Maxine Brown Russell, who along with her family trio The Browns helped define an era while also taking Country Music to wider, more cosmopolitan audiences, passed away today, Jan. 21, 2019, in Little Rock, Arkansas at the age of 87.
“Maxine was a force to be reckoned with, and I’ll always remember her sense of humor,” said Sarah Trahern, CMA Chief Executive Officer. “She and her siblings will forever be celebrated as one of Country Music’s most beloved trios.”
The Browns’ 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.
Perhaps the most important vocal group of the Nashville Sound era, The Browns’ harmonies were among the most influential of the time, immediately influencing groups like the Beatles and the Osborne Brothers. And the trio’s take on what Country Music can aspire to be can still be felt decades later in the music of modern vocal groups like Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town.
Maxine, Jim Ed, and Bonnie 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.” Jim Ed didn’t win, but he was invited to join the cast. Maxine eventually joined him on 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 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.
The Browns 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.”
The Browns joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1963. The trio, which was occasionally augmented by younger sister Norma, formally disbanded in 1967 when Maxine and Bonnie chose to retire to raise their young families.
In 2015, The Browns were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Maxine was predeceased by her parents, Floyd and Birdie Brown, sisters Bonnie and Norma, brothers Jim Ed and Raymond, and her son, Tommy H. Russell, Jr. She is survived by two children, Jimmy Russell (Mary) and Alicia Short (Curtis), six grandchildren (Caitlin, Daniel, Meredith, Eva, Patrick, and Katherine), and two great-grandchildren (Atlas and Aina).