Lee signed with the legendary Decca Records label before her 12th birthday and went on to record such landmark hits as “Sweet Nothin’s,” “All Alone Am I,” “Break it to Me Gently,” “I’m Sorry” and of course, the perennial holiday favorite “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
Throughout her career she shared stages and earned the respect of the world’s most revered performers. The Beatles opened for her and the lads from Liverpool became good friends with the Southern belle from Atlanta. Elvis Presley and Lee made their Grand Ole Opry debut on the same night. “I’ll never forget, he came in and they sent him down to that men’s shop in the arcade to get a tux. They said he wasn’t dressed right, so here he comes back with a tux. He wow’d the audience. He tore the house down and I’ll never forget they told him to keep his day job,” she says shaking her head. Incredible talent, hard work and a humble attitude are the cornerstones of Lee’s impressive career.
Always a fighter since the day she was born, Brenda Mae Tarpley arrived in the charity ward of Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, weighing only 4 pounds 11 ounces. “I was little,” she says with a laugh, and notes that at 4 feet nine inches, she still is. “Back then, they didn’t have everything they have now. If a baby had breathing problems normally it didn’t make it, but I was born in Grady Hospital and I’m here, so they did something right.” Lee’s family battled poverty throughout her childhood, and her musical gift became the ticket to a better life for them all. “I knew we didn’t have a lot and I knew my mom worked 14-16 hours a day sometimes in a cotton mill. My dad was a carpenter and we never owned a car,” she recalls. “I didn’t even know if my dad could drive because my mother’s brother would pick him up for work. I knew we didn’t have much, but nobody did. My dad did the best he could and my mom did too. When I did my first show date, I was paid $20, which back then was a lot of money. I saw that I could make money and help. I love to sing, but when that came into the picture I thought I could do something to help my family. That’s how it pretty much started.”
Lee had always loved music and sang along with the radio as soon as she could talk. Her mom would put her up on the counter at the local candy store when she was only three and the tiny tot would fascinate anyone within earshot. By age six, she won a talent contest and earned an appearance on a local radio station where she became a regular. Her father died when she was just seven and by the time she was 10, Lee had become the family’s breadwinner as her music career began to soar.
Her big break came when local radio personality Charles “Peanut” Faircloth introduced her to Red Foley. “I was living in Augusta, GA and Peanut Faircloth would take me to meet anybody that came to the famous Bell Auditorium,” Lee remembers. “He would say, ‘Would you listen to this little girl sing? Would you let her sing a song on the show? The audience loves her. She’s from here.’ Red Foley let me sing that night and then he asked my mother if I’d be interested in doing the Junior Jubilee in Springfield, Missouri. So I went and did the Junior and then I did the Ozark Jubilee, which was for the adults. I was seen by a columnist in New York named Jack O’Brien and he wrote me up. From that write up, I was asked to do the Perry Como Show, The Steve Allen Show and The Ed Sullivan show, so that was my break. Mr. Red was my breakthrough.”
Foley said hearing Lee’s voice for the first time gave him chills. No one could believe such a big voice could come from a tiny child. That amazing voice earned Lee a deal with Decca Records in 1956 and she began churning out hits such as “One Step at a Time,” which soared up both the pop and country charts, and “Dynamite,” which earned her the lifelong nickname Little Miss Dynamite. Lee scored nine consecutive top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hits from “That’s All You Gotta Do” in 1960 through “All Alone Am I” in 1962 which set a record for a female solo artist that was not equaled until 1986 by Madonna.
“I’ve always been a lyric singer,” she says with a big smile. “I love good lyrics and I was blessed to have some of the great songwriters write all those wonderful, wonderful songs that I had. My producer, Owen Bradley, had the knack of listening to an acetate tape that writers would bring in or some would just sing their songs in person with a guitar, and he had the knack to hear where it could go and what it could be. I had the knack for the lyrics and how to express them. I don’t know where that came from. It’s a God given thing. Record companies don’t want to sign a kid because your voices changes, but mine never did. You can tell I was younger, but as far as the growling and the way I phrased, that’s always been the same since I started recording. It had to have come from a higher power than anybody here on earth.”
