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Bonnie Brown, a 2015 inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame as part of sweet-voiced sibling trio The Browns, died Saturday afternoon at Baptist Health Medical Center in Little Rock, Ark., due to complications from lung cancer. She was 77.
Bonnie Jean Brown was born July 31, 1938 (often reported as 1937, to her chagrin, she said during an interview in 2015) in Sparkman, Ark. She came from a musical family: older siblings Jim Ed and Maxine Brown performed together. When she graduated from high school, they took her on the road as a graduation gift, said WSM DJ and Grand Ole Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs.
The duo became a trio as Bonnie joined her brother and sister behind the microphone. Their first charting single, ”Here Today and Gone Tomorrow” peaked at No. 7 in 1955, and in 1956, their recording of “I Take the Chance” hit No. 2 on the country charts.
“What was a graduation gift for Bonnie turned out to be a gift for country music fans around the world,” Stubbs said. “The Browns helped to write the book on trio harmony singing in the world of country music.”
“When Bonnie Brown joined her brother, Jim Ed, and her sister, Maxine, in song, the siblings created an incomparable harmony: the smoothest and most elegant blend in country music,” Kyle Young, CEO of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said in a statement.
During the 1950s, the Browns were cast members on “The Louisiana Hayride” and “Ozark Jubilee,” and, for a time, toured with a young future icon named Elvis Presley.
The group’s most enduring recording, “The Three Bells,” was released in 1959. Brown said she first heard the song sung by the French singing group Les Compagnons de la Chanson on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
“We were looking for new material and a disc jockey that played (the record) let me sneak it out. I took the words down and made a little recording of it,” Brown said in 2015. “We practiced the song all the way to Nashville for a recording session.”
The single, which was produced by Chet Atkins, spent 10 weeks atop the country chart, four weeks on the pop charts, and even crossed over to the Hot R&B Sides chart, peaking at No. 10. Five decades after its release, “The Three Bells” experienced a minor resurgence when it was featured in two episodes of the final season of HBO drama “The Sopranos.”
The trio continued to find crossover success with songs including “The Old Lamplighter and “Scarlet Ribbons.” In 1963, the Browns were invited to join the Grand Ole Opry.
After more than a decade as a trio, the Browns stopped recording together in 1967.
“I didn’t want to leave my children, and I just felt like I was holding (Jim Ed and Maxine) back,” Brown said during a 2015 interview at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
While Jim Ed went on to have a successful solo career, and Maxine released a solo album as well, Bonnie returned to Arkansas with her husband, Dr. Gene “Brownie” Ring. The couple raised two daughters. “It was a hard decision to make, but I’m glad I made it,” she said.
She would occasionally rejoin Jim Ed and Maxine for “The Grand Ole Opry” or other special performances. She sang on Jim Ed Brown’s final album, “In Style Again,” which was released in early 2015.
In June of that year, Jim Ed Brown died from lung cancer, and just three months later, while the Brown family was still grieving their loss, Bonnie Brown was also diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. She began treatment immediately, and although her health was faltering, she made the trip to Nashville in late October for the Country Music Hall of Fame’s Medallion Ceremony, where she and her sister were formally inducted into the Hall by fellow Hall of Famer Bobby Bare.
“Bonnie was an extraordinarily beautiful person inside and out,” said Stubbs. “To have known her was to have loved her. She was just a precious soul.”
Brown leaves behind her two daughters, Kelly and Robin, several grandchildren, and her sister, Maxine Brown. Dr. Ring, her husband of more than 56 years, died in January.
Funeral arrangements are unknown at this time.
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