Inside the Life of Brenda Lee, the Pop Heroine Next Door
Brenda Lee is sitting inside her spacious Nashville home, sipping a glass of sweet tea and staring at dead friends. She shows off an autographed portrait of the Beatles from when the group opened for her at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, in 1962, then points to a wall, where a photo of a 12-year-old Lee dancing with Elvis hangs next to a framed gold necklace he gave her.
Next, she brings out a commemorative brass coffer the King of England gave to Judy Garland, Lee’s childhood idol and, later, her mentor. Was it a gift from Garland? “I wish,” she says, smirking. “I bid on that.”
Despite being one of the most successful American pop singers of the 20th century, Lee still looks up to her contemporaries as if she were an adoring fan. “I’m an autograph hound,” she admits. At the moment, she’s particularly proud of a Fats Domino signature she received shortly before his death.
Lee turns to another recent acquisition: a signed photo of Jerry Lee Lewis. The two of them toured the world together in the late Fifties and have crossed paths a few times since. “I called up Jerry Lee,” she recalls, “and said, ‘You know, as many times as I’ve worked with you, I’ve never got your autograph.'”
Like Lewis, Lee is a living link to the dawn of rock & roll, a member of a rapidly shrinking group that also includes Wanda Jackson and Little Richard. At 73, Lee is the youngest of those artists. They were all roughly a decade older than her when she began her professional recording career – with a revved up version of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya” – at the age of 11 in 1956.
Right now, though, Lee is thinking less about her legacy and more about her left foot, which she broke recently and which is bothering her more than usual. “With this darn big old thing I’m wearing, you’d think I broke my whole leg,” she says, pointing to her ankle brace. Lee, who is only 4-foot-9, rises from her chair and hobbles over to some of her other treasures – an autographed Taylor Swift guitar, a signed illustration of Elton John, a framed photo of Keith Richards’ knuckly fingers – before arriving at her most-prized possession. “That’s my graduation from high school,” she says, pointing to her 1963 diploma from the Hollywood Professional School, an L.A. institution that catered to children working in show business.
The prominent display of the diploma serves to illustrate a point the singer wants to make clear: Brenda Lee is normal. “The thing about me is I’ve always led a normal life,” she says. “I’m probably one of the few artists that did.”
If not normal, Lee is at least almost unfathomably levelheaded, a former child star who steered clear of the fates of, say, Frankie Lymon or Michael Jackson or her good friend Tanya Tucker, who could never avoid being in tabloid headlines. Lee’s career has been marked by longevity, stability and, above all, sanity, despite a whirlwind youth that included poverty, tragedy and international fame, all before the age of 18.
Lee rarely gets mentioned in the same breath as artists like Elvis, Johnny Cash or Muddy Waters, but in her prime, she was as popular as any of them. In the Sixties, she earned more Hot 100 singles in the United States – 46 – than any recording artist besides the Beatles, Elvis or Ray Charles, and she has sold more than 100 million records worldwide throughout her career.
Listening to Lee’s voice – which blended the rural country-blues and gospel of her small-town Georgia upbringing with the sophisticated crooning styles of Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett – is like hearing the various histories of mid-20th-century American pop collide in real time. As the Fifties turned into the Sixties, Lee’s manager, skeptical of rock and dismissive of the country-music market, pushed her toward old-world, night-club showbiz. After transforming from young rocker to pop balladeer, she scored more than 20 Top Forty hits between 1960 and 1963 alone.
In England, meanwhile, she remained famous for her unhinged rockabilly act. Her early-Sixties tours in the U.K. featured the teenage singer running through ramped up versions of songs like “Sweet Nothin’s” and “Let’s Jump the Broomstick” with her Nashville backing band the Casuals. It was primal rock & roll, unfiltered and filled with the type of abandon that Presley and Little Richard would become known for.
“When I saw her perform, I was just stunned. I don’t think I had ever heard anything like it,” says Elton John, who was a teenager when he first saw Lee play in England. “Brenda Lee is in the top three female rock & roll singers of all time: her, Janis Joplin and Tina Turner.” John Lennon seemed to agree; he’s said to have called Lee “the greatest rock & roll voice of them all.”
Lee’s hits became favorites of Elvis and helped lay the foundation for an entire generation of cosmopolitan Nashville country. Her music continues to leave its mark in surprising ways. Last year, Alison Krauss covered two of Lee’s songs on her Top Ten album, Windy City. Lee inspired both Kanye West, who sampled Lee’s iconic “uh-huh honey” introduction on “Sweet Nothin’s” for his 2013 hit “Bound 2,” as well as Taylor Swift, who has covered “I’m Sorry” and wrote an essay in which she called Lee – one of her earliest idols – “the singer who mastered the sound of heartbreak.” (The essay appeared in last year’s Woman Walk the Line, a book of personal essays about the most influential women in country music.)
