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Bonnie Brown Ring 1938-2016
One of country music’s beloved voices was silenced July 16 when Bonnie Brown Ring, 77, the youngest member of family trio The Browns, passed away in a Little Rock, Ark. hospital as a result of complications from cancer. She had first revealed that she was battling stage four adenocarcinoma lung cancer in September, 2015, just a month before she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame alongside sister Maxine, as well as brother Jim Ed, who had succumbed to lung cancer himself just three months earlier. The trio was inducted in the Hall of Fame’s “Veterans Era Artist” category in 2015.
Perhaps the most important vocal group of the Nashville Sound era, The Browns’ harmonies were among the most influential of their time, immediately influencing groups like the Beatles and the Osborne Brothers.
Speaking at the CMA Artist Luncheon in March 2015, Jim Ed explained the magic of their family harmonies. “I can sing a song, put it on tape, and send it to my sisters and they will sing their part and not somebody else’s,” he said. “Bonnie would sing the third part, Maxine would sing the second part, and when you put it all together it would all fit. It was the timbre of the voices that brings us together, which is a little bit different from most groups. And that sound is part of The Browns. I don’t think anybody’s ever duplicated it.”
The Browns helped define an era while also taking Country Music to wider, more cosmopolitan audiences. Their smooth three-part harmonies, centered around Jim Ed’s rich baritone complemented by Maxine’s alto and Bonnie’s breathy soprano, lifted the soul and cut across genre lines to bring a more sophisticated sound to Country Music. The trio’s take on what the genre can aspire to be can still be felt decades later in the music of modern vocal groups such as Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town.
Jim Ed (born April 1, 1934 in Sparkman, Ark.), Maxine (born April 27, 1931 in Campti, La.) and Bonnie (July 31, 1938 in Sparkman, Ark.) got their start performing at church and social functions as teenagers in Southwestern Arkansas.
Maxine signed up Jim Ed for a talent contest on Little Rock radio station KLRA’s “Barnyard Frolic.” Brown didn’t win, but he was invited to join the cast. Maxine eventually joined him on a stage and the two found quick success as a duo, landing a spot on the popular and influential “Louisiana Hayride” in 1954 and recording “Looking Back to See,” a surprise hit that rose to No. 8 on Billboard’s Country chart.
Bonnie filled out the trio by joining formally in 1955, after graduating from high school, and The Browns quickly scored another hit with “Here Today and Gone Tomorrow.” It was an exciting time for the siblings, as chronicled in Maxine’s autobiography Looking Back to See, and famed author Rick Bass’ fictionalized account of their lives, Nashville Chrome. They found themselves on the road with good friend Elvis Presley early in their career and helped establish Nashville as Music City, USA, along with acts like Presley and the Everly Brothers. Together they all pushed the boundaries of popular music. (Bonnie, a legendary beauty who dated Presley, reportedly broke up with him because he was, she said, a “lousy kisser.”)
They signed with RCA Records in 1955, teaming with legendary producer Chet Atkins, and eventually recorded 250 sides with the label, including sizeable hits “I Take the Chance” and “I Heard the Bluebirds Sing.” They toured the U.S. relentlessly during this period and also went to Europe with fellow RCA acts.
The Browns reached new levels of popularity with the recording of 1959’s “The Three Bells,” a song originally performed by Edith Piaf in France. The song displayed The Browns’ willingness to explore folk and pop modes in their music and the public responded, making it No. 1 on the pop and Country charts. It even rose to No. 10 on the R&B charts, showing its universal appeal.
The song and subsequent hits like “The Old Lamplighter” also proved widely popular and led the group to huge television appearance opportunities including “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “American Bandstand,” and “The Perry Como Show.”
After initial friction because of their pop leanings, The Browns joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1963. The trio, which was occasionally augmented by younger sister Norma, formally disbanded in 1967 largely because of Bonnie’s desire to raise her young family.
The Browns made occasional appearances over the ensuing years, recording a reunion album in the mid-1980s and appearing on the Opry. Jim Ed, continued his solo career after the trio separated, and Maxine also recorded a solo album.
The Oak Ridge Boys were among the artists expressing their sorrow at Ring’s passing on social media, tweeting, “RIP beautiful woman.”
She is preceded in death by her husband of 56 years, Dr. Gene “Brownie” Ring, and is survived by two daughters, Kelly (Ed) Bulleit, and Robin (Rob) Shaver; Kelly’s children, Clark, Kendall, and Raleigh; Robin’s children, Skylar and Stone, as well as sister Maxine.