Classic Country Singles: The Browns, “The Three Bells”

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height=”160″ />The Three Bells
The Browns
1959

Written by Dick Manning, Bert Reisfeld and Jean Villard

The structure of “The Three Bells” should be familiar to any listener of contemporary country music. A genre that prides itself on its simplicity is ambitious enough to tell an entire life story in under four minutes. It’s an approach that has created several classic singles like “Where’ve You Been” , “Time Marches On” and “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye.”

One of the most significant historical examples of this structure comes from The Browns, who had a massive crossover hit with their 1959 single “The Three Bells.” It’s a simple tale. The church bells ring three times throughout the course of Jimmy Brown’s life: on the day of his baptism, the day of his wedding, and the day of his funeral. The preacher has words of wisdom for each occasion, ones that would be familiar to any Christian churchgoer, Catholic or otherwise.

That the character shares the same name as lead singer Jim Ed Brown and takes place in a little country town might lead you to believe that this was a song of Nashville origin, but it actually began its life and its worldwide success in France as the story of Jean-François Nicot. Originally written in French, “Les Trois Cloches” was an international hit for Édith Piaf, the songstress that was recently immortalized in the film La Vie En Rose. The Browns, composed of siblings Jim Ed, Maxine, and Bonnie, had been performing the song since seeing it Les Campagnons de la Chanson performing an English-language version on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1952.

When they finally went into the studio to record it in 1959, The Browns thought they were at the end of their recording career. They had just told RCA that the family act was breaking up, despite having enjoyed moderate success since 1954 with eight top fifteen singles. What was intended as their swan song became their signature instead, catapulting them into nationwide fame. Not only did it spend 10 weeks at #1 on the country singles chart, it also topped the pop chart for four weeks and even reached #10 on the R&B chart.

“The Three Bells” came at a time when country music was enjoying its first major crossover success, topping the pop chart a few weeks after Johnny Horton (“The Battle of New Orleans”) and a few weeks before Marty Robbins (“El Paso.”) Robbins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and The Everly Brothers dominated both the pop and country surveys, Guy Mitchell scored a #1 pop hit with his covers of “Heartaches By the Number”, and even two of the big pop stars of the day – Conway Twitty and Brenda Lee – would ultimately find their way to country music and make it their permanent home.

Meanwhile, The Browns would fare better on the pop chart with their next two singles, but continued to be a presence on country radio until the sisters retired. The man who sang lead on the definitive three act country song would have three acts to his own career. After The Browns came to an end, Jim Ed Brown launched a successful solo career, with his 1967 hit “Pop a Top” becoming a bona fide classic later resurrected by Alan Jackson. As the solo hits began to wind down, he reinvented himself as one half of a duo with Helen Cornelius. Their 1976 debut collaboration “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You” took Brown to the top of the singles chart for the first time since “The Three Bells”, and earned them both the CMA award for Vocal Duo in 1977.

“The Three Bells” has crafted quite a legacy of its own, with versions released by everyone from Ray Charles, Alison Krauss, and Roy Orbison to Sha Na Na, Nana Mouskouri and Andy Williams. For modern country fans who haven’t encountered this classic yet, the structure will be instantly familiar.

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The Three Bells
The Browns
1959
Written by Dick Manning, Bert Reisfeld and Jean Villard

The structure of “The Three Bells” should be familiar to any listener of contemporary country music. A genre that prides itself on its simplicity is ambitious enough to tell an entire life story in under four minutes. It’s an approach that has created several classic singles like “Where’ve You Been” , “Time Marches On” and “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye.”
One of the most significant historical examples of this structure comes from The Browns, who had a massive crossover hit with their 1959 single “The Three Bells.” It’s a simple tale. The church bells ring three times throughout the course of Jimmy Brown’s life: on the day of his baptism, the day of his wedding, and the day of his funeral. The preacher has words of wisdom for each occasion, ones that would be familiar to any Christian churchgoer, Catholic or otherwise.
That the character shares the same name as lead singer Jim Ed Brown and takes place in a little country town might lead you to believe that this was a song of Nashville origin, but it actually began its life and its worldwide success in France as the story of Jean-François Nicot. Originally written in French, “Les Trois Cloches” was an international hit for Édith Piaf, the songstress that was recently immortalized in the film La Vie En Rose. The Browns, composed of siblings Jim Ed, Maxine, and Bonnie, had been performing the song since seeing it Les Campagnons de la Chanson performing an English-language version on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1952.
When they finally went into the studio to record it in 1959, The Browns thought they were at the end of their recording career. They had just told RCA that the family act was breaking up, despite having enjoyed moderate success since 1954 with eight top fifteen singles. What was intended as their swan song became their signature instead, catapulting them into nationwide fame. Not only did it spend 10 weeks at #1 on the country singles chart, it also topped the pop chart for four weeks and even reached #10 on the R&B chart.
“The Three Bells” came at a time when country music was enjoying its first major crossover success, topping the pop chart a few weeks after Johnny Horton (“The Battle of New Orleans”) and a few weeks before Marty Robbins (“El Paso.”) Robbins, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and The Everly Brothers dominated both the pop and country surveys, Guy Mitchell scored a #1 pop hit with his covers of “Heartaches By the Number”, and even two of the big pop stars of the day – Conway Twitty and Brenda Lee – would ultimately find their way to country music and make it their permanent home.
Meanwhile, The Browns would fare better on the pop chart with their next two singles, but continued to be a presence on country radio until the sisters retired. The man who sang lead on the definitive three act country song would have three acts to his own career. After The Browns came to an end, Jim Ed Brown launched a successful solo career, with his 1967 hit “Pop a Top” becoming a bona fide classic later resurrected by Alan Jackson. As the solo hits began to wind down, he reinvented himself as one half of a duo with Helen Cornelius. Their 1976 debut collaboration “I Don’t Want to Have to Marry You” took Brown to the top of the singles chart for the first time since “The Three Bells”, and earned them both the CMA award for Vocal Duo in 1977.
“The Three Bells” has crafted quite a legacy of its own, with versions released by everyone from Ray Charles, Alison Krauss, and Roy Orbison to Sha Na Na, Nana Mouskouri and Andy Williams. For modern country fans who haven’t encountered this classic yet, the structure will be instantly familiar.
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