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Brenda Lee

Brenda Lee
Lee in 1977
Background information
Birth name Brenda Mae Tarpley
Born (1944-12-11) December 11, 1944
Georgia, United States
Genres Rock and roll, pop, rockabilly, country, gospel
Occupation(s) Singer
Years active 1955–present
Labels Decca (1959–1969)
MCA Records (1970–1991)
Warner Bros. Records (1991–1993)
Telstar Records (1994–1996)
Bear Family Records (1997–1998)
MCA Nashville (1999–present)
Associated acts Connie Francis, Skeeter Davis, Ricky Nelson, Lesley Gore, Red Foley, Muruga Booker
Website Brenda

Brenda Mae Tarpley (born December 11, 1944), known as Brenda Lee, is an American performer and the top-charting solo female vocalist of the 1960s. She sang rockabilly, pop and country music, and had 47 US chart hits during the 1960s, and is ranked fourth in that decade surpassed only by Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Ray Charles.[1] She is perhaps best known in the United States for her 1960 hit "I'm Sorry", and 1958's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree", a United States holiday standard for more than 50 years.

At 4 ft 9 inches tall (approximately 145 cm), she received the nickname Little Miss Dynamite in 1957 after recording the song "Dynamite" and was one of the earliest pop stars to have a major contemporary international following.

Lee's popularity faded in the late 1960s as her voice matured, but she continued a successful recording career by returning to her roots as a country singer with a string of hits through the 1970s and 1980s. She is a member of the Rock and Roll, Country Music and Rockabilly Halls of Fame. She is also a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. Brenda currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee.


  • Biography 1
    • Early years 1.1
    • Child performer 1.2
    • National exposure and stardom 1.3
    • Biggest hits: 1958–1966 1.4
    • International fame 1.5
    • Later career 1.6
    • Recent years 1.7
    • Family 1.8
  • Recognition 2
  • References in popular culture 3
  • Discography 4
  • Notes 5
  • References 6
  • External links 7


Early years

Lee was born Brenda Mae Tarpley in the charity ward of 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 on her parents finding work, their extended family, and the Baptist church, where she sang solos every Sunday.[3]

Lee's father was the son of a farmer in Georgia's red-clay belt. Although he stood 5 ft 7 inches (170 cm), he was an excellent left-handed pitcher and spent 11 years in the Greene County, Georgia.

Lee 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 could whistle the melody of songs she heard on the radio.[4] Both her mother and sister remembered 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 candy or coins for singing.

Child performer

1956 publicity photo

Lee's voice, pretty face and stage presence won her wider attention from the time she was five years old. At age six, she won a local singing contest sponsored by local elementary schools. The reward was a live appearance on an Atlanta radio show, Starmakers Revue, where she performed for the next year.

Her father died in 1953, and by the time she turned ten, she was the primary breadwinner of her family through singing at events and on local radio and television shows. During that time, she appeared regularly on the country music show "TV Ranch" on WAGA-TV in Atlanta; she was so short, the host would lower a stand microphone as low as it would go and stand her up on a wooden crate to reach it. In 1955, Grayce Tarpley was remarried to Buell "Jay" Rainwater, who moved the family to Swainsboro.

National exposure and stardom

Brenda Lee at the Granada, Sutton, April 1962

Her break into big-time show business came in February 1955, when she turned down $30 to appear on a Swainsboro radio station in order to see Red Foley and a touring promotional unit of his ABC-TV program Ozark Jubilee in Augusta. An Augusta disc jockey persuaded 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 perform "Jambalaya" on stage that night, unrehearsed. Foley later recounted the moments following her introduction:

The audience erupted in applause and refused to let her leave the stage until she had sung three more songs. On March 31, 1955, the 10-year-old made her network debut on Ozark Jubilee in Springfield, Missouri. Although her five-year contract with the show was broken by a 1957 lawsuit brought by her mother and her manager,[5] she made regular appearances on the program throughout its run.

Less than two months later, on July 30, 1956, Decca Records offered her a contract, and her first record was "Jambalaya", backed with "Bigelow 6‑200". Lee's second single featured two novelty Christmas tunes: "I'm Gonna Lasso Santa Claus", and "Christy Christmas". Though she turned 12 on December 11, 1956, both of the first two Decca singles credit her as "Little Brenda Lee (9 Years Old)."

Neither of the 1956 releases charted, but her first issue in 1957, "One Step at a Time", written by Hugh Ashley, became a hit in both the pop and country fields. Her next hit, "Dynamite", coming out of a 4 ft 9 inch frame, led to her lifelong nickname, Little Miss Dynamite.

