Ask “Mr. Music”
Jerry Osborne


DEAR JERRY: In the early 1960s, the Browns had several big hits, especially "The Three Bells," about "little Jimmy Brown."

I've always wondered if there is a story behind the song and the fact that Jim Ed Brown is singing about someone named Jimmy Brown.

Was it written with him in mind?

Two more Browns' hits from around that time were "The Old Lamplighter," and one about an "old painter in the hills."

Everyone knows the first two, but no one I ask is familiar with the "Old Painter" song.

Hopefully you will know the one I mean. I know it got played a lot in this area, at least on WJPS (AM 1330).
—Mary Williams, Newburgh, Ind.

DEAR MARY: Let's first deal with some background on the musical story in three acts (birth-marriage-death) about the life of Jimmy Brown.

Both the words and music were first written circa-1945 in France by Jean Villard, and titled "Les Trois Cloches," (The Three Bells).

The first significant recording came out in 1946 by Les Compagnons de la Chanson (the Companions of the song). Accompanying this a cappella male nonet on "Les Trois Cloches" is the renowned French chanteuse, Edith Piaf.

In hindsight it seems silly, but "Les Trois Cloches" was merely the B-side of "Perrine Était Servante" (Servant Was Perrine), by Les Compagnons de la Chanson without Piaf (Columbia DFX-242).

This same configuration on 78 rpm was also issued in a dozen European countries and soon made its way to North America, but only to Canada and specifically to their francophone population (Columbia Masterworks 12033).

The French Canadians, aware that Piaf was destined for international stardom, favored the "Les Trois Cloches" side, and, fueled by the worldwide success that year of "La Vie en Rose," many in the U.S. were introduced to "La Môme Piaf" (the Little Sparrow).

A Little over a year later (1948), the original French recording of "Les Trois Cloches" was released in the U.S. by Edith Piaf and Les Compagnons de la Chanson (Columbia 45001).

Rather than Jimmy Brown, a not-so-French name, the star of the story until 1951 was always Jean-Francois Nicot.

That's when Columbia decided to Anglicize the entire song, and Jean-Francois Nicot became Jimmy Brown.

Thus in late 1951 Americans had both 78s and 45s of "The Three Bells (Les Trois Cloches) (The Jimmy Brown Song)," by Les Compagnons de la Chanson but without Edith Piaf (Columbia 4105/39657).

This single, unusual in that it has a title and two subtitles, sold well in the States, enough to rank among Billboard's Top 15.

Knowing that little "Jimmy Brown" was born in 1951, about eight years before the Browns recorded "The Three Bells," confirms an assertion by Jim Ed Brown himself that the name thing was nothing but a coincidence.

We must also mention "The Three Bells (The Jimmy Brown Story)," a cover version by Dick Flood that peaked at a respectable No. 23 on Billboard, but didn't show up on Cash Box at all (Monument 408).

Turning our attention now to the art department, the regional hit you describe by the Browns is "The Old Master Painter" (RCA Victor 8066).

As you know, this beautiful tune did quite well in the tri-state (Indiana-Illinois-Kentucky) area, and did indeed climb into the top half of the WJPS "1330 Top 30" in September 1962.

That "The Old Master Painter" didn't make any of the national Top 100s is surprising, as it sold quite well in several other markets in the U.S. and Canada.

IZ ZAT SO? In mid-1959, when "The Three Bells" hit No. 1 on all of the national charts (Cash Box-Billboard-Music Vendor), Jim Edward, Bonnie and Maxine Brown became the first mixed-gender siblings to accomplish that feat.

"The Three Bells" also reached No. 1 on the Hot Country Singles survey, making the Browns the only mixed-gender trio at No. 1 in the first 32 years of that chart.

That streak ended in mid-1976 when Dave & Sugar (Dave Rowland, Vicki Hackeman and Jackie Frantz) hit No. 1 with "The Door Is Always Open."

Somewhat unexpectedly, "The Three Bells" even turned up among the Rhythm & Blues Top 10.

From the beginning of record charts, it was not until December 1958 that a mixed-gender trio topped the charts.

Amazingly, in the 11 months that followed, three more No. 1 hits were by mixed-gender trios:

December 1958: Teddy Bears - "To Know Him Is to Love Him" (Dore 503)
April 1959: Fleetwoods - "Come Softly to Me" (Dolphin 1)
July 1959: Browns - "The Three Bells" (RCA Victor 7555)
November 1959: Fleetwoods - "Mr. Blue" (Dolton 5)

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