june 2008

The Browns
Collectors’ Choice

Whenever Jim Ed Brown shows up at the Grand Ole Opry, he usually makes sure to remind the assembled multitude from whence he got his start with a tender rendering of one of The Browns’ captivating hits from the 1960s. Emerging from Pine Bluff, AK, as a duo with his talented sister Maxine, and later joined by the youngest Brown daughter, Bonnie, Jim Ed was the lone male voice in what amounted to a co-ed version of the Louvin Brothers. Their early recordings for the Fabor label in the mid-’50s (two of which are included in this overview, including Jim Ed and Maxine’s first single, a regional hit penned by the siblings titled “Look Back and See”) as well as their first few RCA singles in the early ‘60s—when they exercised their Louvins fetish by covering the brothers’ songs—are eerily close to the Louvins’ sound, and some, such as the high-stepping, familiarly harmonized ditties such as the ebullient “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing,” proved popular with country fans.

But the Browns’ signature sound came not from the Louvins, but rather from the Fleetwoods, a coed trio featuring two women (Barbar Ellis and Gretchen Christopher) fashioning sugary, dreamy harmonies behind the smooth, honeyed tenor of their male lead, Gary Troxell, and finding a huge audience for the terrific romantic records they made from the late ‘50s into the early ‘60s. The Browns metamorphosed into the countrypolitan version of The Fleetwoods with a 1959 cover of a melodramatic French popular song with a colorful history (but best known on these shores in its Edith Piaf version), bearing the English title “The Three Bells.” In three succinct verses it described the life’s arc of “Little Jimmy Brown,” from birth to marriage to death, each passage concluding with an appeal for divine guidance for Little Jimmy as he made his way through the world and, eventually, to Heaven. Jim Ed took the lead, his tenor beautifully smooth and affecting, never overdoing the emotion, as his sisters sang tight-knit, silky harmonies and introduced each new chapter with an ascending, catchy “bom-bom-bom-bom” intro over a subdued, small combo backing. The single topped both the pop and country charts, and the Browns had a formula. They scored big again with a lush version of “Scarlet Ribbons” (which found the Brown sisters employing a variation on the “bom-bom-bom-bom” gimmick from “The Three Bells”) and a dreamy, somewhat melancholy reminiscence of an earlier era, “The Old Lamplighter,” which had been a hit for Sammy Kaye (and again features the sisters reprising “bom-bom-bom-bom”), a lovely, wistful recording featuring a vocal by Jim Ed that is a marvel of elegant, restrained country-pop crooning, again entirely credible, never even a shade into the mushy, cloying realm. This wonderful collection spotlights the enduring work the Browns did under the guidance of Chet Atkins, on some of the early, essential documents of the pop-influenced “Nashville Sound.” Some of the lesser known gems include a somber, pastoral beauty from the pen of Roger Miller, circa 1964, titled “Meadowgreen,” which links a soldier’s sadness at departing for foreign soil to memories of his homeland’s natural beauty; and one of the group’s final recordings, 1967’s “I Hear It Now,” written by Chip Taylor (of “Wild Thing” fame), redolent with an acoustic-centered folk-rock flavor and using a romance’s bitter end as a sly metaphor for something amiss in the world at large. In October 1967, an ailing Bonnie retired, Jim Ed and Maxine pursued solo careers, Maxine retired shortly thereafter and Jim Ed has gone on to rack up more than 50 solo hits in his fruitful career. Together these siblings had some kind of magic going for them, because a lot of the music they made together touched listeners in places where only the gifted artists go.—David McGee

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (www.johnmendelsohn.com)
Website Design: Kieran McGee (www.kieranmcgee.com)
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY; www.flickr.com/audreyharrod), Alicia Zappier (New York)
E-mail: thebluegrassspecial@gmail.com
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024