The grand tradition of the male-female duet is a long and storied one in country music history. Porter & Dolly. Johnny & June. Loretta & Conway. If you look at the list of award-winning duos during the seventies, you’ll see plenty of familiar faces. But one duo – Jim Ed Brown & Helen Cornelius – has been largely forgotten, which is a shame, since their backstory is almost as interesting as their music.
Helen Cornelius was a songwriter first. Her husband encouraged her in the craft, pushing her to keep writing and eventually moving with her and their three kids to Music City. Her talent was soon discovered, and she became a staff writer for Screen Gems in 1970. That same year, she was a winner on The Ted Mack Amateur Hour. By the time her publishing company folded, production legend Jerry Crutchfield had heard her demo tape and offered to sign her to MCA Records.
She opted for Columbia instead, but her singles failed to chart. In 1975, she signed with RCA Records, and again, her singles went nowhere. However, Cornelius wasn’t the only struggling artist on the RCA Roster. Jim Ed Brown, an Opry member since 1963 and a country star for nearly two decades, had been on the label since the fifties. As a member of family act The Browns, he’d spent ten weeks at #1 with “The Three Bells” in 1959. As a solo artist, he’d had his biggest hit in 1967 with “Pop a Top.” By 1976, he was struggling to have a hit at all.
RCA decided to team up Brown with Cornelius. They released their first duet, “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You”, and it soared to the top of the charts. Cornelius and Brown each continued to release solo singles over the next four years, but radio only played their duets, of which they had quite a few. They even co-hosted the nationally syndicated television show Nashville on the Road for more than four years.
Unfortunately, their success on stage and on record led to tension at home. Brown’s wife filed for divorce in 1979, alluding to Brown’s relationship with Cornelius. In 1980, Cornelius also divorced her first husband. When Brown attempted to become romantic with Cornelius, she refused, and as legend has it, he threw her off the tour bus and refused to perform with her again. From the Opry stage, he begged his wife to come back to him.
By the time the dust had settled, both Brown and Cornelius were dropped by RCA. Brown returned to the Opry, while Cornelius attempted to establish a solo career. Radio might not have been interested, but she had built up a good name as a performer by the early eighties, and she was able to sustain a solid touring career. She even headlined a touring production of Annie Get Your Gun.
She has reunited from time to time with Brown, but also established her own successful ventures over the years, including a dinner theater in Gatlinburg, Tennessee in the nineties. Earlier this decade, she co-starred in the Grand Ladies of Music Show in Branson with such peers as Margo Smith, Jean Shepard and Jan Howard. Currently, she is touring the country, doing some dates with Brown and some on her own.
Essential Singles (Jim Ed Brown & Helen Cornelius)
- “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You”, 1976
- “Saying Hello, Saying I Love You, Saying Goodbye”, 1976
- “Lying in Love With You”, 1979
- “Fools”, 1979
- “Morning Comes Too Early”, 1980
- I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You (1976)
- CMA Vocal Duo – Jim Ed Brown & Helen Cornelius, 1977