“When I saw her perform, I was just stunned. I don’t think I had ever heard anything like it. Brenda Lee is in the top three female rock & roll singers of all time: her, Janis Joplin and Tina Turner.”
“Brenda is one of the greatest entertainers ever. “But I think I like her mostly because she’s the only person I know that I’m taller than.”
“The greatest rock & roll voice of them all.”
Her story is like a fairy tale come true. Brenda Lee (Brenda Mae Tarpley), was born in the charity ward of Atlanta’s Grady Memorial hospital.
Born into dire poverty, as a child, she shared a bed with her brother and sister in a series of three-room houses without running water. Life centered around her parents finding work, their family, and the Baptist church, where she began singing solos every Sunday.
She was singing on Atlanta radio at age six. She was the musical breadwinner for her family at age eight. When she was ten, she had her own record shop and radio show.
As Popular As Anyone.
She was the toast of Europe and a sensation in Latin America when she was fourteen. At age fifteen, she had become the hottest female vocalist in America.
Although Lee rarely gets mentioned in the same breath as artists like Elvis, Johnny Cash or Muddy Waters, in her prime, she was as popular as any of them. In the Sixties, she was the third-most successful chart artist, only Elvis and the Beatles out charted her. She has sold more than 100 million records worldwide throughout her career.
More significantly, Brenda Lee pioneered and defined the female rockabilly style. She fronted Nashville’s first rock & roll band. She was the first truly global rock star, recording in seven languages and touring five continents at a time when hardly anyone else was courting an international audience.
Her childhood favorites were Mahalia Jackson and Hank Williams. By age three, she had a fully developed style – Lee never sang in a wobbly pitched, little-kid voice; she delivered songs with an open- throated, listen-world belt.
Lee was a musical prodigy. Though her family did not have indoor plumbing until after her father’s death, they had a battery-powered table radio that fascinated Brenda as a baby. Both her mother and sister remembered taking her repeatedly to a local candy store before she turned three. One of them would stand her on the counter and she would earn candy or coins for singing
After thinking she was a midget because of her diminutive size and explosive vocals, the French called her the Explosive Girl.
At 4 ft 9 inches tall, she also received the nickname “Little Miss Dynamite” in 1957, after recording the song “Dynamite” when she was 12, and was one of the earliest pop stars to have a major contemporary international following.
The One. The Only.
She is a member of the Rock and Roll, Country Music and Rockabilly Halls of Fame. She is also a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award recipient. Lee is the only woman to be inducted into both the Rock and Roll and Country Music Halls of Fame. That’s right folks, the one and only!
Vegas’ Youngest Headliner. Ever.
At age 12. Think about it. Age 12.
The Fab Four Opened for Her
John, Paul, George and Ringo, those crazy kids called the Beatles got to know Brenda when they opened for her at Hamburg’s Star Club.
Lee was headlining the now legendary German club in the early Sixties when she was taken by the look and sound of her support act. It was The Beatles, and John Lennon became her favorite. You know from the quote above how John felt about Brenda.
When back in the United States, she took a Beatles picture and a tape to Decca Records, which was her record company. Brenda says it went like this, “Would you take a listen to this? I think it’s really, really good. They listened and looked at the picture, they said this look will never happen here, nor will this sound.” Less than a year later “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was introduced to the world and the world of music would change. Forever. Bad call Decca dudes.
”John Lennon was very irreverent and very intelligent.”
Her maturity and feistiness came out in the studio as well. In the excellent book by Mary A. Bufwack and Robert K. Oermann, Finding Her Voice: Women in Country Music, 1800-2000, Brenda is quoted as saying; “I think I was kind of outspoken as a youngster about how I wanted to sound and how I wanted things done when I was singing. It might have come off just a little bit bratty, I’m sure. In the first session that I did, we had finished and were listening to the cuts, and I said “The bass player hit a wrong note”.
Owen Bradley (Legendary Producer of Patsy Cline, Loretta and others) asked “What do you mean?” and I said “Play it back and hear the wrong note.” Nobody believed me, but we played it back, and he did.” Right on. In the book there’s another story concerning Decca A&R man, Paul Cohen, using baby talk with Brenda in a recording session. She looked him square in the eye and said “Well goo goo!”.
Still KIcking it in Nashville.
According to Rolling Stone Magaazine, “Lee’s hits became favorites of Elvis and helped lay the foundation for an entire generation of cosmopolitan Nashville country. Her music continues to leave its mark in surprising ways. Last year, Alison Krauss covered two of Lee’s songs on her Top Ten album, Windy City. Lee inspired both Kanye West, who sampled Lee’s iconic “uh-huh honey” introduction on “Sweet Nothin’s” for his 2013 hit “Bound 2,” as well as Taylor Swift, who has covered “I’m Sorry” and wrote an essay in which she called Lee – one of her earliest idols – “The singer who mastered the sound of heartbreak.”
She Cast a Large Shadow
No Brenda Lee
No Taylor Swift Country/Pop Goddess
No Gwen/Pink/Joan Jett/Chrisse Hynde/Janis yada-yada
No Shania Twain/Martina McBride/Miranda Lamert/Reba
Perhaps No Beatles!
She Rose From Out of The Depths
“For a lot of us rural Southerners, like Little Richard and me, we somehow knew, even at our age, that this was our way out,” she says. “This was the way we could make life better for everybody around us, for our family.” She goes on to offer a rather fitting definition of rock & roll: “It’s not an intellectual feeling. It was just a gut feeling that you know that things are not supposed to be quite the way they are, and that this might be the catalyst that gets you out. I didn’t think of it that way until I got old enough to look back and see how hard we had it. I call it that gut thing that comes out, a feeling coming from your toes that just says, ‘OK, this is it.’”
“Crocodile Rock is dedicated to Brenda Lee”
“I can’t remember a time when I wanted to be a singer, because I’ve always been one.”