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Brenda Lee

The youngest 50s female rock’n’roller by far, 4’9” teenage sensation “Little Miss Dynamite” BRENDA LEE was quick to distance herself from rockabilly as she er… grew into a bona fide balladeer and, in turn, a 70s/80s country/gospel singer in the mold of her idol PATSY CLINE. Best remembered for at least four classic early-60s hits, `Sweet Nothin’s’, `I’m Sorry’, `Let’s Jump The Broomstick’ (not a hit on home-turf!) and the perennial `Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’, Brenda inspired other wee girls to follow in her footsteps: HELEN SHAPIRO, LULU, Lena Zavaroni, to name but a few.
Born Brenda Mae Tarpley, December 11, 1944, Lithonia, Georgia, USA, child prodigy Little Brenda Lee – as she was initially billed – was a natural singing talent and featured in a TV special, aged only 10. Almost immediately snapped up by Decca Records, in 1956, her earliest platters were not hits but exercises in bolstering her booming vocal chords. The quivering and quaking rasp of HANK WILLIAMS’ `Jambalaya’ – complete with steel guitar – was a prime example of her talent, whereas the novelty effect was on her festive follow-up, `I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus’.
1957’s `One Step At A Time’ got Brenda off the mark chart-wise when it cracked the Top 50 and, on reflection, maybe it was a saving grace that `Dynamite’ (featuring the Anita Kerr Singers) was her last hit for some time while she studied at school; the ELVIS/HOLLY-esque `Ain’t That Love’, `Rock-A-Bye Baby Blues’, `Ring-A-My-Phone’, `Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home’ and the aforementioned `Let’s Jump The Broomstick’ found no favour among discerning teenagers of the day in the years from 1957-59. An album that transferred nothing of these tracks, the jazzy GRANDMA what great songs you sang! (1959) {*4} was undecisive on the pop/rock route she should pertake.
Armed with slightly softer songs in line with the sweetie-pie 60s sounds, remembering that BRENDA LEE was still only 15!, the transatlantic Top 5 `Sweet Nothin’s’ transported her from nowhere girl to teen idol overnight. The schismatic double-A side of the sentimental `I’m Sorry’ and the screeching `That’s All You Gotta Do’ (penned by JERRY REED), were pitched as separate chart entities; the former rocketing to the top of the charts, the latter to No.6; several subsequent singles were formatted/flip-sided this way. It was hardly surprising then, that bolstered by all of the above and more, her eponymous BRENDA LEE (1960) {*8} album, raised the bar for female pop stars whilst checking in at No.5.
If rock’n’roll rebels were in no shock mode when she dropped into an “I’m Sorry”-type ballad on the chart-topping `I Want To Be Wanted’ (flipped with the uptempo `Just A Little’), BRENDA LEE served noticed that she was no flash in the pan with quick-fire Top 5 parent LP, THIS IS BRENDA (1960) {*7}. Filled to the brim with songs by FATS DOMINO (`Walking To New Orleans’ and `Blueberry Hill’), RAY CHARLES (`Hallelujah, I Love Him So’) and others from not-so-well-known scribes, a maturing Miss Tarpley had the world at her feet. Add to that her evergreen, whiter-than-white `Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’ hit in 1960 (a track she flopped with back in ’58), LEE was elated to see sales figures finally snowball – and for years to come!
Augmented by an orchestra more at home in Nashville, the title piece from EMOTIONS (1961) {*6} took her past her 16th birthday. Saddled with `I’m Learning About Love’ (#33), the Top 25 LP didn’t quite live up to its predecessors, although loyal fans looking for exciting renditions of Goffin & King’s `Will You Love Me Tomorrow’, RAY CHARLES’ `Swanee River Rock’ and the doubly-associated Hoagy Carmichael’s `Georgia On My Mind’, were only too happy to admit that Brenda could compare with the greats; pity then that the Top 10 `You Can Depend On Me’ (an old 1930s Louis Armstrong nugget) was not present.
Spawning the JACKIE DESHANNON-penned Top 5, `Dum Dum’ (and its flip `Eventually’), her fifth Owen Bradley production, ALL THE WAY (1961) {*7}, kept up her transatlantic Top 20 status. Also springing the UK-only smash hit, `Speak To Me Pretty’, Leiber & Stoller’s classy `Kansas City’, RAY CHARLES’ `Talkin’ ‘Bout You’, Hammerstein & Romberg’s `Lover, Come To Me’, and a world-weary take of `On The Sunny Side Of The Street’, her versatility was never in doubt.
The same could not be said for 1962’s SINCERELY, BRENDA LEE {*6}, a Top 30 record that barely broke sweat in its reluctance to get into top gear – with the exception of `Fools Rush In’. The charm and slow tempo of standards, `Lazy River’, `How Deep Is The Ocean?’, `Hold Me’ (soon-to-be a hit for P.J. PROBY) and The PLATTERS’ `Only You (And You Alone)’, was commendable, but it wasn’t exactly rock’n’roll.
Sticking with her trusty side-kick backing of guitarist Harold Bradley (Owen’s brother), pianist FLOYD CRAMER (a top solo artist), drummer Buddy Harmon, steel guitarist Buddy Emmons, and a string section to capture the mood, there was a balance between R&B and country on seventh album, BRENDA, THAT’S ALL (1962) {*6}. A success in terms of chart returns, there was finally room to catch up on once-exclusive hits like `Fool #1’ and the aforementioned `You Can Depend On Me’, whereas the MARVIN RAINWATER cut `Gonna Find Me A Bluebird’ and BROOK BENTON’s `Why Me’, could cross-pollenate with `I’m Sitting On Top Of The World’ and Virgil F. Stewart’s `Just Out Of Reach’.
Pulling the heartstrings on the ALL ALONE AM I (1963) {*6} album – the title of her Top 3 hit the previous fall – the easy-listening-bracketed BRENDA LEE was still impressing on the older record buyer who could remember staples like `I Left My Heart In San Francisco’, It’s All Right With Me’, `Come Rain Or Come Shine’, `What Kind Of Fool Am I’, `Fly Me To The Moon’ – in other words, appealling to the swing generation.
Now old enough to marry, 18-year-old Brenda wed Ronnie Shacklett in April ’63, whilst singles success had just rolled off the production line courtesy of `Losing You’ (from …LET ME SING (1963) {*6}; as was `Break It To Me Gently’), `Everybody Loves Me But You’, `Heart In Hand’ (flipped with `It Started All Over Again’), `Your Used To Be’ (a double-A with `She’ll Never Know’), and `Think’.
1964’s BY REQUEST {*5} was the first of her sets given short shrift by the public, and whether this was down to the advent of The BEATLES (whom she toured with in Hamburg in ’62) or just the formulaic approach of her MOR song choice (including hits `I Wonder’, its nursery rhyme-adapted flip `My Whole World Is Falling Down’, `The Grass Is Greener’ and `As Usual’), it was time for a re-think after the seasonal greetings on MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM BRENDA LEE (1964) {*5}.
Despite disappointing downward-spiral sales for obvious covers fodder LPs, Sings TOP TEEN HITS (1965) {*4} and THE VERSATILE BRENDA LEE (1965) {*4}, a resurgent Little Miss Dynamite was back in contention with the Top 40, TOO MANY RIVERS (1965) {*6}. Not a lot different to her pitfall predecessors, Brenda could belt out material from `It’s Not Unusual’, `Call Me Irresponsible’, to `Stormy Weather’, `Unforgettable’ and `Hello, Dolly!’.
BYE BYE BLUES (1966) {*5} and COMING ON STRONG (1966) {*6} – from which her Top 20 title track hit was her last – were again, er… versatile, but as music switched up a gear into rock and R&B hardly her forte these days, BRENDA LEE was fast-becoming old guard, old hat. REFLECTIONS IN BLUE (1967) {*7}, transformed the singer into a classic balladeer, whilst BRENDA LEE & PETE FOUNTAIN’s FOR THE FIRST TIME (1968) {*6} and her solo JOHNNY ONE TIME (1969) {*6}, were marketed strictly for the light-jazz, cabaret-country contingent.
Apart from the odd minor hit (1973’s KRISTOFFERSON-penned `Nobody Wins’ was her chart parting shot), the 70s were a commercial wash-out for country girl BRENDA LEE. MEMPHIS PORTRAIT (1970) {*6}, BRENDA (1973) {*6}, NEW SUNRISE (1973) {*6}, NOW (1974) {*6}, SINCERELY, BRENDA LEE (1975) {*6} – not a re-issue – and L.A. SESSIONS (1976) {*6}, showed little signs of recovery, but the little lady could still belt out a good tune.
1980’s TAKE ME BACK {*6} and 1981’s ONLY WHEN I LAUGH {*4} went the same way as its predecessors, only to jolt her management team to set up a comeback opportunity for her to partner KRISTOFFERSON, NELSON and PARTON (as Kris, Willie, Dolly & Brenda) on 1982’s `The Winning Hand’; Brenda also shared singles under this umbrella of stars.
On the back of a single with C&W legend GEORGE JONES, `Hallelujah, I Love You So’, her umpteenth LP FEELS SO RIGHT (1985) {*5} tied up her time at M.C.A. Indeed a long break was in order to recuperate from these difficult times. Still only relatively young in her mid-40s, Warner Brothers decided to throw the dice with the release of an eponymous MOR set, BRENDA LEE (1991) {*5}. Needless to say, this and further religious records from her Nashville base, PRECIOUS MEMORIES (1997) {*3} and GOSPEL DUETS WITH TREASURED FRIENDS (2007) {*3}, closed another chapter for the bubbly Brenda. She still tours sporadically and in autumn 2016 to early 2017 she’ll perform at casinos and on cruises.
© MC Strong/MCS Sep2016

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