Brenda Lee, is an American performer who sang rockabilly, pop and country music, and had 37 US chart hits during the 1960s, a number surpassed only by Elvis Presley, The Beatles, Ray Charles and Connie Francis
She is best known for her 1960 hit "I'm Sorry", and 1958's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree", a US holiday standard for more than 50 years.
At 4 ft 9 inches tall (approximately 145 cm), she received the nickname Little Miss Dynamite in 1957 after recording the song "Dynamite"; and was one of the earliest pop stars to have a major contemporary international following.
Lee's popularity faded in the late 1960s as her voice matured, but she continued a successful recording career by returning to her roots as a country singer with a string of hits through the 1970s and 1980s. She is a member of the Rock and Roll, Country Music and Rockabilly Halls of Fame. Lee currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee.
Brenda was born Brenda Mae Tarpley on December 11, 1944 in the charity ward of Grady Memorial Hospital (part of Emory University Hospital complex) in Atlanta, Georgia. Her mother, Grayce Yarbrough Tarpley Rainwater, today resides in Lithonia, Georgia. Her father, Ruben Lindsey Tarpley, was a carpenter and semi-professional baseball player.
He was killed in a construction accident in May 1953. Brenda has two sisters and a brother. Her sisters Linda (born in 1942) and Robyn (born in 1955) and her brother Randall (born in 1949) still live in Georgia.
Brenda attended several grade schools, mostly in Georgia. She attended Maplewood High School in Nashville, Tennessee and graduated from Hollywood Professional School in California on June 12, 1963.
During a Jackie Wilson concert at the old Fairgrounds Coliseum in Nashville, Tennessee, Brenda met her future husband, Ronnie (born May 12, 1944). They were married on April 24, 1963 at Radnor Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee.
Brenda and Ronnie have two daughters, Julie and Jolie, and two granddaughters. Julie was born in 1964 and was married in October 1986. Jolie was born in 1969 and married in January 1993. Both granddaughters were born on November 12 - one in 1988 and the other in 1996.
FIRST SONG LEARNED A tearful ballad "My Daddy is Only a Picture" (a song recorded by Eddy Arnold in 1948).
• FIRST PUBLIC APPEARANCE (1950) At the age of 5 Brenda represented Conyers (Georgia) Grade School in an annual talent contest at the Spring Festival conducted among several elementary schools in the area. Brenda donned a home-made evening gown and sang "Slow Poke" or "Take Me Out To The Ballgame" (according to different sources). Brenda won first prize in the talent contest and runner-up in the beauty contest.
• FIRST RADIO SHOW This competition led to an offer to sing on a regular basis on Starmakers Revue, a popular Atlanta radio show. Brenda appeared for 1 year. "Too Young" was her first number sung on the air. The sponsor of the show was Borden's Ice Cream. "They didn't pay any money for singing on the show but you could get all the ice cream you could eat," Brenda recalled.
• FIRST TV SHOW This radio show led to a regular slot on a local TV program called TV Ranch on Atlanta's WAGA-TV. Brenda appeared each Saturday and sang with Boots Woodall and the TV Wranglers. On the first show Brenda sang "Hey Good Lookin." The audience demanded an encore and she sang "Too Young." Brenda received no money, not even ice cream.
• FIRST GOSPEL APPEARANCE Brenda sang in the church as a young child and at age 5 or 6 sang gospel music with the Master Worker's Quartet in Georgia.
• FIRST PROFESSIONAL PAID JOB Appearances on TV Ranch lead to her first professional paid job for Shriner's Club Luncheon for which Brenda was paid $20.
In 1955, Brenda's mother married Jay Rainwater. The family lived in Cincinnati, Ohio. Brenda began working in Jimmy Skinner's Record Shop on two Saturday programs over WNOP in Newport, Kentucky. Brenda sang the big country music hits of the day.
Later that year, the family moved to Augusta, Georgia. Brenda appeared on the Peach Blossom Special on WJAT-TV. It was while appearing on this show that the name "Brenda Lee" was created by the show's producer, Sammy Barton. He felt that Tarpley was to difficult to remember and suggested that she shorten her last name to Lee.
