Jim Ed Brown has had three separate and distinct recording careers within country music. The first career ran from 1952 to ’54 and found him paired initially with sister Maxine and later with sisters Maxine and Bonnie (1955-67). After the Browns disbanded (Bonnie and Maxine left to raise families), he had a successful career as a solo artist for the next eight years (1967-74). Then, after his solo career as a hit-maker ground to a halt, he took on a third wind with a series of successful duet recordings with Helen Cornelius.
Born in 1934, in Sparkman, Arkansas, Jim Ed Brown was one of five children (two boys and three girls) of a struggling lumberman and his wife. Like many rural families his family would gather on Saturday nights to listen to the Grand Ole Opry on a battery powered radio. Brown and his older sister, Maxine, were especially interested in what they heard on the radio and soon began singing together. Within a few years they were performing on local radio shows.
By Brown’s second year of college, he and Maxine were regulars on the Barnyard Frolic on KRLA in Little Rock. In 1954, they wrote their first hit song “Looking Back To See” which charted at #8 for the duo. A cover version by Justin Tubb and Goldie Hill also charted, reaching # 4.
Released on the Faber label in 1954, “Looking Back To See” provided the duo with momentum, leading to membership on the Louisiana Hayride. From there they joined Red Foley as featured regulars on the Ozark Jubilee in 1955. Toward the end of 1955, younger sister Bonnie joined the act and they scored their second top ten record with “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow.” With encouragement from their former Faber label mate Jim Reeves, RCA signed the group in 1956, and two Cashbox #1s followed with “I Take the Chance” and “I Heard the Bluebird Sing” (both fell just short of #1 on Billboard). In 1957, Jim Ed was invited to join Uncle Sam for a two year stretch in the US Army. By the time he returned in 1959, RCA had become immersed in the ‘Nashville Sound’ and the label pointed the group toward the pop charts, succeeding in a big way with “The Three Bells” which was #1 for ten weeks and spent four weeks at #1 on the pop charts and sold millions of copies. This was followed by “Scarlet Ribbons” (#7 country/#13 pop) and “The Old Lamplighter” (#20 country / #5 pop). In 1962, the trio joined the Grand Ole Opry.
Unfortunately, the focus on the pop charts cost the group their core country audience, and they would have no further top 10 country hits. Meanwhile the pop audiences moved elsewhere as the ‘British Invasion’ changed the pop landscape.
After Maxine and Bonnie retired, Jim Ed went solo and scored his first solo hit in 1967 with the Nat Stuckey-penned “Pop-A-Top” (#1 Cashbox/#3 Billboard). While never a consistent hit-maker (most of his singles reached the top 40 but little more), he did have the occasional smash hit. In 1970 “Morning” reached #4 (#1 Cashbox and #47 pop), with “Southern Loving” making it to #6 in 1973. Two 1974 singles reached #10 in “Sometime Sunshine” and “It’s That Time of The Night,” but after that the solo hits tailed off, although he continued to chart through 1979. This was the most successful portion of Jim Ed’s recording career as he tallied a total of thirty-eight chart hits as a solo.
Picking up the gap in his recording career, Brown began a six-season run as co-host of the syndicated weekly television series Nashville On The Road in 1975.
The third career phase for Jim Ed Brown began in 1976 when he teamed up with Helen Cornelius to form a successful recording duo. “I Don’t Want To Have To Marry You” and “Saying Hello, Saying I Love You, Saying Goodbye” both made it to #1 on either Billboard or Cashbox as did “Lying in Love With You”. The magic for the pair was short-lived, however, as the 1979 cover of a Johnny Duncan hit, “Fools” (#3), and the 1980 hit “Morning Comes Too Early” (#5) closed out the duo’s top 10 records.
In 1983 Jim Ed started working with The Nashville Network’s You Can Be A Star for six years, and later co-hosted a travel show with his wife Becky in Going Our Way.
Jim Ed Brown still is a member of the Grand Ole Opry and occasionally makes personal appearances. While never a superstar, he has been a solid journeyman performer; one who charted 72 records between his three recording careers (21 with the Browns, 38 as a solo artist and 13 with Helen Cornelius).
There are approximately fifty vinyl albums released during the three recording careers of Jim Ed Brown. Solo albums for Maxine Brown, Bonnie Brown or for Helen Cornelius as solo performers are few in number. None had any solo success, to speak of, on the country charts.
The Browns are well represented on CD.
Bear Family has issued an eight disc collection, The Three Bells, with 258 songs, everything the group recorded (I think). If that’s too rich for your blood, Bear also issued a 36 song single CD collection titled Country Music Odyssey.
Collector’s Choice Music had a single disc set titled The Complete Hits with all 22 of their charting hits. The Collectibles label issued I Heard The Bluebirds Sing/Harvest Of Country Songs which couples two of the RCA Camden reissue albums. Both of these are out of production, but not difficult to find.
The Eric label issued a nice collection in late 2012 titled Soft As The Voice of An Angel. Although the title suggests a religious album, the album is mostly secular material. There may be some other CDs available from various import labels, as well.
Jim Ed Brown is not as well served on CD. The best available disc is the RCA Essential Jim Ed Brown. This disc has five Browns songs plus 13 Jim Ed Brown solo tracks. Brown has a website (see below) which sells some CDs but I know nothing of the source material from which they are taken–they may be remakes.
[I know that the Browns have a large cult following, but it is Jim Ed’s solo career that most interests me – it is high time someone, somewhere put out a decent Jim Ed Brown solo collection – he had twenty-three top forty hits. Are you listening, Bear Family? Ace? Proper?]