Born Brenda Mae Tarpley, 11 December 1944, Atlanta, Georgia
Brenda Lee's career in music spans more than fifty years, but she made her most enduring recordings at a very young age, between 1956 and 1961. She was a musical prodigy who made her debut on local radio at the age of six, on local television at the age of seven and on national television at the age of eleven. Her father, a carpenter, was killed in a construction accident in May 1953. By 1955 Brenda was the primary breadwinner of her family. Her break came in February 1956, when she met country singer Red Foley, who ran a TV show, "The Ozark Jubilee". Foley was so impressed by her singing that he immediately signed her to perform on the show and he was also instrumental in getting her a recording contract with Decca.
Brenda's first session took place over two days in Nashville, on July 30 and 31, 1956. Seven songs were recorded under the supervision of Paul Cohen and "Jambalaya"/"Bigelow 6-200" was chosen as the first single, released on September 17, 1956. On the label she was billed as "Little Brenda Lee (9 years old)", in an attempt to exploit the child prodigy angle. Though she was two years older, Decca got away with the ruse, as Brenda was unusually young-looking and small for her age. All the more striking was the contrast with her powerful, mature vocals. In October 1956 Brenda performed on the Perry Como Show, her first national TV appearance outside the Ozark Jubilee, soon followed by performances on the shows of Steve Allen and Ed Sullivan. Her only recording session in New York City (on January 3, 1957) led to her first chart entry : "One Step At A Time", which peaked at # 43 pop and # 15 country. The follow-up, "Dynamite", went to # 72 in the summer of 1957, but then the next six singles flopped, even the Christmas classic "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree", which is now her second best seller of all time (after "I'm Sorry"), but failed to chart after its initial release in November 1958. Nevertheless, singles like "Rock the Bop", "Ring-A My Phone" and "Let's Jump the Broomstick" are all highlights of her early rockabilly-styled work, with amazingly raunchy vocals from one so young and excellent accompaniment from the cream of the Nashville A-Team (Hank Garland, Grady Martin, Bob Moore, Floyd Cramer, Boots Randolph, Buddy Harman on most sessions).
Red Foley's manager Dub Allbritten had become Brenda's manager in 1957 and Owen Bradley her producer in 1958, which he would remain until 1968. It wasn't until early 1960 that Brenda scored her first major hit, "Sweet Nothin's" (# 4), penned by Ronnie Self, who would go on to write many songs for her, including "I'm Sorry". This would become her first number one, although it was originally released as the B-side of the thumping bopper "That's All You Gotta Do". As surprising as this seems now, it is easy to see why. "Sweet Nothin's" had been an up-tempo hit and it seemed logical for the follow-up single to be in that vein. Moreover, the romantic regret in the lyrics of "I'm Sorry" seemed too mature for a fifteen-year-old. But deejays around the country began playing the ballad side, and while "That's All You Gotta Do" peaked at # 6, "I'm Sorry" went all the way to the top. Her next two singles, again double-sided hits, also paired a torch song and a rocker. "I Want To Be Wanted" was her second (and last) number one, in October 1960.
Brenda was now a big pop star and almost all her singles (ballads, most of them) charted until 1967, though the hits became smaller after 1964, the year of the British Invasion. Her last Top 10 hit was "Losing You" (# 6, 1963) and her final major hit "Coming On Strong" (# 11, 1966). In the UK her biggest hit was "Speak To Me Pretty" (# 3, 1962), which she sang in the film "Two Little Bears", but this was not even released as a single in the USA. In 1964 she recorded a single in London, "Is It True"/"What'd I Say", produced by Mickie Most (# 17 UK). Prior to that, in July 1963, Decca announced that Brenda had signed a 20-year pact, guaranteeing her an advance of $ 1,000,000 to be paid in annual instalments of between $ 35,000 -$ 45,000.
During the 1970s Lee re-established herself as a country artist, scoring nineteen country Top 40 hits between 1971 and 1985. "Nobody Wins", written by Kris Kristofferson, also crossed over to the pop charts (# 70, # 5 country, 1973). It was her last pop hit. In 1977, Brenda asked to be released from her Decca contract, six years before its expiration date. She recorded briefly for Elektra, but returned to MCA (which had absorbed Decca) in 1979. Her last country hit was a duet with George Jones, "Hallelujah, I Love You So" (# 15, 1985), on the Epic label. Over the ensuing years, Lee continued to record and perform around the world, though more recently she has kept a low profile. She continues to live in Nashville with her husband Ronnie Shacklett, whom she married in 1963. She was inducted into the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1997 and into the Rock and Hall of Fame in 2002. In 2009 she received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Brenda Lee reached the pinnacle of her popularity as a teen recording star in the early sixties. Later recordings were of a decidedly different style.
More info :
Recommended reading :
Acknowledgements : Paul Kingsbury, the autobiography, Fred Bronson, Joel Whitburn, Wikipedia.
Dik, December 2011
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