Jay Rainwater opened a record store in Augusta and called it the Brenda Lee Record Shop. Station WRDW originated a program in the shop each week and Brenda sang on the show. Disc jockey Charlie Raiford "Peanuts" Faircloth was the announcer. Brenda composed her own theme song:
"Brother, if you want to get the lowdown, Come along and let's all have a hoedown, At the Brenda Lee Record Shop Saturday at 3, On the Brenda Lee Jam-bo-reeeeeeeeeeeeee!
Brenda received no money for these shows but the exposure led to several bookings.
In February 1956, a radio station in Swansboro, Georgia asked her to be a guest on the Peach Blossom Jamboree program for $30. Brenda turned down the offer to go see one of her favorite entertainers, country music singer Red Foley. Mr. Foley was visiting Augusta with the cast of the ABC-TV show Ozark Jubilee at the Bell Auditorium. Brenda met Mr. Foley and his manager, Dub Albritten. Peanuts Faircloth asked Foley if he would let Brenda sing a song on the show. Foley agreed to put her on the show.
Foley said "I still get cold chills thinking about the first time I heard that voice." Mr. Foley introduced Brenda. "One foot started patting rhythm as though she was stomping out a prairie fire but not another muscle in that little body even as much as twitched.
And when she did that trick of breaking her voice, it jarred me out of my trance enough to realize I'd forgotten to get off the stage. There I stood, after 26 years of supposedly learning how to conduct myself in front of an audience, with my mouth open two miles wide and a glassy stare in my eyes." Brenda performed Jambalaya then another tune, then another, and still another.
She left the stage with the crowd shouting for more. "The way I stood back and enjoyed watching her work I felt guilty for not going out to the box office and buying a ticket," said Foley.
After this show, Brenda was offered a guest spot on Foley's Ozark Jubilee. On Saturday, March 31, 1956, Brenda made her first network television appearance on the Ozark Jubilee from Springfield, Missouri. Brenda sang "Jambalaya" on the Junior Jubilee portion which featured younger talent. The producers of the show received three times the day's usual fan mail with nearly all asking to see Brenda on the show again.
Also, Jack O'Brien, a New York columnist for the Journal American opened his TV review by saying that "I didn't catch the name of the 9-year-old singer on last night's Ozark Jubilee but she belts a song like a star." This led to bookings on the Perry Como Show and other national TV shows.
The family moved to Springfield and Brenda became a regular on the Ozark Jubilee. Brenda appeared on the Ozark Jubilee (later Jubilee U.S.A. - by 1957) from 1956-1959 as a guest then as a regular.
On May 21, 1956, Paul Cohen, the A and R man at Decca Records, signed Brenda to a recording contract with Decca Records.
Brenda's first recording session was on July 30, 1956. She recorded seven songs that day with Paul Cohen as her producer. The songs were: "Jambalaya," "Bigelow 6-200," "Some People," "Your Cheatin' Heart," "I'm Gonna Lasso Santa Claus," "Doodle Bug Rag," and "Christy Christmas."
"Jambalaya"/"Bigelow 6-200" was released as the first single on September 17, 1956.
There was moderate chart success in early 1957 with Brenda's third release, "One Step At a Time." It climbed to #43 in the Billboard charts. The song peaked at #15 on the country charts.
The next single, "Dynamite," has importance because it gave her the nickname of "Little Miss Dynamite". . . because of her explosive stage act. The title is still used today to describe Brenda. "Dynamite" was the last chart success for the next 2-1/2 years.
In 1957, Dub Albritten became her personal manager and remained so until his death in 1972. Brenda and her family also moved to Nashville in 1957.
Brenda's first Grand Old Opry Performance was in December 1957 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. She met Elvis Presley for the first time. One of Brenda's fondest memories is of appearing on the show with Elvis.
Owen Bradley became Brenda's record producer with the recording session of May 8, 1958. "Ring-A- My-Phone" and "The Golden Key" were recorded that day. "Little Jonah" was recorded on May 15, 1958. "Ring-A-My-Phone" and "Little Jonah" was the first single release with Bradley as producer. Bradley was Brenda's record producer for most recordings until 1976.
Brenda's first album, "Grandma What Great Songs You Sang" was released on August 3, 1958.
