Name originally Brenda Mae Tarpley; born December 11, 1944, in Atlanta (one source says Conyers), Ga.; married Ronald Shacklett, 1963; children: Julie Leann, Jolie. Addresses: Record company --MCA Records, 70 Universal Plaza, Universal City, CA 91608.

Vocalist Brenda Lee was one of the most popular female singers of the 1950s and 1960s. She began as a child star, making musical guest appearances on television variety shows. A little later Lee won a recording contract and put out hits like "I'm Sorry," "Sweet Nothin's," and the holiday classic, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." When her success in the pop genre began to dwindle, she returned to her country music roots to release songs such as "Big Four-Poster Bed" and "He's My Rock." As Brock Helander affirmed in his book, The Rock Who's Who, Lee has "a voice equally adept at mournful ballads and at hard-belting rock songs."

Lee was born Brenda Mae Tarpley on December 11, 1944, in or near Atlanta, Georgia. A precociously talented child, she was singing by the time she was four years old, and won first prize at a local spring festival for singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" when she was five or six. Lee's mother began taking her to talent auditions, and when she was seven, she became a regular on the Atlanta radio show "Starmaker's Revue." This opportunity led to yet another, that of frequent guest appearances on the local television show TV Ranch.

From there, Lee became acquainted with country star Red Foley, and shared his manager, Dub Albritten. She made concert appearances with Foley, and she soon came to the attention of the nationwide television variety shows; the likes of Steve Allen, Red Skelton, and Ed Sullivan invited her to sing on their programs. By 1956, record companies were competing to sign her, and Lee eventually settled with the Decca label. Her first big hit was the seasonal favorite, "Rocking Around the Christmas Tree"; around the same time, she also scored a minor success with "One Step at a Time." Just barely a teenager, young Lee began touring, facing huge audiences and meeting other stars, some of whom she was much in awe. She reminisced for a Life magazine reporter about her shyness around superstar Elvis Presley, whom she met when both sang for the Grand Ole Opry in 1957: "I don't know what it was. My heart just started pounding. No other performer did that to me."

More hits followed Lee's early efforts--her first non-holiday hit was 1960's humorous "Sweet Nothin's," sung from the point of view of a teenage girl on a porch swing with her boyfriend. In the same year, she also had a two-sided hit with the slow ballad of heartbreak "I'm Sorry," which was backed with the up-tempo "That's All You Gotta Do." In 1961, Lee made the charts with the hummable "Dum Dum" and the ballad "Fool Number One"; "Break It to Me Gently" and "All Alone Am I" followed the next year. But then Lee's career began to slow down, like that of many other American musicians facing the onslaught of the "British Invasion" of the mid-to-late 1960s. Her last pop hits were "Too Many Rivers" and "Coming on Strong," in 1965 and 1966, respectively, though she did receive a Grammy nomination in 1969 for her recording of "Johnny One Time."

Undaunted, Lee began recording and performing the country music she had begun with in her childhood. Even her previous pop hits had been well received by country audiences, and they quickly welcomed her new efforts. Her first foray onto the exclusively country charts was 1971's "Is This Our Last Time." An even better year for Lee was 1974, when she had five country hits, including perhaps her biggest smash in the genre, the romantic "Big Four-Poster Bed." The next year, she scored again with "Bringing It Back" and "He's My Rock."

In the 1980s, Lee continued to make the country charts with "The Cowboy and the Dandy," "Broken Trust," and "Every Now and Then." With her strong vocals, even Lee's contributions to other artist's recordings get attention. She put her voice to work on "Honky Tonk Angels' Medley," a cut from country singer k.d. lang's Shadowland album; Alanna Nash of Stereo Review reported that Lee "almost steals the show."

by Elizabeth Wenning

Brenda Lee's Career

Sang on local Atlanta radio show "Starmaker's Revue"; sang on Atlanta television show, TV Ranch, c. 1951-54; appeared in concerts with country star Red Foley and appeared on nationwide television shows, including The Steve Allen Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and The Red Skelton Show during the mid-1950s; recording artist and concert performer, 1956--.

Brenda Lee's Awards

Grammy nomination for the song "Johnny One Time," 1969; voted Cash Box 's "Most Programmed Female Vocalist" for several consecutive years during the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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