Brenda Lee (December 11, 1944 – ) is an American country-pop singer, who was immensely popular during the 1950s and 60s. In the 60s, she had more charted hits than any other woman, and only three male acts (Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, and The Beatles) outpaced her. She was also one of the earliest pop stars to have a major international following.
Lee was given the nickname Little Miss Dynamite in 1957 after recording Dynamite, as the explosive sound pouring out of her diminutive, pre-teenage frame amazed audiences and promoters alike. Hits like “Sweet Nothin’s,” “I’m Sorry,” and “All Alone Am I” followed. Her general popularity faded as her voice matured in the late 1960s, but she successfully continued her recording career by returning to her roots as a country singer.
Lee’s song, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” is a perennial favorite that has sold more than five million copies. She has been inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Lee’s father, Ruben Tarpley, was the son of a farmer in Georgia’s red-clay belt who spent 11 years in the U.S. Army playing baseball. Her mother, Annie Grayce Yarbrough came from a working-class family in Greene County, Georgia, and had a Cherokee great-grandparent.
Brenda was born in the charity ward of Grady Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, on December 11, 1944, weighing four 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, and 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 Brenda sang solos every Sunday.
The family had a battery-powered table radio that fascinated Brenda as a baby. By the time she was two, she could reportedly hear songs on the radio once and be able to whistle the complete tune. By the time she was three, she would earn free treats or coins for singing at the local candy store.
Brenda’s voice, pretty face, and complete absence of stage fright won her wider attention from the time she was five. At six, she won a local singing contest sponsored by the elementary schools. The reward was a live appearance on an Atlanta radio show, Starmakers Revue.
Benda’s father died in 1953, and 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 an Augusta DJ convinced Red Foley to hear her sing before a show. Foley was transfixed by the huge voice coming from the tiny girl and immediately agreed to let her perform the Hank Williams standard Jambalaya on stage that night, unrehearsed. The audience erupted in applause and refused to let her leave the stage until she had sung three more songs.
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” (a telephone number), “Little Jonah,” and “Dynamite,” which led to her lifelong nickname, “Little Miss Dynamite.” He first hit was “One Step at Time” (1957).
The height of her career
Although Brenda began as a country country, Decca’s management felt it best to market her exclusively as a pop artist. The result was that none of her best-known recordings from the 1960s was released to country radio stations. Despite her obvious country sound, she would not have another country hit until 1969.
Brenda achieved her greatest success on the pop charts in the late 50s through the mid 60s. Her biggest hits during this time include a rockabilly version of the country classic “Jambalaya (On the Bayou),” the sexy R & B tune “Sweet Nothin’s,” and the Nashville-style ballads “I’m Sorry,” “I Want to Be Wanted,” “All Alone Am I,” and “Fool #1.”
“I’m Sorry” (1960) was Brenda’s signature song. It hit number one on the Billboard pop chart and was her first gold single. Although 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.
The overall biggest selling track of Lee’s career, however, is 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. It did not do much better when it was released again in 1959, but eventually became a perennial favorite and sold over 5 million copies.
Touring in England in 1959, Lee’s 1961 rockabilly release “Let’s Jump the Broomstick” did not chart in the U.S., but went to number 12 in the UK. She also had two Top-10 hits in the UK that were not released as singles in her native country: “Speak To Me Pretty” peaked at number three in early 1962, followed by “Here Comes That Feeling.” Her last Top-10 single on the U.S. pop charts was 1963’s “Losing You.” She continued to have other minor hits such as her 1966 song “Coming On Strong” and “Is It True?” in 1964.
During the early 1970s, Lee re-established herself as a country music artist and earned a string of Top-10 hits on the country charts. The first of these was 1973’s “Nobody Wins,” which reached the Top 5 that spring and also became her last Top 100 pop hit, peaking at number 70. The follow-up, the Mark James composition “Sunday Sunrise,” reached number six on Billboard magazine’s Hot Country Singles chart that October. Other major country hits for Lee included “Wrong Ideas” and “Big Four Poster Bed” (1974); and “Rock On Baby” and “He’s My Rock” (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 country 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.
Over the ensuing years, Lee has continued to record and perform all around the world, previously cutting records in four different languages. In 1992, Lee recorded a duet (“You’ll Never Know”) with Willy DeVille, on his album Loup Garou.
Along with Connie Francis, Brenda was one of the first female singing idols, achieving huge popularity with a long string of hits. Many of her hits from the 50s and 60s are classics and her holiday song, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” is a perennial favorite.
Brenda’s marriage to Ronnie Shacklett in 1963 was a successful one, and he has been credited with ensuring her long-term financial success. They have two daughters, Jolie and Julie, 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. Lee is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.