100 Greatest Women, #17: Brenda Lee

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June 13, 2008

100 Greatest Women

#17

Brenda Lee

She was the rockabilly superstar that Music City had dreamed would come along, a pioneer who made the fusion of early rock and country commercially viable. She made timeless records while still in her early teens, and matured into a mainstream country singer later in her career. Today, she is a legend to both country and rock audiences, one of the few artists who can be found in both the Country Music and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Not bad for a poor Georgia girl who started singing professionally to help her widowed mother pay the bills. Brenda Lee was born Brenda Mae Tarpley, and she was singing from the time she could walk. As a toddler, she could hear a song twice on the radio and be able to sing it back, word for word. Even at age six, she was a prodigious talent, and was already appearing on local television shows in Atlanta. What was a cute hobby became a financial necessity in 1953, when her father was killed in a construction accident.

Brenda and her mother slipped into poverty, along with her three other siblings. She was able to make more money singing than anything her mother could do, so she would perform every weekend all around Georgia. Red Foley discovered Lee in early 1956, and asked her to appear on Ozark Jubilee. Her biggest musical influence was Hank Williams, so she performed “Jumbalaya.” The wild response the performance received led to guest spots on several other network shows, and the exposure earned her a deal with Decca Records.

She was only eleven when she went into a Nashville studio for the first time, but she wasn’t intimidated by anyone, not even her powerful producer Owen Bradley. She picked up on a wrong note that the bass player hit, and demanded the record be played back when she was patronizingly told she was mistaken. She wasn’t. “Jambalaya” was her first official single in America, and it sold well. A series of rockabilly records followed that earned fans on rock and country radio, in America and over in England as well.

One of those singles, “Dynamite”, earned her the moniker Little Miss Dynamite. She toured the country with other rock and country stars of the day, everyone from Elvis Presley to Carl Perkins. As the sixties came around, a teenage Brenda Lee was one of the biggest music stars on the planet. She topped the charts with huge hits like “I’m Sorry,” “I Want to Be Wanted” and the Mel Tillis-penned “Emotions.” Her Christmas single, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, was a smash and would become a perennial seasonal classic.

Lee did all of this while maintaining as normal a life as possible for a teenage superstar. She attended high school, where she excelled in studies and was on the cheerleading team, debate team and the school newspaper. Meanwhile, her popularity also exploded in England, where the French people believed her to be a forty-year old midget, not able to comprehend such a sultry adult voice coming from a teenager who looked like a child. When she toured Germany, her opening act was The Beatles. She was mobbed by thousands of fans in Australia, and she headlined a sold-out tour across Japan.

By the mid-sixties, she was the biggest selling female artist in history. Her rockabilly records were pioneering, but her throaty Nashville Sound ballads made her a top-tier record seller. She ended the decade as the third-biggest chart act of the sixties, behind only The Beatles and Elvis Presley.

While in the whirlwind of her fame, she remained grounded, marrying at twenty-one and contentedly starting a family in her Nashville home. When the pop hits started to run dry, she fully embraced the country market that she’d originally started out in, and she had a series of huge hits in the late sixties and throughout the seventies on the country charts. Even in 1980, she was still racking up top ten country hits.

By that time, her influence was undeniable. Female artists as diverse as Dolly Parton and Stevie Nicks cited her as a major influence. Her timeless Nashville sound recordings earned her induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997, and her rockabilly classics stamped her ticket to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame only five years later, in 2002. Today, Lee is still performing across the globe, with six decades of professional performing under her belt.

Brenda Lee

Essential Singles

  • “Sweet Nothin’s,” 1960
  • “I’m Sorry,” 1960
  • “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” 1960
  • “Emotions,” 1961
  • “Nobody Wins,” 1973
  • “Big Four Poster Bed,” 1974

Essential Albums

  • Brenda Lee, 1960
  • This is…Brenda, 1960
  • Emotions, 1961
  • Miss Dynamite, 1961
  • Too Many Rivers, 1965

Industry Awards

  • Country Music Hall of Fame, 1997
  • Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2002

==> #16. Shania Twain

<== #18. Cindy Walker

100 Greatest Women: The Complete List

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5 Comments

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  1. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar says:

    I couldn’t agree more Kevin, She is a legendary singer and an even better person.

    The list of essential Brenda Lee songs is endless: “Break It To Me Gently” , “You Were Always On My Mind” , “All Alone Am I” . While I regard her more as a pop singer than a country singer, her credentials in both realms are impeccible and she has long served as a positive force in the world of music and the world at large I cannot think of any controversy that has ever attached itself to her name. When you say “Brenda Lee” only positive thoughts and feelings arise

  2. JarheadDadNo Gravatar says:

    Aw, Brenda Lee was just a Nashville product robot singing other people’s songs! Mass produced to appeal to the masses. Just stood there on stage and sang. HA!

    Juuuuuuuuust kiddin’! he-he!

    I heart me some Brenda Lee boy. Man, dancing to her music at the sock hops and gettin’ my first kiss behind the gym with her singing in the background. Whew! There’s a memory lane moment for you!

    Overshare! :-o

    What a truly remarkable woman. I wondered where she’d come in on the list. I bet I still have her 45s somewhere in a box in the attic! And I will admit I had somewhat of a crush on Brenda when I was a youngster!!! :-)

  3. daveNo Gravatar says:

    If you all are ever in Nashville i hear the new Brenda Lee Dynamite Exhibit is worth seeing. Check It out at the country music hall of fame and museum. But yes Brenda Lee rocks

  4. TomNo Gravatar says:

    Brenda Lee is no doubt a nice lady and an important singer, certainly one of the greatest names in pop music, but you are overstating her importance to country music. She was a pop singer when she had four of the six essential singles you list and those songs were not released to country radio nor did they chart country. Brenda was not a country singer until the 1970′s and then her success was somewhat modest with only an occasional top ten record. If you are going count Brenda’s pop success as country why haven’t you done the same for Patti Page who you don’t list at all who had a very similar career? Brenda deserves to be on the list but certainly not in the top 20 given her biggest country hit peaked at #4.

  5. JackNo Gravatar says:

    Great post. I just wanted to say thanks for your efforts!

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