Lee first attracted attention performing in country music venues and shows; however, her label and management felt it best to market her exclusively as a pop artist, the result being that none of her best-known recordings from the 1960s were released to country radio, and despite her country sound, with top Nashville session people, she did not have another country hit until 1969, and "Johnny One Time".

Biggest hits: 1958–1966

Brenda Lee in 1965

Lee achieved her biggest success on the pop charts in the late 1950s through the mid-1960s with rockabilly and rock and roll-styled songs. Her biggest hits included "Jambalaya", "Sweet Nothin's" (No. 4, written by country musician Ronnie Self), "I Want to Be Wanted" (No. 1), "All Alone Am I" (No. 3) and "Fool #1" (No. 3). She had more hits with the more pop-based songs "That's All You Gotta Do" (No. 6), "Emotions" (No. 7), "You Can Depend on Me" (No. 6), "Dum Dum" (No. 4), 1962's "Break It to Me Gently" (No. 2), "Everybody Loves Me But You" (No. 6), and "As Usual" (No. 12). Lee's total of nine consecutive top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hits from "That's All You Gotta Do" in 1960 through "All Alone Am I" in 1962 set a record for a female solo artist that was not equaled until 1986 (and later broken by Madonna).

The biggest-selling track of Lee's career was a Christmas song. In 1958, when she was 13, producer Owen Bradley asked her to record a new song 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 and raucous sax soloing by Nashville icon Boots Randolph. 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. However, it eventually sold more than five million copies.[6]

In 1960, she recorded her signature song, "I'm Sorry", which hit No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart. It was her first gold single and was nominated for a Grammy Award. Even though it was not released as a country song, it was among the first big hits to use what was to become the Nashville sound — a string orchestra and legato harmonized background vocals. "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" got noticed in its third release a few months later, and sales snowballed; the song remains a perennial favorite each December and is the record with which she is most identified by contemporary audiences.

Her last top ten single on the pop charts in the United States was 1963's "Losing You" (No.6), though she continued to have other chart hits such as 1964's "As Usual" (which peaked at No.12 in the US and made No.5 in the UK), her 1966 song "Coming on Strong" (which peaked at No.11 in the US) and "Is It True" (No.17 in both the US & the UK) in 1964. The latter, featuring Big Jim Sullivan, Jimmy Page on guitars, Bobby Graham on drums, was her only hit single recorded in London, England, and was produced by Mickie Most (but the slide guitar and background singers were overdubbed in Nashville). It was recorded at Decca Records' number two studio at their West Hampstead complex, as was the UK B-side, a version of Ray Charles' 1959 classic cut, "What'd I Say?", which wasn't released in America. The 'A'-side "Is It True?" was composed by noted British songwriting team Ken Lewis (b: 120340; d: 080215) and John Carter, who were also members of UK hitmakers the Ivy League.

International fame

Lee was popular in the UK from early in her career. She toured the UK in 1959, before she had achieved much pop recognition in the United States. Her first hit single in the UK was "Sweet Nothin's", which reached No.4 on the UK singles chart in the spring of 1960. She subsequently had a UK hit (in 1961) with "Let's Jump the Broomstick", a rockabilly number recorded in 1959, which had not charted in the United States, and reached No.12 in the UK.

Lee had two Top Ten hits in the UK that were not released as singles in her native country: the first, "Speak to Me Pretty" peaked at No.3 in May 1962 and was her greatest hit in the UK by chart placing, swiftly followed by "Here Comes That Feeling", which reached No.5 in the summer of 1962. The latter was issued as the B-side to "Everybody Loves Me But You" in the United States (which peaked at No.6 on the Billboard Hot 100); however, it should be noted that "Here Comes That Feeling" also made an appearance in the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No.89, despite its B-side status in the US.

Lee also had big hits in the UK with "All Alone Am I" (No.7 in 1963) and "As Usual" (No.5 in 1964).

Lee enjoys a rare distinction among American singers; her opening act on a UK tour in the early-1960s was a then-little-known beat group from Liverpool, England — the Beatles.[7][8]

Brenda Lee toured the UK with Gene Vincent and Sounds Incorporated in March and April 1962, and with the Bachelors, Sounds Incorporated, Tony Sheridan and Mike Berry in March 1963.

Brenda Lee also toured in Ireland in 1963 and appeared on the front cover of the dancing and entertainment magazine Spotlight there, in April that year.

After appearing at the annual Royal Variety Performance before Queen Elizabeth II at the London Palladium on 2 November 1964, Lee toured Britain again in November and December 1964, supported by (amongst others) Manfred Mann, Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, the John Barry Seven, Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders, Marty Wilde, the Tornados and Heinz Burt.

Later career

During the early 1970s, Lee re-established herself as a country music artist, and earned a string of top ten hits in the United States on the country charts. The first was 1973's "Nobody Wins", which reached the top five that spring and became her last Top 100 pop hit, peaking at No. 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 ten with 1979's "George Jones.

