The Talented Brenda Lee Part One
Brenda Lee (born Brenda Mae Tarpley, December 11, 1944) 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. 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 almost 60 years.
Lee in 1977
Brenda Mae Tarpley
December 11, 1944 (age 72)
Atlanta, Georgia, US
Rock and roll, pop, rockabilly, country, gospel
MCA Records (1970–1991)
Warner Bros. Records (1991–1993)
Telstar Records (1994–1996)
Bear Family Records (1997–1998)
MCA Nashville (1999–present)
Connie Francis, Skeeter Davis, Ricky Nelson, Lesley Gore, Red Foley, Muruga Booker, Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline
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.
Brenda Lee was born Brenda Mae Tarpley on December 11, 1944, to parents Annie Grace (née Yarbrough) and Reuben Lindsey Tarpley. Lee was born in the charity ward of Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia. She weighed 4 pounds 11 ounces at birth. Lee attended grade schools wherever her father found work, primarily between Atlanta and Augusta. Her family was poor, often living hand-to-mouth. As a child, she shared a bed with her brother and sister in a series of three-room houses without running water. Life centered around her parents finding work, their family, and the Baptist church, where she began singing solos every Sunday.
Lee’s father was a farmer’s son in Georgia’s red-clay belt. Standing 5 ft 7 inches (170 cm), he was an excellent left-handed pitcher and spent 11 years in the United States Army playing baseball. Her mother came from an under-educated working class family in Greene County, Georgia.
Lee was a musical prodigy. Though 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. 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.
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 Cincinnati, Ohio, where he worked at the Jimmy Skinner Music Center. Lee performed with Skinner at the record shop on two Saturday programs broadcast over Newport, Kentucky radio station WNOP. The family soon returned to Georgia, however, this time to Augusta and Lee appeared on the show The Peach Blossom Special on WJAT-AM in 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:
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. 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, 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”.