Sunday, January 5, 2014

Brenda Lee, The #55 Female Artist of the Rock Era

She was born in Atlanta, Georgia under the birth name Brenda Mae Tarpley.  She grew up in a poor family and went to grade schools wherever her father could find work.  She shared a bed with two siblings in a house without running water, and she sang solos in church every Sunday.  Brenda won a local singing contest at age six, and was rewarded with a live appearance on the Atlanta radio program, Starmakers Revue, where she performed for the next year.  

Brenda's father died when she was 10, at which time she was the primary earner of the family from her appearances at events and on radio and television shows in the area.  In 1955, an Augusta, Georgia disc jockey persuaded Red Foley to listen to Brenda sing before his concert there.  Foley was just as impressed with Brenda as everyone else who heard the booming voice come from the tiny girl (4 ft. 9 inches tall), and brought Brenda onstage with him that night to sing "Jambalaya" unrehearsed. 

Foley didn't leave the stage after introducing her, his eyes transfixed on this great future talent.  The audience erupted in applause, refusing to let Brenda leave the stage until she had sung three more songs.  

Brenda made her network debut on the television program Ozark Jubilee in 1956 and less than two months later, signed a recording contract with Decca Records, at the tender age of 11.  Neither of her 1956 releases made the chart, but "One Step At A Time" was a minor Country hit the following year.  

Brenda's next single, "Dynamite", was not a hit either, but it led to her lifetime nickname of Little Miss Dynamite.  Brenda's first big hit was a Christmas song that, over 50 years later, has become a Christmas standard.

"Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" reached #6 in the U.K. and #14 in the U.S. and has now sold over five million copies.  In 1959, Brenda released her self-titled album, and keep in mind that Lee was still only 14 years old.  "Sweet Nothin's" became one of Brenda's biggest career hits, peaking at an identical #4 in the U.S. and the U.K.  The song also hit the Top 15 on the R&B charts, showing her broad appeal.

The next release was a song that would become her signature hit.  "I'm Sorry" caught the world by storm, hitting #1 for three weeks in 1960 and selling over one million copies.

Lee was just beginning a roll that would include 10 Top 10 songs in 17 releases.  "That's All You Gotta' Do" reached #6.

In 1960, she released the album This Is...Brenda Lee.  That album contained the only #1 song of Brenda's career--"I Want To Be Wanted".

The title cut from Brenda's 1961 album Emotions continued the hot streak, not stopping until it reached #7.

"You Can Depend On Me" gave Brenda her fifth straight Top 10 song at the age of 16.

1961 was a great year for Brenda.  Here's one of four Top 10's she enjoyed that year--the #4 song "Dum Dum".

Lee finished the year with another of her biggest career hits, "Fool No. 1".

In 1962, Brenda released her sixth album, ...Let Me Sing, and man, did she.  This is arguably her most outstanding vocal performance:  "Break It To Me Gently".

That song hit #4, then "Everybody Loves Me But You" (#6) became her 10th Top 10 in the U.S. in just three years.

Brenda hit #3 overall and #1 on the Easy Listening chart with this smash in 1962.

As amazing as her run had been, Brenda hit the Top 10 just one more time.  Here she is from 1963 with "Losing You".

You would think a superstar such as this would keep on rolling.  But music was changing, and four people from Liverpool were about to cross the Atlantic to change music forever.  It is incredibly ironic that her opening act on a U.K. tour in the early 60's was a little-known group at the time by the name of the Beatles.  Brenda was one of countless singers affected by the Beatles and what became known as the British Invasion.  The stars of the 50's and early 60's were instantaneously out of style.    Lee released 60 singles after "Losing You", but would never find the Top 10 again.

Lee did find success on the Country chart, but unfortunately, she was out of the mainstream.  Still, Lee's 37 U.S. hits in the 1960's were surpassed only by Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Ray Charles and Connie Francis.

She released her autobiography, Brenda Lee:  Little Miss Dynamite, in 2002.  Brenda was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.  In 2006, Lee was honored by the Source Foundation in Nashville with the Jo Meador-Walker Lifetime Achievement award celebrating over 50 years as a recording artist.  Brenda is also a member of the Hit Parade Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.  In 2009, she won her first Grammy Award, a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.

Lee continues to perform and tour today.    

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