Maxine Brown

The pioneering Country Music star with "The Browns" – Jim Ed, Maxine and Bonnie

2) The Story Behind The Song (THE THREE BELLS)

By Maxine Brown

Because of my successful website created by my son Tommy, I am finally able to answer the one question many people have asked about, “Who is Jimmy Brown”? My thanks to music historian, Dave Samuelson and The Bear Family Records of Germany for supplying the origins of the song that changed the lives of The Browns forever, “THE THREE BELLS”, (The Jimmy Brown Song).

Gravestone of Francois Nicot, aka Little Jimmy Brown

THE THREE BELLS (Jimmy Brown) is a story which started during the Nazi-German activities. It has three different titles: From “Les Trois Cloches” to “When The Angelus Was Ringing” to “The Three Bells”. It is a true story because it is a story that is essentially true for all of us. Jimmy Brown represents everyone who was born, fell in love and married, and passed away.

It was inspired by a real person–a Frenchman named Jean Francois Nicot who was buried in the celebrated church cemetery nestled in a steep valley in East Central France. (1858-1929)

The original writer never knew Nicot. He saw that name on the gravestone. He heard the church bell and imagined the bells announcing Monsieur Nicot’s birth, celebrating his marriage, and the mourning of his passing. He wandered who that person was; the pink chubby baby, the happy groom, the elderly man at the end of a full-filling life. Every important stage of one person’s life is tied to a church bell in this beautiful Alpine valley.

The Three Bells would not have been as effective in English if the chapel bells were ringing for Jean Francois Nicot. So when the lyrics were translated, Monsieur Nicot became anglicized to JIMMY BROWN, a flowing-gentle-sounding name that works extremely well with the lyrics and the melody.

Perhaps some other pop song has a history comparable to The Three Bells, but its unlikely. The saga behind Jimmy Brown involves foreign intrigue and a choral ensemble whose story is as compelling as that of the (ill-fated Comedian Harmonists) They were a popular German a Capella group prior to WW11, known for their close Harmony and witty comedy. Half of its members were Jewish so when Hitler and the Nazi party took over, they were not allowed to perform and forced to flee. They all survived under another name but never regrouped.

A village hidden deep in the valley"

The Three Bells originally derived from a 1939 piano instrumental by writer, Jean Gilles Villard, half of the cabaret duo, Gilles et Julien. Villard also operated a club that became a famous Swiss hub for the Nazi’s. Among the acts he booked was a six member male Chorus from Lyon, France, known as Les Compagnons de la Musique. Organized in 1941 by Louis Liebard, the Chorus primarily specialized in folk material. Most of its members came from a craftsman’s guild, but one, Marc Herrand was actually Marc Holtz, a Jewish bandleader hiding from the Germans. As the war progressed, Liebard added two more members to the group, including a nineteen year old lead singer named Fred Mella who was also fleeing from possible arrest and internment. As entertainers, Les Compagnons traveled freely through occupied France and into neutral Switzerland. Wherever they sang, its members gathered clandestine information about the German military operations and disseminated it throughout the French resistance.

Marc Herrand probably heard Villard’s distinctive tune at the club in late 1945. The melody still lingered in his memory when he visited the grave site of Francois Nocot and his wife. Inspired by the beautiful setting, Herrand wrote “Les Trois Cloches”, a lyrical saga about church bells marking Nicot’s birth, marriage and death.

Herrod’s poem opens on a starry night in the valley’s village. Gene Francois Nicot is born, plump, tender and pink; the next day he will be baptized. Ringing church bells tell the whole world a new flower has been opened, a low burning flame calling for protection, affection and love.

Nineteen years later the Bells ring for the young man as he weds his sweet bride, before God in the old church. Years pass and one starry night Francois dies, passing like drying grass and withering bouquets. A solemn church bell tolls in the wind, assuring the living not to fear. God keeps the faithful under his wing with eternal life and the eternity of love.

“Les Trois Cloches” becomes a showcase for the Chorus and Mella’s passionate lead vocals. Edith Piaf first heard Les Compangons performing it during an early 1944 Parisian benefit for railway workers. She noticed the audiences’ response to the Chorus musical precision, topical parodies and especially the moving “Les Trois Cloches”.

When Paris was liberated on August 25, 1944, its members joined the French Army Choir. When founder, Louis Liebard left in 1946, the newly renamed Les Compagnons expanded to nine voices and moved to Paris. Recalling the railway event two years earlier, Piaf invited them to tour with her across Europe and North America. The group also backed her on her French Columbia recording of “Les Trois Cloches”.

"All the chapel bells were ringing"

In 1948, Tin Pan Alley Lyricist Dick Manning discovered Piaf’s record and prepared an American version. He titled it “When The Angelus Was Ringing”, using only Villard’s chorus. (hardly a translation). Manning’s story was a pop trifle about finding enduring love as catherdral bells rang. Pointing to the sales of Piaf’s hit record, Manning’s publisher convinced the major US labels to record “While The Angelus Was Ringing” by popular artist in the US as soon as the AFof M 1948 recording ban lifted. It was recorded by several pop artist but nothing ever clicked.

Meanwhile, Les Compagnons de la Chanson continued expanding in Enlish speaking audiences, touring in Europe and North America. The Chorus commissioned Bert Reisfeld to translate two of its concert staples, including “Les Trois Cloches”. Reisfeld’s translation remained truer to Villards’s basic conception; church bells heralding a person’s birth, marriage, and death. Francois Nicot was anglicized into the familiar JIMMY BROWN. Released in 1951, The Three Bells (Jimmy Brown song) became an enormous hit across England and Canada. Columbia Records acquired the master for release in the US, the record reached # 14 on Billboard Pop Charts by the Compagnons de la Chanson.

Excluding the newsboy who shared his name, that was the last anyone heard from Jimmy Brown for almost eight years.

Then, on June 3, 1959, The Three Browns, Jim Ed, Maxine and Bonnie recorded The Three Bells (Jimmy Brown song) in Nashville, Tennessee’s now famous Studio B for RCA Records. It was released on July 3rd, and immediately sold millions of records. Fifty three years later, it is still selling world wide. In the 50s radio stations would not program a record if it was over three minutes long. Therefore some beautiful lyrics were deleted. On occasions we perform the entire song and the audiences love it.

Birth: So his parents brought him to the chapel when he was only one day
old. The Priest blessed the little fellow, welcome Jimmy to the fold.
Marriage: Many friends were gathered in the chapel and many tears of joy
were shed. In June, on a Sunday morning, when Jimmy and his
bride were wed.
Death: Many people gathered in the chapel to say goodbye to their old friend,
whose life had been like a flower, budding-blooming, till THE END.