Brenda Lee was born Brenda Mae Tarpley on December 11, 1944 in Atlanta, Georgia. She was born in the charity ward of the local hospital and weighed in at 4 pounds, 11 ounces. She would grow as the years went on – but not much! Her father stood 5 feet, 7 inches although he was a very good southpaw pitcher who played baseball for the US Army for eleven years. His little daughter, Brenda, would stop growing when she hit 4 feet, 9 inches but she would go on to stand tall in the world of rock & roll and country music.
Sadly, Brenda’s father died in a construction accident in 1953 and Brenda became the breadwinner of the family, singing on local radio and television shows. In early 1955, Brenda went to see country legend Red Foley perform and Lee ended up singing for Red who was gobsmacked at the sound that came out of the little girl. In the summer of ’56, 11-year-old Lee was signed to Decca Records who decided to market her more as a pop singer as opposed to the country and rockabilly-type songs she had been discovered singing. Interestingly, her records through most of the 1960’s were not even released to country music stations and therefore did not appear on country charts.
The first major success for Brenda Lee came in the form of a Christmas tune that has become one of the most celebrated and oft-heard songs in history. Johnny Marks, composer of enduring Christmas songs like “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas”, wanted Brenda to record his new holiday-themed tune “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” even though she was only 13 years old.
Backed by a team of Nashville session men who would all become legends, Lee’s record came out in time for Christmas of 1958. It did not really become noticed until 1960, when Brenda Lee was a popular singing star. Since then it has been heard and loved by countless millions and – enduring into the digital era – it is one of the most-downloaded Christmas songs in history. To try and accurately describe where “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” stands in history, in popular culture and in people’s hearts is a fool’s errand. It is one of the essential perennial traditions of the season.
Lee’s pop breakthrough came in September of 1959 with the song “Sweet Nothin’s” a tune that peaked at #4 Pop. The new decade brought much success to “Little Miss Dynamite” as all of her 1960 singles reached the Top 40 of the Pop charts and she even scored two Top Tens on the R&B listings. Perhaps my favourite Brenda Lee song came first. “That’s All You Gotta Do” was written by my man, Jerry Reed and features lovely chord changes. The song reached #6 but it was the B side that became perhaps the defining song of Brenda’s career.
“I’m Sorry” was Brenda’s first #1 song and it is now considered a standard, even in the country music arena where it is commonly referred to as an early precursor of the “Nashville sound”. 15-year-old Lee scored a second consecutive chart-topper with her next single, “I Want to Be Wanted”. This tune was based on an Italian melody that was given lyrics by Kim Gannon, who wrote the words to “I’ll Be Home for Christmas”.
During 1961, all of Brenda’s singles charted, 6 of them landing in the Top 40. The Top Ten songs “Emotions” and “You Can Depend on Me” started the year off right and Lee followed these up with the playful “Dum Dum” and the lament “Fool No. 1”. Pianist Floyd Cramer played on “Emotions”, a song featuring lyrics by a young Mel Tillis. “You Can Depend on Me” is unique in that it was a cover of a recording from the 1930’s by none other than Louis Armstrong.
Where were you in ’62? Brenda was in the studio; a lot. Her number of single releases increased throughout 1962 and ’63 and these two years included 4 Top Tens. “Break It to Me Gently” got things off to a good start, peaking at #4 Pop. “All Alone Am I” (#3 Pop) was based on a Greek song that was featured in the film Never On Sunday (1960); interesting to note that the Italian melody that “I Want to Be Wanted” was based on also can be heard in this film.
By 1963, Brenda’s pop chart success began to wane though she charted 6 more tunes including “Losing You” and “As Usual” tunes that both reached the upper echelons of the pop listings. Brenda Lee is one of many artists who saw their popularity slip with the arrival of British rock in early 1964. Lee still issued many singles and had some hits with songs like “Coming On Strong” (1966, #11 US Pop, Top Ten in Canada) and “Johnny One Time” (#41 Pop, #3 Adult Contemporary), released in ’68 when Brenda was 24.
The 1970’s saw Brenda Lee return to her roots and country radio took notice. While she would never again have a pop hit and indeed only placed two more songs on the Hot 100 chart, Brenda began a whole second phase of her career that found her revered by fans and singers of country music. Between 1971 and 1984, Brenda placed 28 singles on the US Country charts. 17 of them reached the top 40 of that chart and nine entered the Top Ten including six singles in a row during the period of 1973-75.
Brenda is alive today – as of this writing – and is considered a grand dame of both pop and country & western music. She is the only woman to be inducted into both the Rock & Roll and the Country Music Halls of Fame and her numbers from the 1960’s place her in a rarefied air. She placed 47 songs on the pop charts during that decade, the most of any female artist. Consider that only Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Ray Charles put more songs on the charts during the ’60’s than Little Miss Dynamite. Additionally, she placed songs on every conceivable chart of her era, something no other female was able to do. And if succeeding in the desert is any yardstick then Brenda can add her many stints performing in various Las Vegas casinos to her accomplishments. Starting at the Flamingo when she was 12, for years she had to be ushered on stage through the kitchens of hotels, avoiding the gaming areas, owing to her young age. Add runs at the Sahara, the Frontier, the Golden Nugget, the Mirage and the Orleans as recently as 2002.
She was just as big overseas as she was Stateside. Her international record sales are in excess of 100 million and she enjoyed much chart success with her singles and albums in the UK and Australia. Significantly, a Newsweek article from 1977 declared that Brenda Lee was one of five American artists who had best survived the British Invasion.
Brenda has succeeded on the personal side, as well. In November of 1962, Brenda was attending a Jackie Wilson concert in Nashville when she met Ronnie Shacklett and the two were married inside of six months. They have two daughters – Jolie and Julie – and will celebrate 58 years of marriage on April 24, 2021.
With our monthly looks at the oldies, though, we concern ourselves with the “golden era” of 1954-1963 so let’s look at Brenda’s numbers from this time and see how she stacks up against others we have explored. Between “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” in November of 1958 and “As Usual”, released almost exactly five years later near the end of ’63, Brenda Lee charted 31 Pop singles, placing 23 in the Top 40 and 13 in the Top Ten, including two chart-toppers. Factoring in her mastery of all charts, her career in Las Vegas and in Nashville, her long marriage and her ability to survive and to continue to contribute to the country music industry all add up to a stellar career worth celebrating. Little Miss Dynamite proves that style and resilience can sometimes come in small packages.
10 from Lee
- Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
- Sweet Nothin’s
- That’s All You Gotta Do
- I’m Sorry
- Dum Dum
- Break It to Me Gently
- Coming On Strong
- Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day
- Fool No. 1
- I Want to Be Wanted