The Belle of Dardanelle

by | Oct 1, 2011 | Features

After more than 40 years in retirement from show business, bells are still ringing for singer Bonnie Brown Ring of Dardanelle.
Part of the country pop legend, the Brown Trio, Ring and her siblings, Jim Ed and Maxine Brown, are back in the limelight. In September they appeared in a pre-recorded television special Country Reunion/Rock and Roll Graffiti for Dish network and featured performers on the PBS special Country Pop Legends, in August, where they sang their breakthrough hit, The Three Bells and other favorites.
While the trio started out as county music singers in the mid 1950’s, they soon made the crossover to mainstream Pop music with million sellers like Scarlet Ribbons, The Old Lamplighter, I Hear the Bluebirds Sing, and Send me the Pillow that you Dream On.
“Simply put…The Browns changed the listening audience for country music. They brought country music to the next level. They made it nationwide and worldwide music,” said writer John Dersham, in a recent press release.

Although the Browns have not yet been inducted into CMA Country Music Hall of Fame, they are perhaps the largest Country Music contributor to ever be overlooked for the prestigious Hall of Fame, Dersham added.
Despite the CMA snub, the Browns are widely recognized for their music and have been inducted into the North American Country Music Hall of Fame, the Arkansas Entertainer’s Hall of Fame, received the Golden Voice Award for number one group in Country Music and are on the Hot Springs Walk of Fame.
The Brown’s signature “close harmonies” also led to performances on national television shows including the Ed Sullivan Show, Arthur Murray Dance Party, Jimmy Dean Barn Dance, Ozark Jubilee and the Grand Ole Opry where they made numerous performances from 1956 until they officially joined the cast in 1964.

Ring remembers it well. “When we joined the Ozark Jubilee TV show, we were signed by RCA Victor Records at the same time. RCA was the premier record label, and we thought we had “arrived.” Chet Atkins became our producer, and we are very proud of the sounds we had with Chet. We were very lucky kids. We remained with RCA until we retired. RCA is now SONY,” she added.
While Ring retired from performing in 1967, Jim Ed is still a regular on the Opry stage and renowned for his “countrypolitan” sound, and Maxine has become a popular author with a biography of the Browns, Looking Back to See, titled after a song Maxine wrote which first propelled the group to stardom.

That book was the lynch pin for author, Rick Bass, to write a fictionalized account of the Brown’s trip to the top of the Pop Country charts. The book, Nashville Chrome published by Houghton-Miffin-Harcourt Publishers of NY, went on the market in 2010 and soon made the bestseller list.
“Many people think it is a true story of The Browns, but it isn’t,” said Ring.

Although Nashville Chrome is only “loosely” based on the Browns, Maxine’s biography Looking Back to See, tells the real story of the Browns, said Ring. “Maxine is pretty ‘spicy’ and tells it like it is,” she added.
Maxine’s book gives such an accurate accounting of the music business in the early days of Country and Pop music, Looking Back to See may be made into a movie. Negotiations are now underway for movie rights.
If the movie deal happens, Ring knows just who she want to play her character. “I’d like to have Dolly Parton play my part,” said Bonnie with a wink.
While dark haired and modestly coiffed in those days and still attractive today, Bonnie was a voluptuous beauty like Parton, and often had to cover her cleavage with modesty panels.
“Wow; what a change with what I’m seeing now on TV! Back in the early days of television, no cleavage was allowed. The Opry didn’t want us to wear short dresses and pants were a No-No for the girls,” said Ring.

“We always wore identical dresses,” said Ring. “We needed new dresses for the Arthur Murray Dance Party, which was the first color TV show, on NBC, and had dresses made that cost a fortune. Maxine loved that dress, and used the old photo on the book jacket. Another picture of Maxine and Bonnie in red dresses and Jim Ed in a red coat was taken by famous photographer, Lee Friedlander, and now hangs in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in NY.”

With so many changes in music industry dress standards, Ring has definite ideas about costumes that performers wear today.
“It’s interesting to see what performers are wearing, But if you look away, and just listen to the music, it doesn’t say much to me. So, I suppose outlandish costumes are important if you can’t sing,” said Ring.
As a singer, Ring also has opinions about today’s music. “Rap music is ruined for me if I have the Closed Captioning on. I’m amazed at some of the words they use — and get away with. I do not understand the popularity of Heavy Metal, or Rap music. However, I like all other kinds of music, as long as it’s done well.”

