Brenda Lee

From Wikipedia the free encyclopedia

Brenda Lee
Lee in 1965
Lee in 1965
Background information
Birth nameBrenda Mae Tarpley
Born (1944-12-11) December 11, 1944 (age 79)
Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.
Years active1951–present[1]
Ronnie Shacklett
(m. 1963)

Brenda Mae Tarpley (born December 11, 1944),[2] known professionally as Brenda Lee, is an American singer. Primarily performing rockabilly, pop, country and Christmas music, she achieved her first Billboard hit aged 12 in 1957 and was given the nickname "Little Miss Dynamite". Some of Lee's most successful songs include "Sweet Nothin's", "I'm Sorry", "I Want to Be Wanted", "Speak to Me Pretty", "All Alone Am I" and "Losing You". Her festive song "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree", recorded in 1958, topped the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in 2023, making Lee the oldest artist ever to top the chart and breaking several chart records.[3]

Having sold over 100 million records globally, Lee is one of the most successful American artists of the 20th century. Her U.S. success in the 1960s earned her recognition as Billboard's Top Female Artist of the Decade and one of the four artists who charted the most singles, behind Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Ray Charles. Her accolades include a Grammy Award, four NARM Awards, three NME Awards and five Edison Awards.[4] She is the first woman to be inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. In 2023, she was named by Rolling Stone as one of the greatest singers of all time.[5]

Early life and education[edit]

Brenda Mae Tarpley was born on December 11, 1944,[2] in the charity ward of Grady Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, to parents Annie Grayce (née Yarbrough; 1921–2006) and Ruben Lindsey Tarpley (1909–1953).[6][7] She weighed 4 pounds 11 ounces at birth. Lee attended grade schools wherever her father found work, primarily between Atlanta and Augusta. Her family was poor. As a child, she shared a bed with her brother and sister in a series of three-room houses without running water. Life centered on her parents finding work, their family, and the Baptist church, where she began singing solos every Sunday.[2][8]

Lee's father was a farmer's son in Georgia's red-clay belt.[9] Standing 5 ft 7 in (170 cm), he was an excellent left-handed pitcher and played baseball while serving for 11 years in the United States Army. Her mother came from a working class family in Greene County, Georgia.[citation needed]

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.[2] 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.[citation needed]


Lee with Elvis Presley in 1957

Child performer[edit]

Lee's voice, face and stage presence won her wider attention from a young age. At age five, she won first place at her school's talent show contest, where she sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game". Her performance generated positive reviews, leading her to make regular appearances on local radio and television shows.[10]

Her father died in 1953 (when she was 8 years old) in a construction accident, and by the time she turned ten, she was the primary breadwinner of her family through singing at events and on local radio and television shows.[11] During that time, she appeared regularly on the country music show TV Ranch on WAGA-TV in Atlanta; she was so short, the host would lower a stand microphone as low as it would go and stand her up on a wooden crate to reach it. In 1955, Grayce Tarpley was remarried to Buell "Jay" Rainwater, who moved the family to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he worked at the Jimmie Skinner Music Center. Lee performed with Skinner at the record shop on two Saturday programs broadcast over Newport, Kentucky, radio station WNOP. The family soon returned to Georgia, but this time to Augusta, and Lee appeared on the show The Peach Blossom Special on WJAT-AM in Swainsboro.[12]

National exposure and stardom[edit]

Lee's breakthrough came in February 1955, when she turned down $30 ($334 in 2022 value[13]) to appear on a Swainsboro radio station to see Red Foley and a touring promotional unit of his ABC-TV program Ozark Jubilee in Augusta. An Augusta disc jockey persuaded Foley to hear her sing before the show. Foley did and agreed to let her perform "Jambalaya" on stage that night, unrehearsed. Foley later recounted the moments following her introduction:

I still get cold chills thinking about the first time I heard that voice. One foot started patting rhythm as though she was stomping out a prairie fire but not another muscle in that little body even as much as twitched. And when she did that trick of breaking her voice, it jarred me out of my trance enough to realize I'd forgotten to get off the stage. There I stood, after 26 years of supposedly learning how to conduct myself in front of an audience, with my mouth open two miles wide and a glassy stare in my eyes.[This quote needs a citation]

On March 31, 1955, the 10-year-old made her network debut on Ozark Jubilee in Springfield, Missouri. Although her five-year contract with the show was broken by a 1957 lawsuit brought by her mother and her manager,[14] she nevertheless made regular appearances on the program throughout its run.

