Known as “Little Miss Dynamite,” Brenda Lee – who stood all of four feet, nine inches tall - was blessed with a powerful voice that belied her size.
She could sing rockabilly, country and pop standards with equal conviction, and her versatility as an interpreter has allowed her a career of extraordinary longevity. She is the kicking, countrified upstart of “Jambalaya” and “That’s All You Gotta Do,” the pert, jaunty rocker of “Sweet Nothin’s” and “Let’s Jump the Broomstick,” the heartbroken balladeer of “I’m Sorry” and “Break It to Me Gently,” the sophisticated songstress of “I Just Want to Be Wanted” and “You Can Depend on Me,” and the country storyteller of “Big Four Poster Bed” and “Nobody Wins.”
She is also indelibly associated with the holiday season, as her 1958 recording of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” has become a standard that’s heard every year and is ensconced at #4 on the all-time list of popular seasonal records.
Brenda Lee was born Brenda Mae Tarpley in Atlanta, Georgia. Her vocal skills were evident early on, as she won her first talent contest at age five. She performed on a local radio show and at seven became a regular on a Saturday-afternoon TV show. Soon after, she began performing for money, which her family desperately needed after the untimely 1953 death of her father in a construction accident. In 1956, she auditioned for country singer Red Foley and wound up joining the cast of Ozark Jubilee, a Missouri-based country-music TV show. That May, she signed to Decca Records, inaugurating a prolific and hit-filled recording career. Her third single, “One Step at a Time,” was her first to chart, reaching #15 on the country chart and just missing the pop Top Forty by three places. Her major breakthrough, and the biggest hit of her career, was “I’m Sorry,” which inaugurated a string of ballads that did quite well for her in the early Sixties. “I’m Sorry” was one of the first songs cut in Nashville to feature strings, thereby helping to inaugurate the “Nashville Sound.”
Lee’s career has been remarkable for its constancy. From 1958 to 1976, Lee recorded almost exclusively with producer Owen Bradley at his studio in Nashville. Lee would cut country, rockabilly and pop material, claiming it all as her own. Moreover, she signed with Decca and remained on the label (which later became MCA) for nearly thirty years. Her precocious, throaty voice possessed a seasoned phrasing and emotional resonance that suggested wisdom and talent beyond her years. “She knows how to communicate, how to get to you, how to make you understand what she’s talking about,” said Bradley. “It’s something you’re just born with.”
Her impact on rock and roll in the late Fifties and early Sixties had much to do with her youthful ability to belt out a tune. She cut material in a variety of styles, verging on rockabilly in her twangy remake of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” (Lee’s first single, issued in September 1956), sounding like a gospel singer on “One Day at a Time” and rocking hard on the vocal showcase “Dynamite,” from which she acquired her nickname. She was a sensation in Europe, especially France. During those magical years, she shared stages with Elvis Presley, the Beatles (who opened for her), Gene Vincent, Duane Eddy and Patsy Cline. When Lee and Vincent toured Europe together, they were dubbed “the King and Queen of Rock and Roll.” John Lennon is alleged to have said, “She has the greatest rock and roll voice of them all.”
Though Lee grew up in the South surrounded by country and rockabilly, her influences as a vocalist were surprisingly diverse, tending more toward the likes of Judy Garland, Edith Piaf and Frank Sinatra than any rock and roll peers. Her broad musical overview, assured stage presence and consummate vocal skills allowed her to continue long after many of her contemporaries fell by the wayside. After the pop hits subsided, she became a highly successful country-music artist in the Seventies and Eighties – even though, as she noted, “I was still sort of recording the same way I’d always recorded....But music had changed so much, and what we knew as rock was no longer rock or even pop at that time.” She had Top Ten country hits with material by the likes of Kris Kristofferson (“Nobody Wins”) and Shel Silverstein (“Big Four Poster Bed”). Again, Lee remained consistent in her approach; it was the musical landscape that had changed around her.
Lee’s impact can be summarized with a few statistics. She has sold more than 100 million records worldwide and charted in more categories – including pop, rhythm & blues, rock, easy listening and country – than any other women in the history of recorded music. The year 2000 marked Brenda Lee’s 50th year in show business. She published her autobiography, Little Miss Dynamite: The Brenda Lee Story, in 2002.
Inductee: Brenda Lee (vocals; born December 11, 1944)