Born Brenda Mae Tarpley on December 11, 1944, in Lithonia, GA; daughter of Ruben Lindsey and Annie Grayce (Yarborough) Tarpley; married Ronald Shacklett, 1963; children: Julie Leann, Jolie. Addresses: Record company--MCA Records, 70 Universal Plaza, Universal City, CA 91608, website: http://www.universalmusic.com. Management--Brenda Lee Productions, Inc., P.O. Box 101188, Nashville, TN 37210, phone: (615) 256-3054, fax: (615) 256-2499. Website--Brenda Lee Official Website: http://www.brendalee.com. Booking--Monterey Peninsula Artists, Inc., Contact: Bobby Chudd, 124 12th Ave. S., Ste. 410, Nashville, TN 37203, phone: (615) 251-4400, fax: (615) 251-4401, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Brenda Lee was one of the most popular female vocalists of the 1950s and 1960s. She began as a child star, making musical guest appearances on television variety shows and putting out hits like "I'm Sorry," "Sweet Nothin's," and the perennial holiday classic "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." When her success in the pop genre began to fade, 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."
A Child Prodigy
Lee was born Brenda Mae Tarpley on December 11, 1944, to a very poor family. The situation was exacerbated by the death of her father, Ruben, in a construction accident. Her mother, Anne, did her best to support young Brenda and her three siblings, but the family was always short on food and clothing, and could scarcely afford medical care. Fortunately, young Brenda was blessed with the musical abilities that would lift her family out of poverty. A precociously talented child, she could hear a song twice and then sing it from memory. "I don't know that I had any early influences," she told Blue Suede News. "About the only music I heard growing up was through the church---the gospel music, and my mom used to sing me Hank Williams songs. But that was about it." She was singing publicly 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. (She was disappointed when she was awarded only candy; she knew her family needed cash to survive.) Encouraged, 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," where her stage name became Brenda Lee. This opportunity led to frequent guest appearances on the local television show TV Ranch. Singing anywhere that provided a band and a paycheck---including honkytonks and bars---Lee became the sole support of her family by the time she was nine years old.
A Major Star with Adults and Teens
Lee became acquainted with country star Red Foley and with his manager, Dub Albritten. Connected and hardworking, Albritten made things happen for the youngster. She made concert appearances with Foley, which brought her to the attention of the nationwide television variety shows. Soon television hosts such as Steve Allen, Red Skelton, and Ed Sullivan had invited her to sing on their programs. By 1956 record companies were competing to sign her, and Lee eventually settled with the Decca label. She scored a minor success with "One Step at a Time." Just barely a teenager, young Lee began touring, facing huge audiences and some controversy. Albritten took her to France, where he spread the rumor that Lee was in reality a 32-year-old midget instead of a 12-year-old girl. The furor resulted in a windfall of favorable publicity when audiences and reviewers alike heard how good the young songstress was on stage. Consequently she became a headliner in Europe before she had sizeable hits in her home country.
Lee's early efforts were smart little growlers such as "Bigelow 6-2000," "Jambalaya,"and "Jump Over The Broomstick." Today's rockabilly cult audiences prize these performances, but they were tepid sellers upon their initial release. Her first true smash 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 enjoyed a two-sided hit with the heartbreak ballad "I'm Sorry," which was backed with the up-tempo Jerry Reed-penned "That's All You Gotta Do." Lee gives much of the credit for her commercial breakthrough to legendary producer Owen Bradley, who employed Nashville's "A-Team"---pianist Floyd Cramer, saxman Boots Randolph, drummer Buddy Harman, bassist Bob Moore, and guitarists Grady Martin and Hank Garland. According to Lee, these seasoned music veterans respected her. "They were like my big brothers," she told Blue Suede News. "They were like my buddies and they always respected me."