“Brenda is one of the greatest entertainers ever,” says Dolly Parton, who’s collaborated with Lee over the years and remains a close friend. “But I think I like her mostly because she’s the only person I know that I’m taller than.”
These days, Lee describes her life as “just the regular day of a woman that has kids, grandkids, a husband and a house.” She’ll wake up early and do some chores, then fix lunch for her husband, Ronnie, whom she married in 1963, and her teenage grandson Charley, who lives with his grandparents alongside an 86-pound rescue dog they call “Little Girl.” Today, Charley is running errands with Ronnie, who has worked his whole life as a general contractor in the Nashville area.
Lee also remains busy with an ever-expanding array of duties and obligations pertaining to various organizations in Nashville. She is still constantly being called to appear onstage, host dinners, give speeches, sing at one-off events and induct fellow members into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Lee herself was inducted in 1997, just a few years before she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (She is the first, and still – somehow – the only woman artist to earn both distinctions.)
Lee serves as Nashville’s unofficial mayor of sorts, having lived in the city for 60 years. Just about everyone in town has a Brenda Lee story: the time they ran into her at the grocery store, the time they interrupted her lunch at the Cheesecake Factory to ask for an autograph (she happily obliged), the time they helped lift her luggage into an overhead compartment.
“She’s a treasure here in Nashville,” says Bobby Tomberlin, the Grammy-nominated country-music songwriter who has co-written songs with Lee. “She’s one of those people you see in the grocery store, and everyone just bows. Sometimes when I play a show in Nashville, I look out in the audience and there’s Brenda in the audience, cheering you on. She’s still a fan.”
Today, Lee’s schedule is as packed as it might have been 50 years ago: Later tonight, she’s hosting an awards dinner at the Musician’s Hall of Fame; the following morning, she’s slated to sing her 1965 song “Unforgettable” at a friend’s funeral; later that evening, she’s giving a keynote address for another local organization’s event. “In town, I speak more than I sing,” she says.
Right now, however, Lee is sitting among her framed photos of dearly departed celebrities and famous friends, trying to figure out why, exactly, she isn’t more respected. Why, despite being one of the best-selling artists of the Fifties and Sixties, doesn’t Lee get more credit as a rock and pop pioneer?
Such a question, she assures me, wouldn’t typically occupy her thoughts. Lee rarely thinks about her legacy; it is, in fact, at odds with who she is – the ever-gracious small-town dreamer who has never taken an ounce of success for granted. “I’m not used to introspection,” Lee once said. “I’ve never lingered on my feelings.”
And yet, sitting for the most in-depth print interview of her entire career, Lee is in an unusually reflective mood. “Sometimes I do wonder, what are the medals I have to show to get elected to the club?” she asks. “You wonder, ‘OK, is that because I’m a girl? What is that?’ I’ve never been able to name it or understand it. I mean, my record sales are certified, they’re not a lie. They’re not up for debate. I didn’t do it, the Recording Industry Association of America did it, so blame them.”
Brenda Lee Tarpley’s first official performance was in 1951, at the age of seven, when she won the talent show at her elementary school, belting out the country standard “Slow Poke” and Nat King Cole’s “Too Young.” Influenced in equal part by the gospel, country and R&B she heard growing up, Lee soon began singing Hank Williams and Peggy Lee songs in talent shows and variety programs in and around Atlanta. She had already soaked up the vocal intonations of her heroes, and even as a pre-teen Lee could muster the world-weary authority of elders like Carl Perkins, Buddy Holly and Wanda Jackson. “When I first heard her,” says Elton John, “I couldn’t believe that that kind of voice could come out of someone so young.”
When Lee was eight, her father, an alcoholic carpenter named Ruben Tarpley, died in a construction accident, an event that left the Tarpley family near-penniless and would alter the course of the child’s life. “When dad died, I know it had to have been hard on my mother, to have three children and to have to go work at a cotton mill 16 hours a day,” she says, tearing up. “It was never cemented in stone that we were poor, but we knew.”
Lee’s first huge break came in 1956, at age 11, when she scored a regular gig on the Ozark Jubilee, an influential country-music television variety program based in Missouri. That same year, she signed with Decca Records, and the family moved to Nashville. The next year, she recorded “Dynamite,” her first charting single, and the one that would earn her the nickname “Little Miss Dynamite.”
