It was the decade of rock ’n’ roll. The finger snaps and croons of the British invasion. That provocative knee shimmy trademarked by the King. The soulful sass of Ray Charles and the prolific outpouring of blues from Memphis’s Stax. The 1960’s redefined music with its various iterations of rock ’n’ roll, which came in all sounds, shapes, and sizes—including one particularly small size in the form of Brenda Lee.
The pint-sized performer was both petite and young, but her voice and talent packed a punch far larger than her size suggested. Through the first half of the decade, the teen’s tunes repeatedly rose to the top of the charts. And her sound wasn’t just catchy or traditionally popular: it had range, from rockabilly to honky-tonk, wooing listeners young and old alike.
Brenda Lee, born Brenda Mae Tarpley, undoubtedly fell in that lofty designation of “child prodigy.” Born in the midst of a large, lower middle-class Atlanta family, Brenda Lee sought solace in singing. But not, as with most vocalists, simply as a child—as a baby. Her family wondered at the tot’s ability to carry a tune, and when she was just three years old, her sister entered the singing youngster in a talent competition. She toddled away with first prize.
The taste of the stage was all the little one needed, and soon she was serenading audiences at local halls and sporting events. But what began as a pastime or part-time gig for young Brenda became a necessity when her father died in a construction accident. Eight-year-old Brenda and her sweet, songbird voice became the breadwinners of the Tarpley family.
Brenda and her mother trekked the state, hunting for gigs and spreading the name of the youthful performer. A name that would soon change, when local DJ Peanuts Fairclough dubbed her “Brenda Lee,” a name, he said, that would be easier to remember when she was famous.
And that fame he referred to was closer than they could have ever imagined. In 1955, at just ten, Brenda turned down a paid performance in order to meet her country western idol, Red Foley. Though he’d heard his fair share of talent as host of Ozark Jubilee, the first network TV show to showcase country music stars, Foley was still astonished by Brenda Lee’s talent. So astonished that he immediately invited her to perform on the Junior Jamboree edition of the show.
Brenda Lee’s trip to Springfield, home of Ozark Jubilee, was the act that spurred her metamorphosis from hometown wunderkind to national, and soon international, superstar.
Performing on Ozark Jubilee, Brenda Lee reimagined the spicy, swingy rock ’n’ roll of the era with her girlish but shockingly dynamic vocals. She was swinging delicately in pinafores and mary janes, but her growling, ranging voice projected over howling audiences and through staticky receivers, wooing the hearts of a nation. Brenda Lee’s innocently youthful reinterpretation of sexy hits like “Dynamite” and “Hound Dog” earned her the appellation “Little Miss Dynamite.”
Before she was even a teen, Brenda Lee’s resume was as impressive as any verified country western star. She toured with renowned crooners like Patsy Cline, Mel Tullis and George Jones. She performed on the worn stage of the Grand Ol’ Opry and under the bright lights of Vegas. Under the fatherly wings of manager Dub Allbritten and producer Owen Bradley, Brenda Lee soared.
Though she’d first placed her feet in the well-worn boots of country western, Brenda Lee was by no means a one-trick pony. Her vocal range and throaty notes predisposed the teen to rock ’n’ roll, and that’s exactly where she strayed. The juxtaposition of diminutive girl and her dirty, rockabilly voice was more than the nation could handle, and her 1959 “Sweet Nothings” shot to the top of the rock ’n’ roll charts.
Though Brenda Lee was a verified superstar, traveling the globe and performing for audiences of thousands, her family still struggled to make ends meet. Because of her young age, her profits were held in a trust until she was twenty-one years old. When her stepfather abandoned the family, the Tarpleys scraped by on $75 a month and called a trailer park home.
The contrariness of the situation was not lost on Tarpley, by this time an astute businesswoman and showbiz expert. She petitioned the court in 1960 with a request for a release of a larger percentage of her profits. She won and promptly purchased a home for her mother and family.
The teenaged Brenda Lee maintained her status as superstar through the first half of the decade with hits like “I’m Sorry,” for which she earned both a Grammy nomination and a gold record. She toured the globe, gaining fans and followers. Even the French, renowned for their reserve, compared Brenda Lee to the previously incomparable Judy Garland.
At eighteen years old, Brenda Lee met and married Ronnie Shacklett (at 6’ 4”, he towered over the Lilliputian performer). Though Brenda Lee’s musical career continued for decades after her marriage, this high point was also the interesting zenith of both her stardom and her youth.
HEAR BRENDA LEE (AT 14) SING “ROCKIN’ AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE”