Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing series where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits.
For as much as country music has copied pop music throughout its history, sometimes those roles are reserved. In today’s edition of ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ we’ll discuss an act that influenced acts ranging from the Beatles to the Whites – the Browns.
The Brown siblings grew up in southwestern Arkansas, where they sang at church socials and school functions in their teens. In 1952, Maxine Brown invited her brother, Jim Ed, to participate in a talent contest staged at Dutch O’Neal’s Barnyard Frolic on KLRA in Little Rock, Arkansas. Jim Ed lost, but he was invited to join the cast of the show anyway. Maxine soon joined him on stage to sing, and from there, a career was launched – one steeped in rich, familial harmony.
Luck was in their favor, as their smooth three-part harmonies fit in just well during the Nashville Sound era. By 1954, the duo was a featured act on the Louisiana Hayride. That same year, they recorded “Looking Back To See” released on Fabor Records. Three months later, the song debuted on the Billboard charts, topping out at No. 8.
Their success was only furthered by the addition of their sister, Bonnie, in 1955. From there, a dynamite combination of Jim Ed’s rich baritone, Maxine’s alto, and Bonnie’s breathy soprano added life to all their recordings.
But the song we’re discussing today didn’t come from that heightened success. On the contrary, the Browns intended to call it quits by 1959 despite achieving moderate success on the charts, with eight top 15 singles to their name at that point. At the time, the trio had grown disillusioned with the music business, telling RCA Records they intended to disband. With that, the Browns decided to record their swan song, “The Three Bells,” only it ended up becoming their signature hit instead.
“The Three Bells” didn’t start out as a country song despite its reliance on simplicity and storytelling. Jean Villard Gilles wrote the song in 1945 in French under the name, “Les Trois Cloches.” Edith Piaf had a huge hit with it in 1953. But “Les Trois Cloches” was made to be a country song, and eventually, that’s what it became. The song, which was eventually translated into English, told the story of a whole town gathering to pray for a young man at various stages of his life — at his birth, at his wedding, and at his death. The character in the English version shares the same name as Jim Ed (well, Jimmy Brown, but close enough), helping to add a grounded nuance to the story. We never really know who the character is per se, but we feel like we know him anyway.
True to the spirit of this feature, “The Three Bells” took off, selling half a million copies within one month of its debut. Ironically, though, the Browns’ career in country music had pretty much come to an end. Their next two singles fared better on the pop charts, but they still maintained a presence at country radio.
In 1967, both Maxine and Bonnie had retired to raise their young families in Arkansas while Jim Ed pursued a solo career. He even launched his own classic, “Pop A Top.”
Going back to 1959, however, this was a year ripe with crossover hits, so join me next time where we’ll revisit Marty Robbins and his other classic, “El Paso.”
This piece was written thanks to the following sources:
- Information regarding the trio and “The Three Bells” was mostly taken from the trio’s biography in The Encyclopedia of Country & Western Music by Rick Marschall and The Encyclopedia of Country Music (biography written by Chris Skinker)
- Country Universe’s piece was also quite helpful in piecing together other details about the song.