Little Miss Dynamite: Brenda Lee

The history of rockabilly's teenage female upstart

Brenda Lee
Brenda Lee.

Who is Brenda Lee? 

Sassier and sexier than any other teenager before her, at least on record, little Brenda was a giant voice inside a tiny girl, a voice that could croon like a Patsy Cline and wail like a blues diva, Brenda Lee songs being equally potent whether rockabilly or straight country weepers.

Brenda Lee's best-known songs:

  • "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"
  • "I'm Sorry"
  • "Sweet Nothin's"
  • "Break It to Me Gently"
  • "I Want to Be Wanted"
  • "Dum Dum"
  • "Jambalaya"
  • "All Alone Am I"
  • "I'm Learning About Love"
  • "As Usual"

Where you might have heard her You can't get through a Christmas season without being exposed to her original version of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," but "I'm Sorry'" still gets a lot of airplay, and "Mad Men" used "Break It to Me Gently" in some Season 2 credits. It's for sure you've heard her "uh huh honey," from "Sweet Nothin's," in Kanye West's "Bound 2" 

Born: Brenda Mae Tarpley, December 11, 1944, Atlanta, GA

Styles Rockabilly, Country-Pop, Pop, Rock and Roll, Country

Instruments Vocals

Claims to fame:

  • Among the rare female rockabilly stars of note
  • Along with Patsy Cline, popularized the Sixties version of "countrypolitan" country-pop crossover music
  • One of rock's finest ballad singers
  • Demonstrated a knack for singing adult songs with a sense of drama that appealed to teenagers
  • Combined sexiness and innocence in a way few stars of the time could
  • A legendary country music artist in her own right
  • The biggest-selling female of the Sixties; has charted in more musical categories than any other female

Brenda Lee History

Early years

Growing up in Lithonia, GA, Brenda Tarpley's life was largely untouched by strife, although the death of her father at age nine weighed upon her.

Her mother remarried, and Brenda -- a child prodigy who'd won a school singing contest at the age of 5 -- was soon appearing on radio and TV shows in the region. But it was while visiting an idol, country singer Red Foley, at an Augusta concert that she caught her first big break, gaining a spot on the ABC series Ozark Jubilee.

Success

Within two months the buzz was sufficient for Decca to offer her a recording contract, and several country hits followed, fine examples of rockabilly all (and this from a 12-year-old girl who stood 4' 9"!). Eventually, she began working with famed Nashville producer Owen Bradley, who -- as he had with Patsy Cline -- steered her towards a slightly more pop sound. "Sweet Nothin's" was her first big pop hit in 1960; for the next few years she and Connie Francis ruled as America's twin sweethearts.

Later years

Changing tastes, including the British Invasion, forced many country-pop stars to retreat, and Brenda was no exception: by the late Sixties, she was working exclusively in straight country. However, she'd since become a massive star worldwide (selling over 100 million records to this day), and for the past few decades she's maintained a regular touring schedule all over the world.

Thanks to her 1958 smash "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree," she also remains in demand as a Christmas artist.

More About Brenda Lee

Other Brenda Lee facts and trivia:

  • Met her husband at a Jackie Wilson concert in 1962
  • Learned Eddy Arnold's "My Daddy is Only a Picture" as her first song
  • Sang in local gospel music quartets as a child
  • In response to incredulity over the power of the little girl's voice, Brenda's manager once created a rumor that she was a 32-year-old midget
  • Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page appears as guitarist on her 1964 single "Is It True?"
  • Has a street named after her in Lithonia, GA
  • Has a variety of rose that officially bears her name

Brenda Lee Awards and Honors Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2002), Country Music Hall of Fame (1997), Rockabilly Hall of Fame (1999), GRAMMY Hall of Fame (1999)

Hit Brenda Lee Songs and Albums:

#1 hits
Pop "I'm Sorry" (1960), "I Want to Be Wanted" (1960)

Top 10 hits
Pop "Sweet Nothin's" (1960) "That's All You Gotta Do" (1960), "You Can Depend on Me" (1961), "Fool #1" (1961), "Emotions" (1961), "Dum Dum" (1961), "Everybody Loves Me But You" (1962), "Break It to Me Gently" (1962), "All Alone Am I" (1962), "Losing You" (1963)

R&B "I'm Sorry" (1960), "I Want to Be Wanted" (1960)

Country "Nobody Wins" (1973), "Big Four Poster Bed" (1974), "Rock on Baby" (1975), "Tell Me What It's Like" (1979), "Broken Trust" (1980)

Top 10 albums
Pop Brenda Lee (1960), This Is.....Brenda (1961), Merry Christmas from Brenda Lee (1972)

Country Brenda (1973), The Brenda Lee Story - Her Greatest Hits (1973), New Sunrise (1974), Kris, Willie, Dolly & Brenda... The Winning Hand (1983)

Notable covers Juice Newton's 1982 hit version of "Break It to Me Gently" didn't quite make it to the Top 10 like Brenda's original, though Juice did get a Grammy out of it (Country Vocal); Olivia Newton-John inexplicably teamed up with John Travolta and Kenny G for a 2002 version of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"; The Ventures' version of "Rockin'" was done as a medley with "Here Comes Santa Claus" and, for some reason, Del Shannon's "Runaway"

Movies and TV Brenda essentially appeared as herself in a 1962 episode of "Make Room for Daddy" about a budding teen idol; the silly live-action kiddie comedy The Two Little Bears (1961) features Brenda singing two songs; Lee's "Again and Again" was more or less designed as the love theme from 1980's regrettable sequel Smokey and the Bandit II