On August 13, 1959, Brenda recorded "Sweet Nothin's." The song was released on September 29, 1959. It peaked at #4 on the Billboard charts in late April 1960. This single became the first of many top 10 songs for Brenda.
"Sweet Nothin's" was Brenda's first chart success in England climbing to #4 and the first chart success in Germany, peaking at # 34.
On March 28, 1960 Brenda recorded "I'm Sorry." The song was released on May 30, 1960. The song hit # 1 during the summer of 1960 and stayed on the Top 100 for over 6 months. "I'm Sorry" was also Brenda's first gold record selling over one million records and is her biggest selling record.
The song became a huge international hit, and by the end of 1960 Brenda was an international recording artist.
On October 19, 1958, Brenda recorded "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree." The song was released as a single but the record failed to chart in either 1958 or 1959.
The song was re-released in 1960 and became a big hit this time. This song is a Christmas standard and is #4 in the Top 10 All Time Christmas Songs.
It is Brenda's second biggest selling record. On June 12, 13, and 23, 1964, Brenda recorded songs for her "Merry Christmas" Album which was released on October 19, 1964. In 1991, Brenda recorded her second Christmas album for Warner Brothers Records.
In 1959, Dub Albritten decided it was time to book her on an international level. He arranged a booking in Paris, France. On February 18, 1959 Brenda opened in Paris, France at the Olympia Music Hall with Gilbert Becaud. She was originally signed for 3 weeks and was held over for another 5 weeks.
The appearance almost ended before it started. Publicity pictures had been sent over and showed Brenda dressed in her typical schoolgirl clothes. The theatre kept writing asking for more recent pictures because they could not believe that such a big voice could come from such a little girl.
Albritten kept writing and said that these were recent pictures. Then Dub had an idea to manufacture a story which ran in the French paper, La Figaro, that Brenda was actually a 32 year old midget. Albritten denied the story. The result was great publicity for her. La Figaro compared Brenda favorably to Judy Garland.
The response of the Paris engagement lead to more European dates in Germany, Italy, and England followed by a tour of South America. Jack Good's Oh Boy! TV show introduced Brenda to the British audience.
In Brazil, she received the greatest reception ever accorded an American entertainer as she made a month-long tour with 21 performances. The tour netted 51 front page newspaper stories and features in nine magazines. Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitshek de Oliveira said she was "the best goodwill ambassador the U.S. ever had." After these tours Brenda returned to the states an international star.
On November 30, 1961, Brenda recorded her first records sung in German, ("Anybody But Me" and "Fool # 1"), Italian ("Fool # 1"), and French ("Fool # 1") in Nashville, Tennessee.
On February 26, 1963, Brenda recorded four songs sung in German. The recording took place in West Germany with Bert Kampfert as producer. Brenda recorded six more songs in German on March 26, 1964 in Nashville, Tennessee.
Several songs which became hits in Germany including "No My Boy," "Wiedersehn Ist Wunderschen," and "Ich Will Immer Auf Dich Warten" which became Brenda's highest charted record in Germany reaching #13 in the charts by the end of 1964.
On September 17, 1964, Brenda recorded "Is It True" and "What'd I Say" in England with Mickey Most as producer. "Is It True" was released in England and then in the States and become a very big hit and gained gold record status. "What'd I Say" was released in Europe but never in the United States.
In July 1965, Brenda conquered Japan with her first of many tours. Her first Japanese recording was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee on February 16, 1965. The song was "One Rainy Night in Tokyo" sung in English and Japanese.
This song became one of Brenda's many gold records and one of many standards in Japan. On July 13, 1965, Brenda recorded three Christmas songs ("White Christmas", "Silent Night," and "Jingle Bells"), originally released on the "Merry Christmas" album, in Japan. These three songs were never released in the United States. Two live albums have been released in Japan.
The first was "Live in Tokyo" in 1965 and the second one was "Live in Japan" in 1975. On October 13 and 14, 1977, Brenda recorded twelve songs in Japan which were originally released on the Japanese album "Just for You, Something Nice."
Richard Barstow was a top national choreographer and was Brenda's choreographer for many years starting in 1963 and lasting until his death in 1982.