Less than two months later, on July 30, 1956, Decca Records offered her a contract, and her first record was "Jambalaya", backed with "Bigelow 6-200". Lee's second single featured two novelty Christmas tunes: "I'm Gonna Lasso Santa Claus", and "Christy Christmas". Though she turned 12 on December 11, 1956, both of the first two Decca singles credit her as "Little Brenda Lee (9 Years Old)".[15]

Neither of the 1956 releases charted, but her first issue in 1957, "One Step at a Time", written by Hugh Ashley, became a hit in both the pop and country fields. Her next hit, "Dynamite", coming out of a 4-foot 9-inch frame, led to her lifelong nickname, Little Miss Dynamite.[2]

Lee first attracted attention performing in country music venues and shows; however, her label and management felt it best to market her exclusively as a pop artist, the result being that none of her best-known recordings from the 1960s were released to country radio, and despite her country sound, with top Nashville session people, she did not have another country hit until 1969 with "Johnny One Time".[citation needed]

Biggest successes: 1958–1966[edit]

Lee presented with a Gold record for "I'm Sorry", cover of Cash Box, August 27, 1960

Lee achieved her biggest success on the pop charts in the late 1950s through the mid-1960s with rockabilly and rock and roll-styled songs.[16] Her biggest hits included "Jambalaya", "Sweet Nothin's" (No. 4, written by country musician Ronnie Self), "I Want to Be Wanted" (No. 1), "All Alone Am I" (No. 3) and "Fool #1" (No. 3). She had more hits with the more pop-based songs "That's All You Gotta Do" (No. 6), "Emotions" (No. 7), "You Can Depend on Me" (No. 6), "Dum Dum" (No. 4), 1962's "Break It to Me Gently" (No. 2), "Everybody Loves Me But You" (No. 6), and "As Usual" (No. 12). Lee's total of nine consecutive top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hits from "That's All You Gotta Do" in 1960 through "All Alone Am I" in 1962 set a record for a female solo artist that was not equaled until 1986 by Madonna.[citation needed]

The biggest-selling track of Lee's career was a Christmas song. In 1958, when she was 13, producer Owen Bradley asked her to record a new song by Johnny Marks, who had had success writing Christmas tunes for country singers, most notably "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (Gene Autry) and "A Holly Jolly Christmas" (Burl Ives). Lee recorded the song, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree", in July with a prominent twanging guitar part by Hank Garland and raucous sax soloing by Nashville icon Boots Randolph. Decca released it as a single that November, but it sold only 5,000 copies, and did not do much better when it was released again in 1959.[17] However, over subsequent years, it eventually sold more than five million copies. Since 2017, the song has appeared at the end of each year on the Billboard Hot 100, having spent (as of December 9, 2023) 54 weeks on the Hot 100, peaking at number 1 in 2023.

Billboard ad for "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree", November 21, 1960

In 1960, Lee recorded her signature song, "I'm Sorry", however, the record initially was withheld for months before its release due to concern that the 15-year-old Lee would not understand what she was singing about in the love song. The song became one of the biggest hits of 1960, reaching the #1 chart position in the U.S. and #12 in the U.K.[18][19] It was her first gold single and was nominated for a Grammy Award.[citation needed] Even though it was not released as a country song, it was among the first big hits to use what was to become the Nashville sound – a string orchestra and legato harmonized background vocals. "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" was finally noticed in its third release a few months later, and sales snowballed; the song remains a perennial favorite each December and is the record with which she is most identified by contemporary audiences.[citation needed]

Her last top ten single on the pop charts in the United States (besides the reappearance each November–December since 2017 of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree") was 1963's "Losing You" (No. 6).

