100 Greatest Women, #21: Brenda Lee

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition


Brenda Lee

2008 Edition: #17 (-4)

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.  Further honors followed, including the Cliffe Stone Pioneer Award from the Academy of Country Music in 2007 and the Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 2009.  While her studio activity has slowed down, her duets project in 2007 received a Dove Award nomination for Country Album of the Year.

Essential Singles

  • Jambalaya (On the Bayou), 1956
  • Sweet Nothin’s, 1959
  • I’m Sorry, 1960
  • I Want to Be Wanted, 1960
  • Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, 1960
  • Emotions, 1961
  • All Alone am I, 1962
  • Break it to me Gently, 1963
  • 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

  • Academy of Country Music Awards
    • Cliffe Stone Pioneer Award, 2007
  • Country Music Hall of Fame, 1997
  • Grammy Awards
    • Lifetime Achievement Award, 2009
  • Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2002

100 Greatest Women: 10th Anniversary Edition

Next: #20. Carrie Underwood

Previous: #22. Wanda Jackson


  1. My first memory of Brenda Lee was hearing “Sweet Nothings” on one of the NYC rock radio stations. I can’t recall hearing any other female country singer on a NYC station in the late 50’s or early 60’s – not even Patsy Cline – except for 2 Skeeter Davis songs, “The End of the World” and “I Can’t Stay Mad at You”. I forgot about BL for a long time until I bought “The Brenda Lee Story, Her Greatest Hits”. Besides some of the songs included under your essential singles, the 22 song collection includes favorites of mine such as “You Can Depend on Me”, “Losing You” (recently covered by Alison Krauss), “That’s All You Gotta Do” and “As Usual”.

  2. @PenaltyKillah — You are no doubt correct that Carrie, Miranda, and Lee Ann are destined for the Top 20. However, if it were my list, Brenda Lee would come out ahead of these artists, as well as a handful of others to come. Is there a music-loving person in all of the U.S. that does not know (and probably enjoy) BL’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”? As KJC mentioned in his narrative, the song has been a perennial classic for more than 50 years! Think about that! Moreover, BL has recorded at least two other classics from the 60’s — “I’m Sorry” and “All Alone Am I” — that are STILL widely recognized and loved by diverse audiences across much of the planet. I wonder what songs of Carrie, Miranda, or Lee Ann might ever meet this bar? (If you’re thinking none, that would be my guess.) Ranking some of today’s artists — as accomplished and talented as they may be — ahead of long-standing music legends such as BL, whose work has stood the test of time, simply seems unwarranted to me. Perhaps in time, but I think it’s too soon to fairly measure and put ahead their work against the recognized giants in the music industry.

    @bob — I have that album too, and it has long been one of my favorites. Timeless, beautiful songs sung to absolute perfection! I do hope that today’s generation of music lovers will find their way to discover the recordings of Brenda Lee.

  3. Doug asks ” Is there a music-loving person in all of the U.S. that does not know (and probably enjoy) BL’s ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ ?” I would say NO! (at least, if they are senior citizens like me). I still love it along with “Jingle Bell Rock” first recorded by Bobby Helms and later by Brenda Lee.

    I also would rather listen to BL than Carrie, Miranda or Lee Ann W.

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