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.