In 1964, "As Usual" reached No. 12 in the US and No. 5 in the UK and "Coming on Strong" peaked at No. 11 in the US.[citation needed] Also in 1964, "Is It True" peaked at No. 17 in both the US and the UK. Featuring Big Jim Sullivan (guitar), Jimmy Page (guitar) and Bobby Graham (drums), it was her only hit single recorded in London, England, and was produced by Mickie Most. The slide guitar and background singers were overdubbed in Nashville. It was recorded at Decca Records' number two studio at their West Hampstead complex, as was the UK B-side, a version of Ray Charles' 1959 classic cut, "What'd I Say?", which was not released in North America.[citation needed] "Is It True" was composed by noted British songwriting team Ken Lewis and John Carter, who were also members of UK hitmakers the Ivy League.[citation needed]

International fame[edit]

Brenda Lee at the Granada, Sutton, April 1962

Lee was popular in the UK from early in her career. She performed on television in the UK in 1959, before she had achieved much pop recognition in the United States. Her first hit single in the UK was "Sweet Nothin's", which reached No. 4 on the UK singles chart in the spring of 1960. She subsequently had a UK hit (in 1961) with "Let's Jump the Broomstick", a rockabilly number recorded in 1959, which had not charted in the United States, but reached No. 12 in the UK.[1]

Lee had two Top Ten hits in the UK that were not released as singles in her native country: the first, "Speak to Me Pretty" peaked at No. 3 in May 1962 and was her greatest hit in the UK by chart placing, swiftly followed by "Here Comes That Feeling", which reached No. 5 in the summer of 1962. The latter was issued as the B-side to "Everybody Loves Me But You" in the United States (which peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100); however, "Here Comes That Feeling" also made an appearance in the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 89, despite its B-side status in the US.[citation needed]

In 1962, while touring West Germany, Lee appeared at the Star-Club, Hamburg, with the Beatles as the opening act.[1] Lee also had big hits in the UK with "All Alone Am I" (No. 7 in 1963) and "As Usual" (No. 5 in 1964).[citation needed]

Lee first visited England for three days in April 1959 as a last-minute replacement on Oh Boy!. She first toured the UK in March and April 1962 with Gene Vincent and Sounds Incorporated (as her backing group), and she toured the country for a second time in March 1963, this time supported by the Bachelors, Sounds Incorporated, Tony Sheridan, and Mike Berry.[citation needed]

Lee also toured in Ireland in 1963 and appeared on the front cover of the Irish dancing and entertainment magazine Spotlight in April that year.[citation needed]

After appearing at the annual Royal Variety Performance before Queen Elizabeth II at the London Palladium on November 2, 1964, Lee toured Britain again in November and December 1964, supported by (amongst others) Manfred Mann, Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, the John Barry Seven, Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders, Marty Wilde, the Tornados and Heinz Burt.[citation needed]


Lee in 1977

During the early 1970s, Lee re-established herself as a country music artist. In a 1996 memoir, television producer Sam Lovullo stated that Lee's 1972 appearance on his variety show Hee Haw had been instrumental to her comeback.[20] Lee earned a string of top ten hits in the United States on the country charts, the first of which was 1973's "Nobody Wins", which reached the top five that spring and became her last Top 100 pop hit, peaking at No. 70. The follow-up, the Mark James composition "Sunday Sunrise", reached No. 6 on Billboard magazine's Hot Country Singles chart that October. Other major hits included "Wrong Ideas" and "Big Four Poster Bed" (1974); and "Rock on Baby" and "He's My Rock" (both 1975).

After a few years of lesser hits, Lee began another run at the top ten with 1979's "Tell Me What It's Like". Two follow-ups also reached the Top 10 in 1980: "The Cowgirl and the Dandy" and "Broken Trust" (the latter featuring vocal backing by the Oak Ridge Boys). A 1982 album, The Winning Hand, featuring Lee along with Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, was a surprise hit, reaching the top ten on the U.S. country albums chart. Her last well-known hit was 1984's "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" in duet with George Jones (Lee sang this song individually before and released it in 1960 on This Is...Brenda). In 1992, Lee recorded a duet ("You'll Never Know") with Willy DeVille on his album Loup Garou.[21]

2000–2016: Autobiography and Country Music Hall of Fame[edit]

Lee's autobiography, Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee, was published by Hyperion in 2002 (ISBN 0-7868-6644-6).[2]

Lee's most recent album release was a gospel collection in 2007. She no longer tours and rarely performs. Since the millennium, she has been involved with her work for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. On October 4, 2000, Lee inducted fellow country music legends Faron Young and Charley Pride into the Country Music Hall of Fame.[citation needed] Lee is often called upon to announce the annual inductees to the Country Music Hall of Fame and then officially present them with their membership medallions at a special ceremony every year. The most recent inductees announced by Lee were Randy Travis, Charlie Daniels and Fred Foster in 2016.[21]

2019–present: "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" 65th anniversary[edit]

Since Billboard modified its recurrent rules in 2012, Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" has regularly returned to the Billboard Hot 100 since 2015.[22] On the Hot 100 chart dated December 21, 2019, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" reached a new peak of #3 in the United States with 37.1 million streams and 5,000 digital sales sold.[23] The following week it moved up to #2,[24] where it remained for a second week.[24] From 2019 to 2022, the song has re-peaked at #2, blocked from the top position by Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You".[25]

In November 2023, to celebrate the song's 65th anniversary, Lee released a music video featuring her lip-synching to the original recording at a house party with Tanya Tucker and Trisha Yearwood.[26] Lee has also joined social media platform TikTok to promote the song, where she posts videos reminiscing about her song's history and success.[27]

On the Billboard Hot 100 chart dated December 9, 2023, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" topped the Hot 100 for the first time in the United States becoming Lee's third #1 hit and first since her 1960 single, "I Want to Be Wanted". At 78, Lee became the oldest female artist and oldest artist overall to top the Hot 100, feats formerly held by Cher and Louis Armstrong, respectively.[28] The week following, she held the number one spot, which also meant she surpassed her own age record, having turned 79 during the week ending December 16, 2023.[29] Following two few weeks off number one, on the week ending January 6, 2024, she returned to number one for an additional week.[30]

Legacy and recognition[edit]

On September 26, 1986, Lee was installed in the Atlanta Music Hall of Fame 5th Annual Awards Ceremony held at the Raddison Inn, Atlanta, Georgia. She was named among many other recording artists including: Riley Puckett, Gid Tanner, Dan Hornsby, Clayton McMichen, and Boots Woodall. Lee reached the final ballot for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 and 2001 without being inducted, but was finally voted into the Hall of Fame in 2002.[31][32]

Celebrating over 50 years as a recording artist, in September 2006 she was the second recipient of the Jo Meador-Walker Lifetime Achievement award by the Source Foundation in Nashville.[33] In 1997, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame[34] and is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame[4] and the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.[35]

In 2008, her recording of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" marked 50 years as a holiday standard, and in February 2009 the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences gave Lee a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award.[36]

In 2023, Rolling Stone ranked Lee at number 161 on its list of the 200 Greatest Singers of All Time.[5]

Grammy Awards[edit]

The Grammy Awards is an accolade by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) of the United States to recognize outstanding achievement in the music industry. It shares recognition of the music industry as that of the other performance arts: Emmy Awards (television), the Tony Awards (stage performance), and the Academy Awards (motion pictures).

Year Category Nominated work Result
1961 Best Female Pop Vocal Performance "I'm Sorry" Nominated
1970 "Johnny One Time" Nominated
1980 Best Female Country Vocal Performance "Tell Me What It's Like" Nominated
1999 Grammy Hall of Fame "I'm Sorry" Inducted
2009 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award Brenda Lee Won
2019 Grammy Hall of Fame "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" Inducted

Personal life[edit]

Lee met Charles Ronald "Ronnie" Shacklett in November 1962, at a concert by Bo Diddley and Jackie Wilson hosted at Nashville's Fairgrounds Coliseum. They married less than six months later, on April 24, 1963.[37][38] Lee and Shacklett have two daughters, Jolie and Julie (named after Patsy Cline's daughter), and three grandchildren, Taylor, Jordan and Charley.[39]

Lee is the cousin-by-marriage (by way of her mother's second marriage) to singer Dave Rainwater from The New Christy Minstrels.[40]



  1. ^ a b c Bernstein, Jonathan (February 20, 2018). "Brenda Lee: Inside the Life of a Pop Heroine Next Door". Archived from the original on April 11, 2019. Retrieved December 9, 2021.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Lee, Brenda; Oermann, Robert K.; Clay, Julie (2002). Little Miss Dynamite: the life and times of Brenda Lee. Hyperion. pp. 305. ISBN 9780786866441.
  3. ^ "Brenda Lee Hits No. 1 on the Hot 100, Becoming the Oldest Artist to Ever Top the Chart". TheMessengerEntertainment. Archived from the original on December 4, 2023. Retrieved December 4, 2023.
  4. ^ a b "Brenda Lee: The Lady, The Legend". Rockabilly Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on March 4, 2016. Retrieved April 10, 2019.
  5. ^ a b "The 200 Greatest Singers of All Time". Rolling Stone. January 1, 2023. Archived from the original on March 8, 2023. Retrieved March 8, 2023.
  6. ^ "Brenda Lee Biography". PBS. Archived from the original on December 3, 2023. Retrieved December 3, 2023.
  7. ^ "Brenda Lee (b. 1944)". New Georgia Encyclopedia. Archived from the original on May 26, 2019. Retrieved August 17, 2015.
  8. ^ "Brenda Lee: Little Miss Dynamite". Archived from the original on February 8, 2017. Retrieved April 11, 2019.
  9. ^ "Brenda Lee – The Vogue". Archived from the original on December 3, 2023. Retrieved December 3, 2023.
  10. ^ "Brenda Lee". Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Archived from the original on December 3, 2023. Retrieved December 3, 2023.
  11. ^ "Brenda Lee". New Georgia Encyclopedia. Archived from the original on December 3, 2023. Retrieved December 3, 2023.
  12. ^ "Brenda Lee". Archived from the original on January 25, 2021. Retrieved December 3, 2023.
  13. ^ "Consumer Price Index Data from 1913 to 2022 | US Inflation Calculator". July 19, 2008. Archived from the original on September 22, 2021. Retrieved November 28, 2022.
  14. ^ Lee, Brenda; Oermann, Robert K.; Clay, Julie (2002), Little Miss Dynamite: the Life and Times of Brenda Lee, Hyperion, ISBN 0-7868-8558-0
  15. ^ Sexton, Paul (July 30, 2023). "Brenda Lee's 'Jambalaya': Little Miss Dynamite Debuts On The Bayou". uDiscover Music. Archived from the original on December 3, 2023. Retrieved December 3, 2023.
  16. ^ "Brenda Lee: the Lady, the Legend". Brenda Lee Productions. Archived from the original on April 14, 2009. Retrieved April 10, 2009.
  17. ^ Murrells, Joseph (1978). The Book of Golden Discs (2nd ed.). London: Barrie and Jenkins Ltd. p. 103. ISBN 0-214-20512-6.
  18. ^ hanspostcard (December 2, 2019). "Billboard #1 Hits: #32: 'I'm Sorry'- Brenda Lee- July 18, 1960". slicethelife. Archived from the original on December 3, 2023. Retrieved December 3, 2023.
  19. ^ tolsen (January 2, 2013). "Billboard Hot 100™". Billboard. Archived from the original on December 27, 2021. Retrieved December 3, 2023.
  20. ^ Lovullo, Sam; Eliot, Marc (1996). Life in the Kornfield: My 25 Years at Hee Haw. New York: The Berkley Publishing Group. ISBN 1-57297-028-6. p. 126: Brenda Lee ... faded from the charts, until Hee Haw brought her back. Her appearance on our show was the key to reestablishing her career.
  21. ^ a b "Brenda Lee announces signing with Webster Public Relations". April 11, 2017. Archived from the original on April 22, 2017. Retrieved April 21, 2017.
  22. ^ Molanphy, Chris (December 20, 2019). "Why Mariah Carey's 'All I Want for Christmas Is You' Is Finally No. 1". Slate. ISSN 1091-2339. Archived from the original on December 6, 2022. Retrieved December 2, 2023.
  23. ^ "Brenda Lee's 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree' Hits No. 3 on Hot 100". Archived from the original on March 18, 2020. Retrieved December 16, 2019.
  24. ^ a b "Top 100 Songs | Billboard Hot 100 Chart". Archived from the original on October 27, 2021. Retrieved January 5, 2020.
  25. ^ Unterberger, Andrew (November 29, 2023). "Is It Finally Brenda Lee's Year to Be 'Rockin'' Atop the Hot 100?". Billboard. Archived from the original on December 2, 2023. Retrieved December 2, 2023.
  26. ^ Hollabaugh, Lorie (November 6, 2023). "Brenda Lee's 'Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree' Celebrates Milestone With New Video". Archived from the original on November 12, 2023. Retrieved November 12, 2023.
  27. ^ Murray, Conor. "Will Brenda Lee's 'Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree' Finally Dethrone Mariah Carey On The Charts?". Forbes. Archived from the original on December 2, 2023. Retrieved December 2, 2023.
  28. ^ "Brenda Lee Hits No. 1 on the Hot 100, Becoming the Oldest Artist to Ever Top the Chart". TheMessengerEntertainment. Archived from the original on December 4, 2023. Retrieved December 4, 2023.
  29. ^ Trust, Gary (December 11, 2023). "Brenda Lee's 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree' Leads Billboard Hot 100 for Second Week". Billboard. Retrieved December 11, 2023.
  30. ^ Trust, Gary (January 2, 2024). "Brenda Lee's 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree' Jingles Back to No. 1 on Billboard Hot 100". Billboard. Retrieved January 3, 2024.
  31. ^ "Brenda Lee - Rock & Roll Hall of Fame". Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Archived from the original on December 3, 2018. Retrieved November 18, 2016.
  32. ^ "Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum | History, Facts, & Inductees". Encyclopedia Britannica. Archived from the original on October 11, 2017. Retrieved October 11, 2017.
  33. ^ "2006 - Source Nashville". Archived from the original on November 19, 2016. Retrieved November 18, 2016.
  34. ^ "Brenda Lee". Archived from the original on July 30, 2018. Retrieved November 18, 2016.
  35. ^ "Brenda Lee - Hit Parade Hall of Fame". Archived from the original on September 13, 2016. Retrieved November 18, 2016.
  36. ^ "Lifetime Achievement Award - Grammy". Archived from the original on July 2, 2015. Retrieved November 18, 2016.
  37. ^ "Here Tonight". The Nashville Tennessean. November 4, 1962. p. 13-C. Archived from the original on January 4, 2018. Retrieved January 3, 2018.
  38. ^ "Singer learned young how to rock the house". Las Vegas Review-Journal. Archived from the original on January 4, 2018. Retrieved January 3, 2018.
  39. ^ "Brenda Lee". Archived from the original on April 22, 2017. Retrieved April 21, 2017.
  40. ^ "New Christy Minstrels to raise curtain in Brownville". Omaha World-Herald. Archived from the original on April 3, 2021. Retrieved January 3, 2018.


External links[edit]