, he knew he could borrow ours. It was
that kind of a relationship. It was a fun time
for all of us.
MBY: Your sister Bonnie has a funny line about why there aren’t a lot of photos of the
three of you with Elvis.
JEB: It’s true. People always want to know, “Why don't you have pictures from back then?”
Well, as she says, “We didn't have money to buy film, much less a camera!” Needless to
say, things changed for him in a hurry.
A MUSICAL FAMILY
MBY: What an amazing history. When did you know that performing was what you wanted
JEB: I grew up in a musical family, but we also had several businesses. Daddy was
entrepreneurial. He had a logging business. Then he and Mama added a little café and a
grocery store, side by side, named the Dollar Way Drive-in. He was always branching out
and trying things. My parents were really hard workers, so we grew up knowing that part of
life. They instilled it in us, too.
MBY: So music was more of a hobby at that point. You weren’t thinking of it in terms of a
full-time career, or were you?
JEB: I don’t think so. I really liked making music, but when we were younger, it was just
something that was fun where we could make a few extra dollars.
MBY: When did that change?
JEB: I was about 18 or 19 when we started recording. When I was 20 or so, we built a
larger restaurant, The Trio. That was because my sisters and I were getting better known
by then. We kept enlarging the place several times.
MBY: In addition to your family group, you had other up-and-comers, too. Right?
JEB: Yes. One of them was a guy named Harold Lloyd Jenkins, who would later become
Conway Twitty. We booked people coming through from the Grand Ole Opry. It was on the
way from Nashville to Shreveport and the Louisiana Hayride. We kept building on, getting
bigger and bigger.
Jim Ed's career took a vastly different turn when he was called to a two year stint in the
service. After his discharge, he rejoined his sisters to record the song which would leave
an indelible mark on musical history.
THE CAREER-CHANGING SONG
MBY: Tell about “The Three Bells” and the major
change it brought to your lives. It was the very first
number one country hit that also went number one
on the pop charts and the rhythm and blues charts,
JEB: It changed everything. We had been working
our way up and already had a few chart hits, but
nothing prepared us for what happened with “The
MBY: You were hardly an overnight success, but suddenly this was the first time that
everyone, it seemed, started hearing about you. What was this like?
JEB: Our lives were pretty much turned upside down. A lot of people don’t know that when
we went in to record “The Three Bells,” that was going to be our swan song. I was heading
off to college. The two girls were planning to start families. We were planning to quit the
business. We just figured that it was all over, and it had been fun while it lasted. Then all of
a sudden “The Three Bells” literally exploded all over the place. No one really expected it
to take off like that. I wish I could say that we were ready for it, but we weren’t. It was a fun
MBY: Obviously it wasn’t your swan song.
JEB: It was one of those things that none of us planned. The good Lord had it all figured
and lined out, but we certainly didn’t know what would happen.
MBY: Suddenly it was the song being played and sung everywhere. From getting ready to
quit the business, you were suddenly the hottest act around. How did that feel?
JEB: Looking back, it happened so quickly and overwhelmed us. We didn’t really capitalize
on it. We didn’t know how. Everything up to that point had prepared us for some things, but
MBY: Unlike many of today’s “packaged” pop stars who come into the business with an
organization and advisors, then they have the hit songs, you were doing it the old
fashioned way with the hits first, then trying to figure out how to package it. It must have
been quite a learning experience…
JEB: It was. We had some more very good records. By that time the girls were married and
having children. Truth is, we were some hicks from the sticks of south Arkansas that didn’t
know too much about the music business. We just liked making music.
MBY: What were some highlights when the three of you looked at each other on stage in
front of packed houses and had to wonder, “What are we doing here?”
JEB: We sure have some great memories of that time. American Bandstand with Dick Clark
on ABC was definitely one of those moments. The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS was another.
We went to England and played some of the big stadiums there, then on to Germany and
Japan. We did quite a bit of television in a lot of different countries. We knew it was big
time, but we still didn’t really know how to take advantage of it. We didn’t know the right
people. When we did meet the right people, we were in such awe of them—all the major
stars that we had heard about through the years.
MBY: Apparently there were quite a few in awe of you, as well.
JEB: I guess, but we just felt like plain ole country folks.
MBY: Even though you followed “The Three Bells” with more hits like “The Old Lamplighter”
and “Scarlet Ribbons,” you were pushed into some career decisions that weren’t the best
for you right?
JEB: RCA, our record company, wanted us to become a pop act. We went to Hollywood
and got the total makeover. They taught us how to dance. They put a show together for
us. They put all the arrangements together. We tried that for a couple of years, but it didn’t
work too well. We kept having more hits, but we felt like fish out of water.