Recent years

Over the ensuing years, Lee continued to record and perform around the world, having previously cut records in four different languages. In 1992, she recorded a duet ("You’ll Never Know") with Willy DeVille on his album Loup Garou. Today, she continues to perform and tour.

On October 4, 2000, Lee inducted fellow country music legend Charley Pride into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Her autobiography, Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee, was published by Hyperion in 2002 (ISBN 0-7868-6644-6).


Although Lee's songs have often centered on lost loves, her marriage to Ronnie Shacklett in 1963 has endured. He was able to deal with the music industry and is credited with ensuring her long-term financial success. They have two daughters, Jolie and Julie (who was named after Patsy Cline's daughter) and three grandchildren, Taylor, Jordan and Charley.


Lee reached the final ballot for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 and 2001 without being inducted, but was voted into the hall for 2002.

Celebrating over 50 years as a recording artist, in September 2006 she was the second recipient of the Jo Meador-Walker Lifetime Achievement award by the Source Foundation in Nashville. In 1997, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.

In 2008, her recording of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" marked 50 years as a holiday standard, and in February 2009, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences gave Lee a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award.

References in popular culture

Burton Cummings on his 1978 album Dream of a Child in the title track including the lines "When I was a child, dreamed that Elvis Presley, was standing on the corner, kissing Brenda Lee", and in the closing line, "I love Brenda Lee / Brenda Lee loves me / yeah...". Ben Vaughn wrote and released "I'm Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee)" in 1985, which has also been covered by Marshall Crenshaw. Lee is also referenced in the film Smokey and the Bandit.

"Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" was heard in the 1990 film Home Alone. "I'm Sorry" can be heard in the 1991 film The Fisher King, the 1993 film This Boy's Life, and the 1995 film Tommy Boy. "Sweet Nothin's" can be heard in 2009's critically acclaimed An Education.

"I Wonder", released in 1963, was the song playing at Colleen's funeral in the episode "The Cost of Living" in Season 3 of the ABC television show Lost. The episode originally aired on November 1, 2006. Kelly Clarkson appeared as Lee on two episodes of the NBC series American Dreams. "Break It To Me Gently" plays during the credits of "The Gold Violin", Season 2: Episode 7 of the AMC series Mad Men and Season 1: Episode 7 of the ABC series Pan Am.

Her 1963 cover of "Fly Me to the Moon" is used in the end credits of the 2010 video game, Bayonetta.

After being name-dropped in Smokey and the Bandit as a favorite of the Bandit, Lee put in an appearance in the sequel Smokey and the Bandit II listed as "Nice Lady", a wedding guest who seems to take some glee at reminding Sheriff Justice of his previous encounter with Bo "Bandit" Darville.

Kanye West's song "Bound 2" samples Lee's voice from the song "Sweet Nothin's" on his 2013 album, Yeezus. Her music is also used in Nikos Nikolaidis' 1979 film The Wretches Are Still Singing.



  1. ^ "Brenda Lee: the Lady, the Legend". Brenda Lee Productions. Retrieved 2009-04-10. 
  2. ^ "Brenda Lee (b. 1944) | New Georgia Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2015-08-17. 
  3. ^ Lee remembers the church as not being truly "Primitive Baptist", but the congregation did engage in foot-washing and performed baptisms in a river.
  4. ^ Oral remembrance of Grayce Rainwater, recounted in Little Miss Dynamite.
  5. ^ Lee, Brenda; Oermann, Robert K.; Clay, Julie (2002), Little Miss Dynamite: the Life and Times of Brenda Lee, Hyperion,  
  6. ^ Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. p. 103.  
  7. ^ Argyrakis, Andy (2007-07-05). "Reluctant Legend". Christianity Today. Retrieved 2008-04-02. I also have a poster of the Beatles signed by each one of them because they used to open for me in England before they were a success. 
  8. ^ Wooding, Dan. Little Miss Dynamite' returns to her Gospel roots with a little help from some of her best friends"'". ASSIST News Service. Retrieved 2012-02-03. While in England, I had met this group of young men and they toured with me throughout Germany and parts of Britain. They were then called the Silver Beatles and they later became known as the Beatles. 


  • Argyrakis, Andy (2007-07-05). "Reluctant Legend". Christianity Today. Retrieved 2008-04-02. 
  • Wooding, Dan. Little Miss Dynamite' returns to her Gospel roots with a little help from some of her best friends"'". ASSIST News Service. Retrieved 2012-02-03. 
  • "Brenda Lee: the Lady, the Legend". Brenda Lee Productions. Retrieved 2009-04-10. 

External links

  • Brenda Lee's official site
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