Barstow is also known for the choreography for Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and Judy Garland. He was the choreographer for Judy Garland in A Star Is Born.
A signed picture of Richard Barstow and Judy Garland that Brenda has hanging on her wall states: "To Dear Brenda Lee Ñ A Marvelous Artist. Another "Great" in My Life. Love from Richard Barstow."
Brenda made summer stock appearances in the Wizard of Oz (1963) as Dorothy and Bye Bye Birdie (1962) as Kim. Brenda starred for 3 highly successful seasons at Opryland in Nashville, Tennessee.
In the 1988 and 1989 seasons, she performed in Music, Music, Music. In the 1990 season, Brenda starred in Spirit of America. Brenda performed in 754 shows during the 3-year run, NEVER missing a show!!!!
Brenda made her film debut in the movie, Two Little Bears, in 1961 with Eddie Albert, Jane Wyatt, and Jimmy Boyd. One of Brenda's songs was "Speak To Me Pretty."
This song became very popular in Great Britain and was actually her most popular UK single release, climbing to the #3 position on the charts. Strangely, the song was never released as a single in the United States.
Brenda had a small role in Smokey and the Bandit 2 and sang one song, "Again and Again," in the movie. In 1990, she recorded "You're in the Doghouse Now" for the Dick Tracy soundtrack album.
The song was not included in the motion picture. Brenda sang the song daily during the Spirit of America show at Opryland. "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" was heard in the 1991 movie, Home Alone. "I'm Sorry" can be heard in the 1991 movie, The Fisher King, and the the 1993 movie, This Boy's Life.
Brenda has won every pop award except the Grammy Award. She has received four Grammy nominations which include: "I'm Sorry" in 1960, "Johnny One Time" in 1970, "Tell Me What It's Like" in 1980 and "Honky Tonk Angels Medley" (with k.d. lang, Loretta Lynn, and Kitty Wells) in 1989.
The British trade paper-New Musical Express Award for Best Female Vocalist for 5 years (1961-1965)
Aztec Award in Mexico as "Outstanding Foreign Female Artist.
Has received 5 Edison Awards from Holland. The Edison Award is equivalent to the Grammy Award. Brenda has won more than any other person.
Held the title of "Most Programmed Female Vocalist" for 5 consecutive years according to Billboard and 3 consecutive years according to Cashbox.
NARM (National Association of Record Merchandisers) Awards:
• 1960 - Most Promising Female Vocalist • 1962 - Best Selling Female Vocalist • 1963 - Best Selling Female Vocalist • 1963 - Top Female Vocalist on Singles
Other Notable Awards:
• Cashbox 1962 - Top Female Vocalist • Music Reporter 1962 - Leading Female Vocalist • Gold Star Award • Melody Maker's #1 Female Vocalist (U.K.) • Record Mirror of Great Britain - World's #1 Female Vocalist for 4 consecutive years
Has sold over 100 million records. Brenda has sold more records than any other woman in the history of recorded music.
• Gold Records include:
- Sweet Nothins
- I'm Sorry ("I'm Sorry" has sold in excess of 15 million worldwide.)
- That's All You Gotta Do
- I Want To Be Wanted
- Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree ("Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" has sold over 7 million.)
- Break It To Me Gently
- All Alone Am I
- Losing You
- Dum Dum
- Coming On Strong
- Johnny One Time
- As Usual
- Fool # 1
- Too Many Rivers
- Heart In Hand
- Here Comes That Feelin'
- The Crying Game
- Big Four Poster Bed
- Broken Trust
- Jingle Bell Rock
- Nobody Wins
- Tell Me What It's Like
- Is It True
- Speak To Me Pretty
- The Cowgirl And The Dandy
- One Rainy Night In Tokyo (Japan)
- If You Love Me (Japan)
• All of Brenda's Decca albums reached gold status.
• Gold and Platinum Albums
• Gold Album - "16 Classic Tracks" (U.K.) • Gold and Platinum Albums - "The Very Best of Brenda Lee" (U.K.) • Triple Gold Album - "Little Miss Dynamite" (U.K., Holland, Germany) • Gold Album - "The Early Years" (U.K.) • Gold Album - k.d. lang Album, "Shadowland" (Honky Tonk Angels' Medley)
• More double-sided hits than any other woman in pop music.
