As someone who was born in the 1970s, I never really got to experience the true magic of Eddy Arnold at his peak, as he was already in semi-retirement when I was old enough to be familiar with him and his music. Jim Reeves passed away in 1964 — a full decade before I was born. While I did get to know the rich musical legacies of both of those men, I was fortunate to get to witness firsthand the smooth vocal stylings of Jim Ed Brown, who claimed both men as vocal — and personal — influences.
Jim Ed, who died earlier today at age 81, enjoyed a career that spanned six decades. The first incarnation was with his sisters Maxine and Bonnie. Last fall, in an interview to promote what would be his final album — In Style Again, the singer remarked about those early days growing up in Arkansas.
“We started singing when we were young kids,” he recalled. “I lost my little brother when I was nine years old, and I remember he and I sang together. We would listen to Daddy’s old battery operated radio. If it was a clear night, we might be able to pick up the Grand Ole Opry. He and his brother played for some of the square dances around the area, and we just picked it up. My little brother was killed when he was seven. Then, Maxine and I started singing together, then later Bonnie joined us,” he recalled. “God has a way of doing things with people. He sets the path. So much of the time, we follow it, sometimes we don’t, but if we do, he leads us and opens the doors for us. That’s what he did for us.”
The sibling harmonies of The Browns could be heard on such smash singles as “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing,” “Scarlet Ribbons,” and the song that took them to the top of the Country and Hot 100 charts — 1959’s “The Three Bells.” That song — recorded in what they thought was going to be their final RCA session as they were considering retirement — propelled the trio to the A-List, where they stayed until Maxine and Bonnie retired in 1967 to be closer to their growing families. As for Jim Ed, he wasn’t quite ready to walk away from the spotlight. He told Billboard that the early shows without his sisters were tough.
“Whenever you walk out on stage with three people, you’ve got a crutch. Then, all of a sudden, you don’t have that. It’s scary, because you wonder ‘What do I do?’ Are the people going to like me? What songs do I do?’”
He quickly found his answer, with “Pop A Top” becoming a huge hit, topping out at No. 3 on the Billboard charts. The Nat Stuckey-written single became an instant Country classic, helping to propel Jim Ed’s solo career. Other hits would follow — “Morning,” “Angel’s Sunday,” and “It’s That Time of Night.”
With his smooth vocal approach and matinee idol looks, Brown became a natural for television. He became one of the most visible artists of his time, with stints on his own The Country Place TV show in the early 1970s, Nashville on the Road, and You Can Be A Star — which helped launch many of Music City’s greatest, including Linda Davis. He also became familiar to audiences as the celebrity spokesperson for Dollar General Stores.
By the mid 1970s, Brown was about to embark on the third phase of his career. “Chet Atkins found this song, and gave it to Bob Ferguson — who was my producer at the time. It was a great song — ‘I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You.’ I wanted to do it solo, but he wanted me to do it as a duet. I told him I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to get back into a duet situation because I had a hard enough time making a solo career by myself after The Browns. He said he wanted me to cut it with Helen Cornelius. I didn’t know who she was. But, we met in the studio, and the rest is history.” The two would win the 1976 Vocal Duo of the Year award from the Country Music Association, and their hits together would stretch into the 1980s — songs like “Morning Comes Too Early” and “Lying In Love With You,” which was one of the first hits in the career of Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame inductee Dean Dillon. The two still performed well into recent years together, with Cornelius appearing on In Style Again.
Until being diagnosed with cancer last fall, Brown could still be found on stage — both on the road and at the Grand Ole Opry — where he had been a member since 1963. The Opry was a special place for Brown.
“That’s my second home. I have my home with my family, which I dearly love. That’s the greatest, but whenever you can go out on the weekend and visit with your peers and friends — that’s one thing that is great about the Opry. I love walking out on that stage, looking at the audience, watch them laugh — or sometimes watch them cry. As Porter Wagoner once said, ‘you make them laugh, you make them cry, or scare the hell out of them.’ But, it’s home, and I love the Grand Ole Opry.”
Brown fought his cancer with the vigor of someone half his age. He made the promotional rounds for the new album, continued to host his Country Music Greats Radio Show, and less than three months ago, he received the highest honor of his career — word that Jim Ed Brown & The Browns would be inducted this fall among three new members of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Representatives from the Hall presented Brown with his Medallion last week.
I was privileged to have interviewed Jim Ed Brown on several occasions, and above his talent and charisma, he was class personified. His last album was In Style Again, but truth be told…he never went out of it. He was a man who loved what he did. Wrapping up our interview, the 80-year old was as excited about having new music out as someone a quarter of his age.
“It’s always good to hear a new song. I love what I do. People have always been great to me. They have accepted me into their homes and lives. It’s unreal what radio and television has done for me. I am a very blessed man.”
And, Jim Ed Brown, the country music world was better for having you. Brown is survived by wife Becky Brown; daughter Kim Corwin and her husband Dr. Michael Corwin; son James Edward Brown Jr. and his wife Leigh; grandchildren Isabella Brown, Hampton Brown, Oliver Brown, Genevieve Brown and Catherine Corwin. Funeral arrangements are incomplete at this time.