- Category : Singer - Popular
- Type : MS
- Profile : 3/6 - Martyr / Role Model
- Definition : Single
- Incarnation Cross : RAX Rulership 4
Brenda Lee (born December 11, 1944 (birth time source: Contemporary American Horoscopes, Astrodatabank)) is an American pop singer, who was immensely popular during the 1950s and 1960s. She had the most charted hits of any woman in the 1960s, and only three male singers/groups (Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, and The Beatles) outpaced her. She was one of the earliest pop stars to have a major contemporary international following.
She was given the nickname Little Miss Dynamite after recording Dynamite in 1957; the explosive strength of the sound pouring out of her small frame amazed audiences and promoters. Her general popularity faded as her voice suffered damage and matured in the late 1960s, but she successfully continued her recording career by returning to her roots as a country singer. She was able to chart in Billboard's CW top ten twice in 1980.
She enjoys one distinction unique among successful American singers: her opening act on a UK tour in 1960 was a struggling foursome from Liverpool, England - The Beatles.
Lee's father, Ruben Tarpley, was born roughly halfway between Atlanta and Augusta, Georgia. He was the son of a hardscrabble farmer in Georgia's red-clay belt, which was devastated by soil depletion and the boll weevil. Although he stood only 5'7", he was an excellent left-handed pitcher, and spent 11 years in the Army playing baseball. Her mother, Annie Grayce Yarbrough, had a similar background of an honest, uneducated working class family in Greene County, Georgia, although she had the distinction of a Cherokee great-grandparent.
Brenda was born Brenda Mae Tarpley in the charity ward of Grady Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, on December 11, 1944. She weighed 4 pounds 11 ounces at birth. She attended grade schools wherever her father found work, primarily in the corridor between Atlanta and Augusta. Her family was poor, living hand-to-mouth; she shared a bed with her two siblings in a series of three-room houses without running water. Life centered around her parents' finding work, their extended family, and the Baptist Church (where she sang solos every Sunday).
She was a musical prodigy. Although her family did not have indoor plumbing until after her father's death, they had a battery-powered table radio that fascinated Brenda as a baby. By the time she was two, she would hear songs on the radio once and be able to whistle the complete tune. Both her mother and sister remember taking her repeatedly to a local candy store before she turned three; one of them would stand her on the counter and she would earn free candy or small coins for singing.
Her voice, pretty face, and complete absence of stage fright won her wider attention from the time she was five years old. At age 6, she won a local singing contest sponsored by the elementary schools. The reward was a live appearance on an Atlanta radio show, "Starmakers Revue".
Her father died in 1953. By the time she turned ten, she had become the primary breadwinner of her family by singing at events and on local radio and television shows.
Her break into big-time show business came when she turned down paid employment -- $30 to sing on a local television station in Atlanta -- in order to hear Red Foley and the Ozark Jubilee in Augusta. An Augusta DJ convinced Foley to hear her sing before the show. Foley was as transfixed as everyone else who heard the huge voice coming from the tiny girl and immediately agreed to let her to perform the Hank Williams standard Jambalaya on stage that night, unrehearsed. Foley later recounted the moments following her introduction:
I still get cold chills thinking about the first time I heard that voice. One foot started patting rhythm as though she was stomping out a prairie fire but not another muscle in that little body even as much as twitched. And when she did that trick of breaking her voice, it jarred me out of my trance enough to realize I'd forgotten to get off the stage. There I stood, after 26 years of supposedly learning how to conduct myself in front of an audience, with my mouth open two miles wide and a glassy stare in my eyes.
The audience erupted in applause and refused to let her leave the stage until she had sung three more songs. She was eleven years old and well under five feet tall. (As an adult, she was variously reported to stand between 4' 7" and 4' 9" tall.)
Less than two months later -- on July 30, 1956 -- Decca Records offered her a recording contract. She began her recording career at age 11 with rockabilly songs like "BIGELOW 6-200" (pronounced six two oh oh) and "Little Jonah." The song "Dynamite," coming out of a 4 foot 9 inch (1.45 meter) frame, led to her lifelong nickname, "Little Miss Dynamite."
Along with Connie Francis, she was one of the first female idols, achieving huge popularity with a long string of hits. At Christmas 1958, she released "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," which sold only 5,000 copies during its initial release. However, it would eventually go on to sell over five million copies. Then, disc jockeys also dubbed her "Little Miss Razz Matazz" after her husky, pounding voice belted out her first U.S. Top 10 hit, "Sweet Nothin's," in late 1959.
