Born Brenda Mae Tarpley in Atlanta, Georgia, on 11 December 1944, Brenda Lee is rumoured to have taken to the road with a singing group at the age of five to help support her family.
Certainly, she admitted to playing shows in Atlanta sports arenas and school-houses well before her tenth birthday, and to having her own radio spot on a station in Augusta, Georgia.
Her discovery through the radio show for country star Red Foley in 1956 led to the Tarpley family moving to Springfield, Missouri.
Brenda’s subsequent appearances on Foley’s Ozark Jubilee TV show were well received and brought a recording contract with Decca in Nashville. Her first disc, cut in July 1956, was a rocked-up version of Hank Williams‘ Jambalaya.
It became a regional country hit on the strength of Brenda’s TV appearances and her ‘novelty’ status – she was, after all, still only 11 years old.
This was not remarkable enough for Decca, who billed her at first as ‘Little Brenda Lee – nine years old’. Her publicity, rather more accurately, dubbed her ‘Little Miss Dynamite’.
In 1957 Brenda Lee made the charts. One Step At A Time made #43 in the Hot Hundred and #15 in the country charts, paving the way for a crossover pop-rock career.
There followed several early attempts to hit with out-and-out rockers like Let’s Jump The Broomstick and Dynamite and for some years Brenda was a member of the rock’n’roll package show circuit, taking her school books with her.
Dynamite, with a driving beat behind Brenda’s rasping, bluesy voice was a minor pop hit. However, her producer at Decca’s Nashville studios, Owen Bradley, soon realised that her voice was even more suited to anguished ballads.
Bradley was pioneering a new sound in the late Fifties, with strings and vocal choruses built around heartfelt storylines; this was the ‘Nashville sound’. Country singers were the raw material for Bradley’s experiments, and child prodigies with adult voices were a godsend.
In 1959, Sweet Nothin’s made #4 on the US Hot Hundred and the following year I’m Sorry – a deeply felt ballad that had been originally issued as a flipside – went to #1.
On disc, Brenda Lee sounded like an adult; in live performance, however, that world-worn voice could be seen to come from a little girl who looked harmlessly cute. In 1959 Brenda took her act to Paris, where Le Figaro found it hard to believe she was as young as she looked.
The paper’s reviewer felt she must be a 32-year-old midget, not a 15-year-old. Her career blossomed because of her image as the rocker in the party dress.
1960 was the first year of superstardom. Five Brenda Lee titles hit the pop charts and the tiny young redhead was soon a fixture in the fan magazines, telling all about her favourite colours and the best flavour of ice-cream.
Years later, she reflected: “I’d do a show and it seemed like there’d be 82 acts on the bill of those rock packages, each earning over a thousand bucks a night. That was big money. And it was a fun time. There was a lot of comradeship. Trouble was, I was always the baby, the little sister. It was tough when Fabian and Duane Eddy became my pals and I wanted them to flirt with me but all they did was tell me their troubles.”
The year ended with a European tour and Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree, a bouncy bopper that was to become a perennial yuletide hit.
The early Sixties were years of consolidation, in which Brenda Lee established herself at home, in Europe and in South America. During this time, she notched up at least one large-scale hit each year:
Fool Number One charted in 1961, then All Alone Am I in 1962 and As Usual in 1963.
Whereas Sweet Nothin’s had been a simmering rocker, the later hits contained fewer elements of rock’n’roll and more of the Nashville sweetenings.
Brenda’s vocal style remained tough, though, and even when the Mersey sound forged a new era in rock Brenda Lee retained enough fans to put her into the Hot Hundred in 1967.
Eventually, the hits stopped coming and Lee retired to family life for a while.
She recalled: “At that time I was neither fish nor fowl. The company didn’t know what to do with me. The business had become less friendly and I didn’t fit. I wouldn’t change my style even if I could, so I preferred to take a rest. I was having problems with my throat, and besides, I didn’t have the kind of ego that said I had to be on the charts all the time. I knew I was good. I knew I was a success. I knew I could come back.”
There was no thought of going into other fields. Brenda had made a movie in 1962, The Two Little Bears, and she had tried stage musicals. She gave all this up, concluding, ‘I’m a singer, not an actress’.
In 1973 Brenda Lee made a renewed assault on the country music world, with a top-selling album, Brenda, following a Top Five country single, Nobody Wins, penned by the then up-and-coming Kris Kristofferson.
She commented: “I feel the key to success is good songs, and country writers are good writers. The first song I ever learned was a country song, Hank Williams‘ Mansion On The Hill. But I look all around. When I was a kid I used to play with the black kids on our street and I’d go to church with them and pick up elements of gospel music. I guess that’s why I sing so oddly, why I’ve never been quite rock or quite country or quite pop.”
Brenda’s country push was presaged during her ‘retirement’ years by occasional hits like Johnny One Time in 1969 and If This Is Our Last Time in 1971, and was sustained through the Seventies with Sunday Sunrise (1973) and The Cowgirl And The Dandy (1974).
These recordings were all made in Nashville, all – apart from one record on Elektra – for the Decca label (now re-named MCA), and all with the same basic approach.
The reasons for Brenda Lee’s success are two-fold. She generally chose very strong material to record, and she applied to that material a husky, bluesy voice that belied her tiny 4-foot 11-inch frame and little girl looks.
With 48 US hit records and countless international successes between 1956 and 1967, Brenda Lee was undoubtedly one of the major female stars of the rock’n’roll era.