• Charted in more categories (including Pop/Rock, Rock, Easy Listening and Country) than any other female in the history of recorded music.
• Brenda made a Royal Command Performance before Queen Elizabeth II of England on November 2, 1964. She sang "All the Way."
• Inducted into the Georgia Hall of Fame on September 23, 1982 and received a Georgy.
• Received the prestigious Governor's Award on September 6, 1984 at Vanderbilt Plaza Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee. This award is from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). Only 4 other artists had received this award before Brenda over a 20 year history of NARAS. The other award winners were: Wesley Rose, Bill Williams, Roy Acuff, and Kitty Wells. This award is given to a person who had made a contribution to the recording industry that merits recognition surpassing all other traditional awards and honors. The evening was titled appropriately "A Tribute to a Legend." The ceremonies were attended by family, friends, fans, music industry executives, and performers in country music. Each came to say "Thanks Brenda for what you have done for the entire music world and for Nashville in particular."
Mayor Richard Fulton declared it Brenda Lee Day in Nashville, Tennessee. Governor Lamar Alexander proclaimed it Brenda Lee Day in the State of Tennessee. Brenda moved the audience to tears with an emotional speech following the accolades of the evening.
At the end of the speech the audience rose to give her a standing ovation. The last standing ovation occurred when the show was closed with Brenda singing an incredibly emotional 18 song medley with Owen Bradley at piano.
• October 3, 1987 was declared Brenda Lee Day in Lithonia, Georgia. A street, Brenda Lee Lane, was named in her honor. Festivities included a parade with Brenda as Grand Marshall, the presentation of the street sign, declaration of Brenda Lee Day in Lithonia, and a reunion with the TV Wranglers.
• In 1990, a miniature rose was named for Brenda by the American Rose Society. The rose is yellow with pink or red edges and is smaller than other miniature roses.
• In 1977 Newsweek named the Top 20 artists of the past 20 years. Brenda was #7 behind Elvis, Beatles, Fats Domino and Rick Nelson but ahead of Connie Francis. She was also named as one of 5 American artists who best survived the coming of the Beatles and the British invasion in the 60s.
• In 1989 Brenda was nominated for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
• Most Consecutive Top Ten Hits - #9 All Time (males & females). The only 2 females ahead of Brenda are Madonna and Whitney Houston.
• Most Charted Singles - #21 All Time (males & females). The only 3 females ahead of Brenda are Aretha Franklin, Connie Francis and Dionne Warwick.
• For the entire decade of the 1960s, Brenda is the Top Female Charted Act and 4th overall behind Elvis, the Beatles, and Ray Charles. Brenda is #27 which includes all acts since the beginning of the Billboard charts in 1955 according to Joel Whitburn's "Top Pop Singles 1955-1990" based on the Billboard charts.
• Brenda has appeared on virtually every major TV show in the United States and in foreign countries.
• On September 23, 1997, Brenda was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. She is the first of the baby-boomers and the youngest person to ever be presented this prestigious honor.
Brenda was on the Country Music Association's (CMA) Board of Directors for 8 years and is presently on the Board of Governors for the Nashville Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Science (NARAS).
Brenda has done charity work for practically every charitable organization including the Kidney Foundation, American Heart Association, American Lung Society, American Cancer Society, Dreammakers, Leukemia Society, Multiple Sclerosis, Cerebral Palsy, March of Dimes and YWCA for Abused Women.
May 21, 1996 marked Brenda's 40th anniversary as a recording artist and 1990 marked Brenda's 40th anniversary in show business. Brenda still lives in Nashville with her husband, Ronnie and continues to tour and perform to sell-out audiences all over the world.
Robert K. Oermann said in the Nashville Gazette: "They ought to erect a monument to her on Music Row." The late John Lennon said of Brenda: "She has the greatest rock and roll voice of them all." Anyone familiar with Brenda's music would agree with the following quote:
"Millions of people around the world have experienced the distinctively powerful and high spirited voice and warm personality of the living legend...Brenda Lee. Whether on record or in person, she touches the emotions in people."*
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