Lee credits her early manager, Dub Albritton, with boosting her career and pushing her to success in multiple genres. “He broadened my spectrum of what I could see and he had such bigger plans for me than I ever dreamed of, and we had success overseas before we had any here. That was him,” she says of Albritton, who also co-wrote some of her big hits, including “I’m Sorry” and “Sweet Nothin’s.” “Colonel Tom Parker was his best friend and they were carnies. He knew how to promote and get the interest up. I remember before we went over to France to play, they kept writing back saying, ‘Send more recent pictures.’ We were sending pictures of how I looked but they thought my voice was so big I couldn’t be a kid. Then my manager somehow started the rumor mill that I was really a 42-year-old midget, so we sold out because everybody was coming to see: ‘Is she a kid or is she a midget or what is going on here?’ That was Dub!”
In addition to her success at home, Lee also achieved fame in the UK early in her career with “Sweet Nothin’s,” which reached No. 4 on the UK singles chart in the spring of 1960. “Let’s Jump the Broomstick,” “Speak to Me Pretty” and “Here Comes that Feeling” also became favorites with her supporters abroad. Lee became one of the biggest pop stars on the planet with a global fan base. “My overseas success was a surprise to me and it still is, even after all these years. We were just told that I am still the third largest foreign seller on my label, still after all these years,” says Lee.
To what does she attribute that success? “Being loyal about going over, singing in their language, showing them that you really do want to be there and are really trying. I learned to sing in Italian, German, Spanish, Japanese and French. They appreciate it even if you pronounce it wrong. They love you for even trying. I think that’s a lot of it, and you’ve got to go over more than once. You can’t just go once and leave them because once they are loyal, they are loyal.”
Though she’d had success in rockabilly, pop and rock, in the 70s she returned to her first love—country music—and enjoyed another successful season of her career starting with “Nobody Wins,” which hit the top five on the country chart and also graced the pop chart. Lee recalls Nashville publisher Bob Beckham asking her to come in and listen to a Kris Kristofferson song called “Jesus Was A Capricorn,” that he thought she should record. Instead she gravitated to the Kristofferson-penned “Nobody Wins.” “That was my first legitimate country hit,” she says. “I told Kris, ‘You started the walk for me to the Country Music Hall of Fame!’” Lee churned out country hits such as “Sunday Sunrise,” “Big Four Poster Bed” and continued to have country hits into the 80s including “The Cowgirl and the Dandy,” “Broken Trust and “Hallelujah, I Love Her So,” a duet with George Jones.
Even though she’s had success in multiple genres, Lee feels her best-loved hit will always be “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” “I always thought, ‘I’m Sorry’ would be my signature song, but it seems like ‘Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’ is. So I’ll take it,” she says with a grin. “We knew we had something special when we cut it. Johnny Marks, who wrote ‘Rudolph,’ ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’ and lots of Christmas songs, was the writer. I don’t know why he chose me. I was only 12, but he sent it to me and we just loved it. The lick on the front with the sax and the guitar, that is Grady Martin, Boots Randolph and Hank Garland. That was the A team. We recorded with musicians Buddy Harman, Bobby Moore, Ray Eddington, Harold Bradley, Floyd Cramer and the Anita Kerr Singers, and Owen was the producer. It doesn’t get any better than that. When you’ve got that kind of talent, it’s not hard to record. We knew we had something special, but we never dreamed it would be what it is.”
“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” continues to top the holiday charts year after year. “Owen had a Christmas tree in the studio when we recorded it and Christmas lights. He had the air conditioner on full blast and it was all Christmassy,” Lee recalls of the session. “I never get tired of singing it. I sing it all year long. I love singing it and it’s a simple song. It’s not complex at all. It’s a feel good song and we all had fun doing it.”
In addition to dominating multiple charts and performing on the world’s most prestigious stages, including the Hollywood Bowl and the London Palladium, Brenda Lee has also forged a successful life away from the spotlight. She married husband Ronnie Shacklett in 1963 and they raised two daughters, Julie and Jolie. These days she still enjoys performing for her fans, spending time with family and hosting a weekly Bible study with her girlfriends. Life is good and she’s grateful for her blessings. “What I’m most proud of is that I don’t have to put on a different hat to be Brenda Lee. I’m who I am all the time,” she says. “My greatest achievement is that my fans have become my friends and we’re family. They know I love them and I know they love me. I have some that have been with me from the start. Other than God, they are responsible for who and what I am. He gave me the gift, but they’ve let me have my gift. They are the best people in the world. I know when one of their kids are hurt. I know if they are hurt. They know if something is happening in my family and we love each other. I want them to love other entertainers too and they do. That makes me happy. We started out together and Lord love them, they are still here.”