Singer Brenda Lee, known as “Little Miss Dynamite,” has enjoyed success as a child performer, teen idol, easy-listening chanteuse, and country music queen, sustained through each of these career transformations by a powerful voice that belies her diminutive stature (four feet, nine inches tall). An important pioneer of early rock and roll, she achieved unprecedented international popularity during the 1960s.
Brenda Lee was born Brenda Mae Tarpley on December 11, 1944, in the charity ward of Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta and was raised in Conyers and Lithonia. She was the second of four children born to Annie Grayce Yarbrough and Ruben Lindsey Tarpley. After winning a talent show at the age of five, she began to appear regularly on local Atlanta radio and television. In the early 1950s Lee performed with fellow local singing star Wyche Fowler, who later became a prominent U.S. congressman from Georgia.
When Lee was nine, her father died following a construction accident, and she became the family’s primary breadwinner. In 1955 the family moved to Augusta, where the young singer shortened her last name to “Lee” at the suggestion of a local television producer. Her big break came in 1956, when she joined country star Red Foley onstage at the Bell Auditorium in Augusta and belted out Hank Williams’s “Jambalaya.” Foley subsequently signed her to appear on his Ozark Jubilee, the first nationally televised country music show. Like Foley, millions of viewers were charmed by her precocious talent, and Lee became one of the first singers whose career was launched by television.
She signed with Decca Records in 1956 and the following year moved to Nashville, Tennessee, where she recorded such early rockabilly classics as “BIGELOW 6-200,” “Little Jonah,” and “Let’s Jump the Broomstick.” Her growling, hiccupping vocals on these songs seamlessly fuse country and rhythm and blues styles. “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree,” first issued in 1958, is her best-known rockabilly recording, and it remains a holiday standard. Producer Owen Bradley, one of the creators of the “Nashville Sound,” encouraged Lee to experiment with a variety of material, and this approach paid off in 1960 with the sultry song “Sweet Nothin’s,” which reached the top five in both the United States and Great Britain. Her signature song, “I’m Sorry,” was released the same year and held the number one spot in the United States for three weeks. (Lee recorded the single “That’s All You Gotta Do,” written by Georgia native Jerry Reed, on the flip side.)
The 1960s marked the peak of Lee’s career. Aided by constant worldwide touring and multilingual recordings, she became one of the first performers to achieve global popularity, notably in Great Britain, Germany, and Japan. During this decade, her songs reached Billboard’s pop, country, rhythm and blues, and adult contemporary charts fifty-five times, making her the most successful female performer of that decade and placing her fourth overall in the decade behind Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Ray Charles.
Her remarkable ability to master different styles allowed Lee to adapt gracefully as she outgrew her teen idol status. A newly sophisticated stage act in Las Vegas, Nevada, which emphasized torchy ballads, won over both live and television audiences. In the early 1970s she, like many other early rockers, adopted a country style.
Lee and her husband/manager, Ronnie Shacklett, have been married since the early 1960s. She is a member of both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the only female to be so honored. She was inducted into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in 1982.
Lee received the Jo Walker Meador Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006 from SOURCE, a nonprofit organization in Nashville dedicated to furthering the career of women in the music industry. In 2009 she was honored with a Grammy Award for Lifetime Achievement. Lee has sold more than 100 million records, and she continues to perform.