MBY: You can take the kids out of Arkansas, but…
JEB: (laughs) We were definitely country folks. We tried to make it work in Hollywood, but it
MBY: By then your sisters decided to concentrate on their families. Where did that leave
JEB: I felt more at home in the country field, so that’s where I decided to try to make it.
Thankfully, I started having some records that were received well, and that helped make
During 1967, Jim Ed's unmistakable warm baritone skyrocketed to the top of the
country charts with one of the best "crying in my beer" songs of all time.
Suddenly people throughout the country were singing along with the now-classic
words that paid homage to everyone who has ever slid into a bar stool while
wondering how that special relationship went sour:
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.
A HISTORIC NOTE: By 1959, Ernie Fraze had built a modestly successful enterprise
with clients including General Electric, Ford, Chrysler and NASA, but his most
lucrative invention was still to come, an breakthrough that would directly affect
Jim Ed Brown's singing career in a most amazing way.
That year, while at a picnic with family and friends, Fraze realized he had
forgotten to bring an opener for the canned beverages so he was forced to use a
car bumper to pry them open (everyone alive back then has his or her own
"forget the opener" war stories that usually involved something sharp such as
screwdrivers, knives, rocks...none probably the best situation for beer drinkers
who may have already had a few too many!
Anyway, Ernie's bumper incident got him thinking of possible solutions to the
problem that would eliminate the need for him to have to remember a can opener
in the future.
The result? U.S. patent No. 3,349,949 for his pull-top can design in 1963. He later
sold his invention to Alcoa. Aluminum pop-top cans soon hit the market. Iron City
Beer first used the new design. Other beer and beverage companies quickly
followed suit. By 1965, nearly 75 percent of all U.S. breweries were using the pull
More importantly, a new phrase, "pop a top" was coined and popularized in
various forms for years to come.
Ironically, in the mid-1970's, outcry from environmentalists lead to the
development of the can-tops we know today that use non-removable tabs, but
not before Jim Ed Brown struck a musical gold mine with the song that would
have never been written without Ernie Fraze's invention.
MBY: “Pop a Top” changed everything for you as a solo performer, didn’t it?
JEB: Thank goodness it came along when it did. I was to the point that I was afraid I was
going to have to go back into the sawmill business again!
MBY: The biz, as they call it, is littered with so-called one-hit wonders. The fact that you
had hits in country, then pop and rhythm and blues, then country again, as well as doing
syndicated and network television—it’s all quite a testimony to your talent and sticking
power. There are a lot of people who become self-destructive or shoot themselves in the
foot when even one of the great things come along that happened in your life. What made
the difference for you?
JEB: I think my family and my faith kept me grounded. All I knew to do was just keep
working harder and harder. That’s pretty much the long and short of it.
HARD WORK AND INFLUENCES
MBY: Wasn’t it the movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn who said, “The harder I work, the luckier I
JEB: I think there’s something to that. I just believe that when one door closes, the good
Lord opens another. There always seemed to be a door opening at the right time. All I had
to do was walk in. I had a lot of help. It wasn’t me. It was a lot of people helping me. Bill
Graham (the iconic West Coast concert promoter) was one. Jane Dowden (talented record
producer) was another. Chet Atkins (legendary guitarist and record producer) was there in
so many ways.
MBY: You have also mentioned many times about the influence Jim Reeves had in your life.
JEB: He did. He’s the one that got us the contract with RCA. When “The Three Bells” was a
hit he tried to get us to come directly to the Grand Ole Opry, but we didn’t. We headed to
Hollywood instead of Nashville. That was a mistake, but it all seemed to work out in the end.
MBY: You talk openly about your faith…
JEB: It’s very important to me. What would I do without the Lord?
MBY: Has it always been that way, or did that come along later?
JEB: It was always important since I was a child.
MBY: You wrote some great songs. Why did you stop?
JEB: Maxine and I wrote quite a few in the early years. We wrote some of our first hits
together. She kept writing, but I just quit. I got more into the business side of everything.
Sometimes I wish I would have stayed with the writing part more, but I didn’t. I don’t really
have an answer for that. It was just the way it went.
A six-season run as co-host of the syndicated weekly television series, Nashville
On The Road, began in 1975, further enhancing Jim Ed's career and leading to his
being selected as a national spokesperson for Dollar General Stores.