The Height of Her Career
Brenda Lee first attracted attention performing in country music venues and her first single, 1957's "One Step at a Time" was a country hit. However, her label and management felt it best to market her exclusively as a pop artist, the result being none of her best-known recordings from the 1960s were released to country radio. She would not have another country hit until 1969. Brenda Lee came to her biggest success on the Pop charts in the late 1950s through the mid 1960s with Rock and Roll styled hits. Her biggest hits during this time include "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)," "Sweet Nothins," "I Want to Be Wanted," "All Alone Am I" and "Fool #1".
The biggest overall selling track of Lee's career is, oddly enough, a Christmas song. In 1958, when she was 13, Owen Bradley asked her to record a new song written by Johnny Marks, who had had success writing Christmas tunes for country singers, most notably "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (Gene Autry) and "A Holly, Jolly Christmas" (Burl Ives). Lee recorded the song, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" in July with a prominent twanging guitar part by Hank Garland. Decca released it as a single that November, but it sold only 5,000 copies, and did not do much better when it was released again in 1959.
In 1960, she recorded her signature song, "I'm Sorry", which hit #1 on the Billboard pop chart and was her first gold single. Even though it was not released as a country song, it was the first big hit to use what was to become the new "Nashville Sound" -- a string orchestra and legato harmonized background vocals. (Ray Charles used the same sound that year on the huge pop hit, Georgia on My Mind.) "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" got noticed in its third release a few months later, and sales snowballed; the song remains a perennial radio favorite each December and is probably the record with which she is most identified by contemporary audiences.
Lee was popular in the UK very early in her career. She toured the UK in 1959, before she has achieved much popularity in the US. She had two top 10 hits in the UK that were not released as singles in her native country: "Speak To Me Pretty" peaked at #3 in early 1962, followed by "Here Comes That Feeling."
Her last top-10 single on the pop charts was 1963's "Losing You," while she continued to have other chart songs such as her 1966 song "Coming On Strong" and "Is It True?" in 1964, which was her only hit single recorded in London, England, and produced by the late Mickie Most, who at the time was producing hits for the Animals and Herman's Hermits.
A Brenda Lee album cover.During the early 1970s, Lee established herself as a country music artist, and earned a string of Top 10 hits. Lee decided to trade in her big Pop career to a more Country type of career instead. The first came with 1973's "Nobody Wins," which reached the Top 5 that spring and also became her last Top 100 pop hit peaking at #70. The follow-up, the Mark James composition "Sunday Sunrise," reached No. 6 on Billboard magazine's Hot Country Singles chart that October. Other major hits included "Wrong Ideas" and "Big Four Poster Bed" (1974); and "Rock On Baby" and "He's My Rock" (both 1975). After a few years of lesser hits, Lee began another run at the Top 10 with 1979's "Tell Me What It's Like." Two follow-ups also reached the Top 10 in 1980: "The Cowboy and the Dandy" and "Broken Trust" (the latter featuring vocal backing by The Oak Ridge Boys). A 1982 album, The Winning Hand, featuring reissues of a number of Lee's 1960s Monument hits, as well as that of Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, was a surprise hit, reaching the top-ten on the U.S. country albums chart. Her last well-known hit was 1985's "Hallelujah, I Love Her So," a duet with George Jones. Today, she continues to perform and tour as a country singer.
Over the ensuing years, Lee has continued to record and perform all around the world, previously cutting records in four different languages. She is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.
Chuck Berry wrote a song about Brenda Lee on the album St. Louis to Liverpool. She was also immortalized in the hit Golden Earring song "Radar Love:" "Radio's playing some forgotten song / Brenda Lee's 'Coming on Strong'." She was also remembered as a heroine to Burton Cummings on his self-titled 70's album in the song "Dream of a Child," including the closing line, "I love Brenda Lee / Brenda Lee loves me / yeah..."
Although her songs have often centered on lost loves, and although she did lose her father at a young age, her marriage to Ronnie Shacklett in 1963 was a success. He was able to deal with the notoriously rapacious music industry, which had exploited her badly, and is credited with ensuring her long-term financial success. They have two daughters, Jolie and Julie (who was named for Patsy Cline's daughter) and three grandchildren.
Celebrating over 50 years as a recording artist, Brenda Lee was given the Jo Meador-Walker Lifetime Achievement award by Source Nashville in September 2006. She is the second recipient of the award, Jo Meador-Walker being the first.