The old system of recording music live and using one microphone was great, because it had a “warmer, spontaneous feel” about it, said Ring. With the new records, everything is perfect…no one is off key because it can be brought up to the key with a digital board. If a mistake is made by a musician, it can be changed so easily by slicing in the right key. In the olden days we’d have to go back and start over. Sometimes, songs are too perfect on the discs of today, she added.
Vinyl records are also making a comeback. “I like the old vinyl (records). They have a much better sound. Collectors want the old ones and new artists are requesting that their record companies release a number of their songs on Vinyl 78 RPMs and also, on 45’s. The sound is so superior to the CD’s,” explained Ring.
Whether on vinyl or disc, the pure, sweet harmonies of the Brown’s still sell records and the Nashville sound has a bigger audience than ever.
“If you want to know the truth about the early days of the Nashville sound, read Maxine’s book,” said Ring. Not only does she tell the story of the Brown’s sometimes bumpy ride to fame, the book includes material on their producer, Chet Atkins, Johnny Cash, Jim Reeves, Floyd Cramer, Jim Perryman and the King of Rock and Roll himself, Elvis Presley, who they toured with for two years and with whom Bonnie had a teenage romance.
The story goes that while Bonnie was in London with her sibling to accept the award for Number One Song in Britain that year, she had a phone conversation with Elvis while he was stationed in Germany as a serviceman.

“Our manager had arranged the phone even though Elvis and I had argued so much in the past. During the phone call, Elvis asked me to wait for him until he got out of the Army, so we could talk without arguing.
“I said OK, I’d wait. However, that was in November, and I had already met Brownie (Gene “Brownie” Ring) and was madly in love. When Elvis came home to Memphis in March, his record company (RCA Victor — which was also ours) had a big welcome home party at a downtown hotel, and he asked that they invite us so the three of us went up to Memphis.”
“At the reception/party, when we were together for photos, he asked if I had waited like I promised. That’s when I told him I had gotten married two weeks before. I think he was upset. He left the party very soon after, and went back to his home, and cancelled the ‘after’ party,” said Ring.
Ring does not like to talk much about Elvis.
“I really don’t think the Elvis times are important if anyone really wants to know about The Browns. However, I know there’s so much interest in Elvis, and there should be. He was Great! He made a big change in the music scene at that time… one that lasted forever.”
Despite her connection to the King of Rock and Roll, Ring much prefers to talk about her husband, Brownie, a family-practice physician who maintained a busy practice in Dardanelle until her retired in 2000, and her two grown daughters.
More than 50 years later, Bonnie and Brownie, are still together.
“I kissed her once and that was it,” said Brownie with a big smile. Bonnie agreed. “He is a good kisser!”
When asked if Brownie found it difficult to be married to a star, Ring replied, “If you want to know who is really famous, just go to Wal-Mart with Brownie and me.
“Everybody just loves Brownie and former patients are always coming up to him and saying how much they miss him,” said Ring with obvious pride. You might say the bells are still ringing for this love song.
The Browns Now and Then
Known for their “close harmonies” the Brown Trio grew up in Sparkman, Ark., with music in their blood. “Music was always part of our lives. My father, Floyd Brown and his brother Cecil had a band that played most weekends and they’d practice at our house. We also used to listen to the country music broadcasts on the radio and practice singing harmony” said Ring, the third youngest of four siblings; Maxine the oldest, Jim Ed next, then Bonnie and finally Norma, who at 17 took Bonnie’s place on show dates while Bonnie was pregnant. It’s also been said the siblings learned their harmonies by turning their voices to the sound of the saw blades at their lumberman father’s saw mill, but Bonnie dismissed that as only a story. How the Browns came by their sweet harmonies may never be certain, but Jim Ed’s singing and Maxine’s tenacity was the start of their rise to fame.

With the encouragement of oldest sister Maxine, in 1952 Jim Ed placed second in a talent contest and started performing on Barnyard Frolicon on the Little Rock radio station KLRA. Soon Jim Ed and Maxine, a singer/songwriter, became a duo and were later joined by Bonnie after she graduated from High school in 1955.
The Browns became superstars in 1959 with their cross-over classic The Three Bells in 1959. The song was No. 1 for 10 weeks on the country charts and topped the pop charts for four weeks, although they’d had top ten hits before that starting in 1954 with Looking Back to See, a song Maxine wrote.
Soon after, the trio joined the Louisiana Hayride live radio show along with another newcomer, Elvis Presley and they toured with Presley for two years.

Around this time, father Floyd and mother Birdie Lee, who was known as a wonderful cook, had a supper club called the Trio Club, where Elvis and other up and coming stars often came to eat and perform while on the road.
“Elvis and everyone we toured with just loved my momma’s cooking,” said Ring.
As radio made way for television, the Browns joined network TV show, Ozark Jubilee and later joined the cast of The Grand Ole Opry. Jim Ed Brown, the group’s lead singer and guitar player, is still a regular on the Opry and went on to become a successful solo artist.
By 1967 both Bonnie and Maxine retired from the show business circuit to raise their families.
“It was a fun life when we were single, but once Maxine and I each got married and started our families, we really missed being with our children,” said Ring.
While Maxine settled in Little Rock where she raised three children, mostly as a single parent, Bonnie and Brownie settled in Dardanelle where they raised their two daughters, Kelly and Robin.
Today, Kelly Lee Bulleit is an Emmy-winning news anchor at WTVT in Tampa, Fla., and Robin Rachelle Shaver is married to a respected pathologist in Little Rock and has two children.
Does Ring still sing? “About all I do now is sing in church,” said Bonnie, although earlier performances by the trio are still popular on radio and TV, and a recently released compilation of their music is selling well.



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