Brenda Lee

  • Pop and country singer and songwriter born Brenda Rae Tarpley in 1944 from Atlanta Georgia.
  • At six years old, Lee won a singing contest and she sang on a Atlanta radio program as her prize. By ten years old, she was earning an income performing on television and radio programs around Atlanta. In 1955, she went to country music star Red Foley’s television program, Country Jubilee, and a local DJ persuaded Foley to listen to Lee sing. Foley was so impressed that he had Lee perform on his stage that evening. The following month, she signed a contract to perform regularly on the television show. In July 1956, only 11 years old, she was signed to a recording contract.
  • Her first single was a cover of Hank Williams’ Jambalaya (On the Bayou). In 1957, her first single to chart was released – One Step At a Time peaked at #15 on the country chart and #43 on the Hot 100. Later that year, she released a single titled Dynamite – the song earned her the nickname “Little Miss Dynamite,” a nod to her small stature (she was only 4 ft 9 in tall).
  • While initially she appealed to country music fans, her label wanted to promote her as a pop artist. As the 60s began, she became one of the hottest artists in pop music, first with a rockabilly sound, and then with ballads, all backed by Nashville session artists using the famous “Nashville Sound.” (See my October 24, 2018 blog for more on the Nashville Sound).
  • After her debut album was released in the summer of 1959, she released 17 studio albums during the 60s. Her first major hit was Sweet Nothin’s, which peaked at #4 on the pop chart. From 1960 to 1962, she had ten more singles that reached the top 10 of the Hot 100 chart. Two songs reached #1 on the chart – her signature hit I’m Sorry, and I Want to be Wanted. She was 15 years old when these songs topped the chart. Other notable hits were Fool No. 1 (peaking at #3), All Alone Am I (#3), Dum Dum (#4) and Break It To Me Gently (#4).
  • In 1958, only 13 years old, songwriter Johnny Marks (who earlier wrote Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Holly Jolly Christmas) asked her to record a new Christmas song he had written, even though she had not yet had much success as an artist. The song, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, was released that year with little success. It was re-released in 1959, and again in 1960. By then, Lee was a star, and the song reached #14 on the pop chart. It eventually became a Christmas standard, and by 2008, it had sold over 25 million copies worldwide. It continued to chart frequently – in 2019, thanks to frequent streaming during the Christmas season, it peaked at #2 on the Hot 100.
  • From 1963 to 1969, Lee had many more singles chart, with 11 hits in the top 40. During this time, her popularity in the UK grew, with songs like Speak to Me Pretty, Here Comes That Feeling and As Usual all charting in the top 5 in the UK.
  • In the 70s, she was no longer charting on the pop chart, but she managed to have seven singles reach the top 10 of the Country chart. Her biggest country hit, Big Four Poster Bed, peaked at #4 on the Country chart in 1974.  She released ten albums during the 70s and 80s.
  • While Lee stopped releasing singles after 1991, she continued to perform, as recently as 2017. She was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2002, and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997 – she is the only woman to be in both. In 2009, she received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
  • In the 60s, only three artists had more singles in the Hot 100 than Lee (Lee had 46) – maybe you’ve heard these names? – The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles. Elton John was quoted saying that Lee “…is in the top three female rock & roll singers of all time: her, Janis Joplin and Tina Turner.” She had a rare ability to appeal to both teenagers and their parents. A remarkable legacy for sure. Here’s 15 year old Lee singing I’m Sorry – classic! Plus, a 1984 performance of Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.

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