The Number Ones is a new column where I’ll review every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Nashville will always get you. It’s the oldest trick in the music business: You tell a trite, gloopy, sentimental slice-of-life story, but you do it with such a sense of empathy and theater that the thing ends up moving people deeply anyway. It’s always possible to resist this sort of thing, to sneer at a song like Lee Brice’s “I Drive Your Truck,” to see yourself as being somehow above that kind of manipulative heart-tugging. But why would you? Why deny yourself a good cry? There’s lots wrong with the Nashville pop-country machine, and there’s always been lots wrong with it. But at its best, that machine is capable of giving millions of people a good cry. That’s true today, and it was true 60 years ago, which brings us to “The Three Bells.”
“The Three Bells” didn’t start its life as a country song. The Swiss Jean Villard Gilles wrote the song in 1945. It was in French, and it was called “Les Trois Cloches.” Edith Piaf had a huge hit with it in 1953. But “Les Trois Cloches” was made to be a country song, and eventually, that’s what it became. The song, which was translated into English soon enough, told the story of a whole town gathering to pray for a young man at various stages of his life — at his birth, at his wedding, and at his death. We don’t really learn anything about the man, called Jimmy Brown in the English version. But by the time the song ends, we feel like we know him anyway, and we feel like we know the whole town that comes together whenever anyone hits one of those big milestones.
The Browns were a family band from Arkansas — brother Jim Ed Brown and sisters Bonnie and Maxine. They’d been singing folk and country for a few years when they got ahold of “The Three Bells” and gave it a simple, plainspoken reading. Jim Ed sings lead, while Bonnie and Maxine add creamy backing harmonies and, at the big moments, join Jim Ed for emphasis. The backing instrumentation is rudimentary but gorgeous, just a simple guitar line and a few dashes of piano, bass, and drums.
There’s so much grace and warmth in the way they describe this village — “hidden deep in the valley, among the pine trees, half-forlorn” — and the way they sing about the people who care so deeply about each other. The image of a small church full of people praying for a baby, or a newlywed, or a dead man is absolutely powerful on an almost primal level; hearing it, I can’t help but imagine my own wedding or funeral. And the Browns don’t do too much to adorn it. They just tell this near-universal story, giving it the calm dignity it deserves.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s the weirdly produced but beautifully sung version of “The Three Bells” that Roy Orbison released in 1972: