‘Little Miss Dynamite’ blew up the charts when she was only 12: The story of Brenda Lee

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Brenda Lee may not be as famous as other music stars from the 1960s, but her song “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is a well-known Christmas tune that will make you start humming along.

Lee, who is now 78 years old, started performing when she was too young to drive. However, her strong singing voice led to her becoming the most successful female artist of the 1960s, gaining “unprecedented international popularity.”

Lee, with a voice that didn’t match her small height of 4 foot 9, quickly gained popularity with fans at the young age of 12.

Brenda May Tarpley was born in 1944. She began her career in the late 1940s, rose to fame in the 1950s, and throughout her career, which began when she was still in elementary school, she had 55 chart-topping hits. This success led her to be recognized as the most successful female recording artist of the 1960s.

Lee was just eight years old when her father, a construction worker, passed away while on the job. Little Brenda, who later changed her last name to Lee, took on the responsibility of providing for her family.

Photo of Brenda LEE (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

Caring for her younger brother, mother, who worked in a cotton mill, was not an obligation but a desire for her. She expressed her excitement when she earned her initial $20 as it allowed her to support her family. “Even at such a young age, I realized it made a difference in our lives,” Lee mentioned, emphasizing that it provided food and she genuinely enjoyed it.

The Georgia Encyclopedia describes the Atlanta-born singer as a “trailblazer of early rock and roll” who gained “unprecedented worldwide fame in the 1960s.”

However, Lee, a remarkably modest individual, acknowledges the people who supported her in accomplishing her aspirations. When questioned by Christianity Today about her thoughts on being considered a legend, Lee responded, “I don’t perceive myself in that manner!” She went on to say, “I’m simply a girl who has been incredibly fortunate to pursue what I love, and there are numerous individuals who have dedicated their time and effort to help me achieve my dreams. So, if I am considered a legend, then they are legends as well.”

In 1956, a young girl teamed up with country star Red Foley for a performance at the Bell Auditorium close to her home in Augusta. She confidently sang “Jambalaya,” a song originally by Hank Williams.

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Millions of viewers instantly adored the confident 12-year-old when she joined Foley’s Ozark Jubilee, a popular country music show. Her talent surpassed her age, captivating the audience.

In that very year, Lee inked a deal with Decca Records. The following year, she relocated to Nashville, Tennessee. There, she skillfully blended country and rhythm and blues, showcasing her unique hiccupping vocals. Lee went on to record some of the earliest rockabilly hits, including “BIGELOW 6-200,” “Little Jonah,” and “Let’s Jump the Broomstick.”

She was asked if she felt nervous performing in front of big audiences when she was a young girl. Her response was that she didn’t really feel nervous because nobody ever told her to be. She explained that the stage always felt like home to her because she had been singing in front of people since she was 3 years old. So, it was a very comfortable place for her.

In 1957, Lee was called “Little Miss Dynamite” for her powerful recording of “Dynamite,” and in 1958, she released “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree,” a holiday classic that appealed to fans of all ages.

She informed Rolling Stone that she was aware of its magical nature.

In the following years, she had success with songs such as “Sweet Nuthin’s,” “All Alone Am I,” and “Fool #1.”.

Despite being a young girl, most of her songs went against her personal experiences. Her mother prohibited her from dating, and she completed high school without experiencing the pain of young love.

Brenda Lee, kissed by Fabian Forte, 1961 / Public Domain

At just 16 years old, she sang about love being cruel in “I’m Sorry” and wanting kisses in “I Want to be Wanted,” both popular songs while she was in school.

And at the age of 18, she encountered Ronnie Shacklett, with whom she has been happily married for 60 years.

Lee faced challenges growing up on the road. She marked her 12th birthday in Las Vegas and shared her feelings of isolation with the Las Vegas Journal.

I was too young to go into the casino, so I never saw what it looked like. They took me through the kitchen and showroom. After my show, they brought me back to my room. Kids couldn’t go into the casino. She said, “There wasn’t much for kids to do in Vegas. The stage was the most fun for me.”

Version 1: Lee, who has won awards, expressed that during her childhood, she often wished to spend time with her friends instead of being away from home.

She discovered that she formed new friendships while traveling, such as with the band that performed before her during a concert in Germany in 1962. “I spent time with John,” she casually mentions, referring to John Lennon. “He was incredibly smart, had a sharp wit, and was simply kind-hearted. I was completely amazed when I learned that they actually admired my music.”

Publicity photo of singer Brenda Lee in 1977.

Who else is part of her group of friends?

Elton John, who said after first hearing her perform: “I was just stunned. I don’t think I had ever heard anything like it.”

Elton John was amazed when he first heard her sing, saying, “I was completely shocked. I had never heard anything like it before.”

Richard and the other artist received awards at the Governor’s Arts Awards in 2019. Richard passed away at the age of 87 in May 2020, making it his final public appearance.

Lee paid tribute to her friend by expressing, “I had been dancing to Little Richard’s music at sock hops for a long time. It’s hard to put into words the enchantment it brought. I may not have understood the lyrics or their meaning, but I simply adored the emotions that music evoked in me.” Continuing, the esteemed individual added, “I believe he is now in heaven, as he was a devout man of God.”

Relying on her faith, Lee credits much of her personal and professional achievements to her husband, whom she wed in 1962.

She believes that God played a significant role in guiding her to choose a husband who possesses qualities like integrity, honesty, love, protection, and care.

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Lee plays a significant role in Sunday Mornin’ Country, a faith-centered event held in conjunction with CMA Fest, which has remained popular for over four decades.

She is also an inspiration for numerous young celebrities, such as Taylor Swift. In the book “Women Walk the Line, How The Women In Country Music Changed Our Lives,” Taylor Swift contributes a “deeply personal essay” and shares her thoughts on Brenda Lee, a 1950s pop sensation who later became a respected figure in country music. Taylor’s essay is titled “Rare Peer.”

Today, Lee, who has retired from the stage, will forever be cherished, especially during the holiday season for “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” a timeless Christmas classic that has been a favorite for over six decades.

In 2019, the song reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, nearly six decades after it was first recorded. Lee shared with the New York Post, “It’s absolutely surreal to be browsing in a store and suddenly hear your own voice singing. It’s truly a remarkable experience. … I feel incredibly grateful for this amazing gift.”

Elaine Stritch, Barbara Cook, Brenda Lee, Margaret Whiting, and Maureen McGovern (Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)

It’s incredible that decades later, Brenda Lee has provided fans with such happy music! “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is still a favorite and makes me wish for the holidays! What are your favorite memories of Lee?

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