By Robert K. Oermann
Country Music Hall of Fame member Maxine Brown died at age 87 on Monday (Jan. 21).
As a member of The Browns, she sang “The Three Bells,” the first true “Nashville Sound” recording to reach No. 1 on the pop charts. The Browns’ many other hits included “Scarlet Ribbons,” “The Old Lamplighter” and “Send Me the Pillow You Dream On.”
The Browns were a sibling trio specializing in flawless, echoey harmony vocals. In addition to Maxine, the trio consisted of lead vocalist Jim Ed Brown (1934-2015), Bonnie Brown (1939-2016) and oldest sibling Maxine.
Maxine and her two younger siblings spent the formative years of their lives on an Arkansas 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.
Proud of her younger brother’s singing ability, Maxine entered Jim Ed into a talent contest in 1952. It was sponsored by Little Rock’s KLRA radio. He was invited to appear on the station’s Barnyard Frolic show. Soon, he invited Maxine to sing with him on the Frolic.
Their distinctive duet harmonies impressed country star Wayne Raney (1921-1993), who championed Jim Ed and Maxine to record labels.
In 1954, they signed with Fabor Records and recorded their first Top 10 country hit, their cowritten “Looking Back to See.” The song has since been recorded by many, including Justin Tubb & Goldie Hill, Buck Owens & Susan Raye, The Canadian Sweethearts, George Jones & Margie Singleton, Bill Anderson & Jan Howard and The Collins Kids.
Bonnie graduated from high school and joined her singing siblings in 1955. From the start, the resulting trio’s dulcet harmony blend was exquisite, with Jim Ed’s fluid baritone, Maxine’s resonant alto and Bonnie’s lilting soprano creating unforgettable audio overtones. They scored immediately on the country charts with “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow” (1955). Signing with RCA, they hit again with “I Take the Chance” (1956) and “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing” (1957).
The Browns’ country successes continued with “Would You Care” (1958) and “Beyond the Shadow” (1959). All three Brown siblings were pitch-perfect harmony singers, but the pattern became Jim Ed singing lead with Bonnie and Maxine as his blending vocalists.
They became stars at both The Louisiana Hayride and The Ozark Jubilee. In the early 1950s, The Browns toured with the then-emerging star Elvis Presley, who took a shine to both Bonnie and Maxine.
But by 1959, the trio was pondering retirement. Jim Ed’s Army service and his job running their father’s sawmill, plus the sisters’ family lives, had distracted them from their emerging music career. “The Three Bells” changed that.
The trio’s elegant harmony singing was nowhere better illustrated than on that 1959 smash. This charming, chiming story song was adapted by The Browns from a French pop hit. Produced by Chet Atkins, “The Three Bells” was No. 1 on the country charts for 10 weeks and No. 1 on the pop charts for four weeks. Then as now, this was a stunning feat for a Nashville country record.
Maxine and her siblings replicated that hit’s sound on the pop and country successes “Scarlet Ribbons” (1959) and “The Old Lamplighter” (1960). Then The Browns solidified their country stardom with “Send Me the Pillow You Dream On” (1961). The Browns joined the cast of the Grand Ole Opry in 1963.
The group toured widely, not only the US but abroad as well, making several concert runs in Europe and Japan.The Browns also appeared many hit TV shows of the day, including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Arthur Murray Show, The Perry Como Show, American Bandstand and The Jerry Lewis Show. “Then I’ll Stop Loving You” (1964), “Everybody’s Darlin’ Plus Mine” (1964), “I’d Be Just Fool Enough” (1966), “Coming Back to You” (1966) and other hits maintained their prominence on the country charts in the mid-1960s.
Bonnie Brown Ring withdrew from the group in 1967 to settle back home in Arkansas with her husband and raise their daughters. Jim Ed Brown went on to have a hugely successful solo career.
Maxine Brown also made solo records. She signed with the RCA subsidiary label Chart Records, having her biggest success with her self-written “Sugar Cane County” in 1969.
Known for her brassy sense of humor and tell-it-like-it-is frankness, Maxine continued to be a popular personality in the country community. The University of Arkansas Press published Looking Back to See: A Country Music Memoir as her autobiography in 2005.
The trio reunited several times over the years, usually at the Opry. The Browns issued a gospel comeback CD titled Family Bible in 1996. Maxine and Bonnie also appeared on Jim Ed’s final album, 2015’s In Style Again.
Jim Ed Brown was diagnosed with lung cancer that year. He died in June 2015, but was presented with his Hall of Fame honor at his bedside before he passed away. Maxine and Bonnie attended the group’s official Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Nashville that fall. Bonnie died of lung cancer the following year.
Maxine Brown Russell died in Little Rock on Monday, Jan. 21 due to complications from heart and kidney disease.
She is survived by children Alicia and Jimmy, six grandchildren and two great grandchildren.
A viewing was held on Sunday (Jan. 27) at North Little Rock Funeral Home. A service was held Monday (Jan. 28) at First Assembly of God in North Little Rock, Arkansas, followed by a burial at Pine Bluff Memorial Park.