Brenda Lee Biography

Brenda Mae Tarpley, 11 December 1944, Lithonia, Georgia, USA. Even in early adolescence, Lee had an adult husk of a voice that could slip from anguished intimacy through sleepy insinuation to raucous lust, even during ‘Let’s Jump The Broomstick’, ‘Speak To Me Pretty’ and other jaunty classics that kept her in the hit parade from the mid-50s to 1965. Through local radio and, by 1956, wider exposure on Red Foley’s Ozark Jubilee broadcasts, ‘Little Brenda Lee’ was ensured enough airplay for her first single, a revival of Hank Williams’ ‘Jambalaya’, to crack the US country chart before her Billboard Hot 100 debut with 1957’s ‘One Step At A Time’. The novelty of her extreme youth facilitated bigger triumphs for ‘Little Miss Dynamite’ with the million-selling ‘Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’ and later bouncy rockers, before the next decade brought a greater proportion of heartbreak ballads, such as ‘I’m Sorry’ and ‘Too Many Rivers’ - plus an acting role in the children’s fantasy movie The Two Little Bears. 1963 was another successful year - especially in the UK with the title song of All Alone Am I, ‘Losing You’ (a French translation), ‘I Wonder’ and ‘As Usual’ each entering the Top 20. While 1964 finished well with ‘Is It True’ and ‘Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day’, only minor hits followed.

Although she may have weathered prevailing fads, family commitments caused Lee to cut back on touring and record only intermittently after 1966’s appositely titled Bye Bye Blues. Lee resurfaced in 1971 with a huge country hit in Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Nobody Wins’; this and later recordings established her as a star of what was then one of the squarest seams of pop. When country gained a younger audience in the mid-80s, respect for its older practitioners found her guesting with Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells on k.d. lang’s Shadowland. - produced in 1988 by Owen Bradley (who had also supervised many early Lee records). In Europe, Brenda Lee remained mostly a memory - albeit a pleasing one as shown by Coast To Coast’s hit revival of ‘Let’s Jump The Broomstick’, a high UK placing for 1980’s Little Miss Dynamite greatest hits collection and Mel Smith/ Kim Wilde’s ‘Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’.

Lee is fortunate in having a large rock ‘n’ roll catalogue destined for immortality, in addition to her now high standing in the country music world. In 1993, billed as ‘the biggest-selling female star in pop history’, Brenda Lee toured the UK and played the London Palladium, headlining a nostalgia package that included Chris Montez, Len Barry and Johnny Tillotson. From her opening ‘I’m So Excited’, through to the closing ‘Rockin’ All Over The World’, she fulfilled all expectations, and won standing ovations from packed houses. In keeping with many of their packages, the Bear Family Records box set is a superb retrospective.


Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.


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