Lee's biggest smash, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," was originally recorded in 1958, but a 1960 holiday reissue resulted in the biggest selling record of her career, and later re-releases would continue to garner heavy airplay. Lee told Blue Suede News about that recording session. "I recorded that in July of 1958, if I'm not mistaken. It was in the summer and Owen [Bradley] had it all Christmasy up in the studio---Christmas tree and the whole nine yards, to get me in the mood." In 1961 Lee continued her remarkable chart run with the "Dum Dum," and the ballads "Fool Number One," "Break It to Me Gently," and "All Alone Am I" followed the next year. Channeling the same blend of gospel, country, blues, and rock that comprised Elvis Presley's style, Lee made records that were as popular with adults as they were with kids. Part of the singer's appeal came from the fact that, when she wasn't recording, touring, or appearing on major network TV shows, Lee was an ordinary teenager, with an ordinary teenager's problems. She told Blue Suede News, "Boys would come and talk to me about girls that they wanted to date but never wanted to date me. So, I could relate to 'All Alone Am I,' 'I Want to be Wanted,' and all those songs I was singing."
Lee's hard work and great success did wonders for her family; they enjoyed a fine home in Nashville, and her brother and two sisters received the benefits of a college education. Unlike many other child stars, Lee does not feel any bitterness about supporting her family. "I was just always proud that I was able to do it," she declared. "I never got to the point where I said, 'Hey I'm sick of this and you all have deprived me of my childhood.' I never went through that syndrome."
Returned to Country Music
Like many other American musicians facing the onslaught of the mid-1960s musical British Invasion, Lee's chart momentum slowed considerably, although she was constantly booked for live appearances. She dabbled briefly in British Invasion sounds, even recording a blistering version of "Is it True," with future Led Zepplin founder Jimmy Page on guitar. However, Decca decided to move her toward the Adult Contemporary charts, and had her record pop standards and special projects with bandleader Pete Fountain. Her last pop hits were "Too Many Rivers" and "Coming on Strong," in 1965 and 1966, although she received a Grammy nomination in 1969 for her recording of "Johnny One Time."
Undaunted, Lee began recording and performing country music again. Her previous pop hits had been well received by country audiences, and they quickly welcomed her new efforts. Recording with the same musicians and producer she had always used in Nashville, 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."
During 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 artists' recordings received attention. She put her voice to work on "Honky Tonk Angels' Medley," a cut on country singer k.d. lang's Shadowland album, causing Alanna Nash of Stereo Review to report that Lee "almost steals the show."
Lee left Decca, which had become MCA, in 1985, eventually suing the company for unpaid royalties. Signing with Warner Brothers, in 1990 she recorded two albums and toured internationally with as much gusto as she always did, but began suffering exhaustion-related illnesses. A cyst on her vocal chords sidelined her during the late 1990s, but she resurfaced in top form, playing fewer gigs that were spaced farther apart. The first woman to be inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Lee is still a big star in Europe, where she has released recordings in German and Japanese. The diminutive belter, who barely measures 4-foot 11 inches in heels, says she is not amazed by the continuing popularity of the early rock 'n' roll of which she was a pioneer. "Those were really good songs," she told Blue Suede News. "You tell me another era that will have songs that forty years later people will be singing and re-recording. Or, they'll go see the artists that had 'em and start applauding when they sing 'em. I don't know that there's another era quite like that."
by Elizabeth Wenning and Ken Burke
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, Ed Sullivan Show, and Red Skelton Show during the mid-1950s; recording artist and concert performer, 1956-; appeared in the film The Two Little Bears, 1961; appeared on various national television programs, including Thank Your Lucky Stars, Hullabaloo, The Dean Martin Show, and Hee Haw, 1960s and 1970s; cameo appearance in the film Smokey and the Bandit II, 1980; appeared with Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton, and Willie Nelson in the televised special The Winning Hand, 1985; co-starred in televised special Legendary Ladies of Rock & Roll, 1988; appeared in Beth Harrington's documentary Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly, 2001; was the subject of an A&E Biography episode, Brenda Lee---Little Miss Dynamite, 2001; wrote autobiography with Robert K. Oermann and daughter Julie Clay, Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee, 2002.
Brenda Lee's Awards
Cash Box, "Most Programmed Female Vocalist," for several consecutive years during the late 1950s and early 1960s; Georgia Music Hall of Fame, inductee, 1984; Country Music Hall of Fame, inductee, 1997; Rockabilly Hall of Fame, inductee, 1999; Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, inductee, 2002.
- Selected discography
- "One Step at a Time," Decca, 1957.
- "Sweet Nothin's," Decca, 1960.
- "I'm Sorry/That's All You Gotta Do," Decca, 1960.
- "I Want to Be Wanted," Decca, 1960.
- "Emotions," Decca, 1961.
- "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," Decca, 1960.
- "You Can Depend On Me," Decca, 1961.
- "Dum Dum," Decca, 1961.
- "Fool Number One," Decca, 1961.
- "Break It to Me Gently," Decca, 1962.
- "Everybody Loves Me But You," Decca, 1962.
- "Heart in Hand," Decca, 1962.
- "All Alone Am I," Decca, 1962.
- "Losing You," Decca, 1963.
- "The Grass Is Greener," Decca, 1963.
- "As Usual," Decca, 1963.
- "Is It True," Decca, 1964.
- "Too Many Rivers," Decca, 1965.
- "Coming on Strong," Decca, 1966.
- "Johnny One Time," Decca, 1969.
- "Is This Our Last Time," Decca, 1970.
- "Nobody Wins," MCA, 1973.
- "Sunday Sunrise," MCA, 1973.
- "Wrong Ideas," MCA, 1974.
- "Big Four-Poster Bed," MCA, 1974.
- "Rock On, Baby," MCA, 1974.
- "Bringing It Back," MCA, 1975.
- "He's My Rock," MCA, 1975.
- "Find Yourself Another Puppet," MCA, 1976.
- "Takin' What I Can Get," MCA, 1976.
- "Could It Be I Found Love Tonight"/"Leftover Love," Elektra, 1978.
- "Tell Me What It's Like," MCA, 1979.
- "The Cowboy and the Dandy," MCA, 1980.
- "Don't Promise Me Anything," MCA, 1980.
- "Broken Trust," MCA, 1980.
- "Every Now and Then," MCA, 1981.
- "Only When I Laugh," MCA, 1981.
- "You're Gonna Love Yourself in the Morning," MCA, 1983.
- Grandma, What Great Songs You Sang Decca, 1959.
- Brenda Lee Decca, 1960.
- This Is Brenda Lee Decca, 1960.
- Emotions Decca, 1961.
- All the Way Decca, 1961.
- Sincerely Decca, 1962.
- That's All, Brenda Decca, 1962.
- All Alone Am I Decca, 1962.
- Let Me Sing Decca, 1963.
- By Request Decca, 1964.
- Merry Christmas From Brenda Lee Decca, 1964.
- Top Teen Hits Decca, 1965.
- Versatile Decca, 1965.
- Too Many Rivers Decca, 1965.
- Bye Bye, Blues Decca, 1966.
- Ten Golden Years Decca, 1966.
- Coming on Strong Decca, 1966.
- Reflections in Blue Decca, 1967.
- Johnny One Time Decca, 1969.
- Memphis Portrait Decca, 1970.
- Brenda MCA, 1973.
- The Brenda Lee Story MCA, 1973.
- New Sunrise MCA, 1974.
- Now MCA, 1975.
- Sincerely, Brenda Lee MCA, 1975.
- L.A. Sessions MCA, 1976.
- Even Better MCA, 1980.
- Take Me Back MCA, 1980.
- Only When I Laugh MCA, 1981.
- (With Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton) Kris, Willie, Dolly and Brenda---the Winning Hand Monument, 1983.
- Love Songs Just For You MCA, 1984.
- A Brenda Lee Christmas Warner Bros., 1991.
- Anthology, Vol. 1 (1956-1961) MCA, 1991.
- Anthology, Vol. 2 (1961-1980) MCA, 1991.
- Weidersehn Ist Wunderschon Bear Family, 1994.
- Live Dynamite Charly, 1997.
- Little Miss Dynamite Bear Family, 1997.
- Greatest Gospel Songs Curb, 2005.
- The Definitive Collection MCA Nashville, 2006.
- Helander, Brock, The Rock Who's Who, Schirmer Books, 1982.
- Blue Suede News, Spring 2002.
- Life, September 1987.
- Stereo Review, September 1988.
- "Brenda Lee," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (February 27, 2006).
- "Brenda Lee," Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com (January 21, 2006).
- Additional information was obtained from a 2002 interview with Brenda Lee, from which quotations used in this entry were drawn.