Then in 1976, Jim Ed teamed up with solo artist Helen Cornelius to form one of
the most successful recording duos of all time. She had gained fame as a
songwriter for the Oak Ridge Boys, Reba McEntire, Jeannie C. Riley, Connie
Smith and Lynn Anderson. Together, Jim Ed and Helen recorded smash releases
such as “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You” (a chart-topper in 1976), “Don't
Bother to Knock” and “Saying Hello, Saying I Love You, Saying Goodbye”
(reached number two in 1977). Jim Ed and Helen were named the Country Music
Vocal Duo of the Year in 1977 and continued to be nominated in this prestigious
category for the next three years. They also set an industry record when “Lying in
Love with You” made the largest single Country chart leap in history, vaulting
from nowhere to number 19, eventually rising to number two on the 1979 country
A NEW CAREER
MBY: You’ve had so many great career highlights. What was it like when you teamed up
with Helen Cornelius?
JEB: All of a sudden we were back on top. It was a whole new career.
MBY: You had monster hit records with Helen. Was it totally unexpected?
JEB: Oh, yes. Neither of us had any idea it would explode like that. Everything just took off
again. It was great!
Jim Ed and Helen decided to pursue separate directions in 1981 (though they paired up
again for the immensely popular Reunited Tour in 1988), and during 1983, Jim Ed started
working with TNN, the Nashville Network. You Can Be a Star for six years, and in 1994 he
co-hosted an RV travel show with his wife, Becky—Going Our Way. Jim Ed still remains
with the Grand Ole Opry where he is an audience favorite.
During 1996, Maxine and Bonnie again joined Jim Ed to record the Family Bible, the
amazingly popular Gospel album.
And from time to time Opry audiences witness truly magical moments when the sisters
reunite with their brother on stage and the Browns are once again together in the spotlight.
CAREER AND FAMILY
MBY: Your family has always seemed very important and has helped keep you grounded
through all these career ups and downs. Tell us about your wife and family.
JEB: My wife’s name is Becky. She has owned a dance school for many years. We have
two children, Buster (Jim Ed Brown, Jr.) and Kim. My son has triplets, plus one, so we are
enjoying those grandchildren, too.
MBY: Are your children involved in the music business?
JEB: No, they’re not. They never really wanted to be in the business, and I never pushed
them. I would like for them to have been interested, but this is a business where you’re
really got to want it before you can ever succeed in it. My son thought about becoming a
doctor, but he ended up becoming a chemical engineer and has done well with that. My
daughter has worked closely with my wife in her dance school for many years.
MBY: The focus of MyBestYears.com is on the future, not just what happened in the past.
That sure seems to be important to you. You always appear to be looking forward to the
next adventure. What excites you today?
JEB: Golly! The future is wide open. I don’t know what’s around the bend until I get there,
but it’s always fascinating to me to keep going ahead. God always seems to have better
plans for me than I can dream up. The main thing is that I don’t like to be stuck in a rut. I
had a lot of that when I was a kid in the logging and lumbering business. I had to follow the
ruts when I was driving that old truck. I’m so glad I don’t have to do that anymore. I can
smell the flowers. I can be out in the open.
MBY: Having a few more candles on the birthday cake brings some changes. What kind of
adjustments have you made?
JEB: The hip replacement got my attention. I’ve slowed down some. I’m not quite as gung-
ho as I once was, but I still like to think that the future is bright and hopeful. I stay excited
about every day.
MBY: Someday when they erect a monument to Jim Ed Brown, what would you like to be
most known for?
JEB: I’m not so sure about the monument, but I think the most important thing in my life has
always been my family. God has blessed me with a wonderful career, but He has especially
blessed me richly with my family.
What is next for this amazing trailblazer?
Over the past five decades, Jim Ed Brown has the distinction of
topping the charts as a member of a trio, a duet and as a solo
In addition to his radio and television commitments, Jim Ed
continues to perform around 30 shows per year on the Grand
Ole Opry, as well as touring throughout the nation where he
presents his down-to-earth brand of family entertainment to an
ever growing legion of fans.
He has released 45 albums, 21 recorded with his sisters, 6 with Helen Cornelius,
and 18 by himself, with 38 major hits and a lot of history-making moments thrown
in for good measure.
Whatever is next for the velvet-smooth music industry legend, expect the best to
shine through whatever he does. As Jim Ed Brown says, “The future is wide
Can you remember the first time you heard the
breathtakingly beautiful harmonies and these
There's a village hidden deep in the valleySuddenly everyone from Brooklyn to Brownsville
Among the pine trees half forlorn
And there on a sunny morning
Little Jimmy Brown was born.
to Barstow, it seemed, was singing along with
JIM ED BROWN
…The future is wide open!
included Jim Ed
(fourth from left) and
Elvis (top right)
|The Browns and Elvis
at Pine Bluff's Trio Restaurant (1954)