One year later, in 1958, the 13-year-old singer entered a recording studio to sing a recently written tune by the holiday-music songwriter Johnny Marks. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” would eventually become Lee’s best-known song, and, 60 years after it was first recorded, it remains the most enduring holiday song of its era. “When we recorded ‘Rockin,'” Lee says. “I knew it was magical.”
Over the next half-decade, as Elvis joined the military, Little Richard returned to God and rock & roll’s first era receded, Lee emerged as a star. She had the unique ability to attract both teenage rock & rollers and their middle-aged parents. On songs like “Let’s Jump the Broomstick” and “Sweet Nothin’s,” she seemed to channel a furious restlessness; other songs, like “All Alone Am I” and “Emotions,” communicated a very adult sense of loss. Just as often, she simply channeled an innate desire that transcended genre boundaries: “I Want to be Wanted” and “I’m Sorry” both became unlikely Top Ten R&B hits in addition to topping the pop charts.
In an era where male stars dominated the pop market, teen girls flocked to Lee. Not only was she their age, but she also appeared as one of their own, a girl-next-door who eschewed glitz and overt sexuality. “My biggest gift was I wasn’t a threat to the girls, or to their boyfriends,” says Lee. “They could come and cry on my shoulder, and I’d cry on theirs.”
In her early torch ballads, Lee navigated complex and tortuous teenage emotions with a sophisticated sense of resolve. “When she’s singing sad songs, songs of loss, Brenda Lee is never weak. That’s her message, underneath it all,” says Alison Krauss. “You always know she’s going to recover, and you never feel sorry for her. There’s never any hint of weakness.”
Lee’s earliest hit records beg the question: How could such a young child express the deep longing, romantic pain, and heartbreak of ballads like “I’m Sorry” and “All Alone Am I”?
Lee enjoys the mystery herself. “I had my first single date when I was 18, and I married my date, so I don’t have a clue where that emotion came from,” she explains. “I never kissed a boy. My mom didn’t allow me to date.”
Much of the intensity and longing in her earliest records, Lee says, was a result of her poor Southern upbringing. “For a lot of us rural Southerners, like Little Richard and me, we somehow knew, even at our age, that this was our way out,” she says. “This was the way we could make life better for everybody around us, for our family.” She goes on to offer a rather fitting definition of rock & roll: “It’s not an intellectual feeling. It was just a gut feeling that you know that things are not supposed to be quite the way they are, and that this might be the catalyst that gets you out. I didn’t think of it that way until I got old enough to look back and see how hard we had it. I call it that gut thing that comes out, a feeling coming from your toes that just says, ‘OK, this is it.'”
Did the death of her father also give Lee access to the type of adult pain she expressed in her earliest pop hits? “I think so,” Lee says quietly. “I think I put it into my songs. I think I did.”
“After my father died, it became necessary for me to help out,” she writes in her autobiography. “I was the only one making any money.” By the time she scored her first Number One as a 16-year-old, she was already providing for her mother and three siblings.
Lee’s domineering manager, Dub Allbritten, was convinced rock & roll was a fad, and he encouraged Lee to model herself after entertainers like Sinatra and Bennett. Allbritten was a forceful presence; he discouraged Lee from listening to female singers for fear she would copy their style, and for the young Lee he represented a stern father figure whose approval she constantly craved. Allbritten was also a supremely successful businessman. He pursued international markets for Lee’s music, making her one of the country’s first truly global pop stars, with mainstream success and Top Ten hits everywhere from Brazil to Japan.
Lee rose to fame during a supposed dead-zone period of pop music, when, as the story goes, rock & roll took the backstage to glitzy fluff in the years before the Beatles arrived. Lee became a bridge between eras, straddling the old world of showroom entertainment and the new dawn of raucous rockabilly release. She developed entirely different repertoires for her shows in the United States and the United Kingdom, where she was better known as the Queen of Rock & Roll.
In 1962, during a show in Hamburg, Germany, Lee was taken aback by a group of rowdy teenagers from Liverpool who were serving as her opening act. After watching their set, she approached one of them after the show. “I’ve been meaning to ask you,” Lee asked one of the young men, “where do you get those songs?”
“Oh,” replied John Lennon. “We write them.”
Lee and Lennon became fast friends during their Star Club residency. “I hung out with John,” she says. “He was extremely intelligent, very acerbic with his jokes, just a gentle person. When I found out that they later said they were fans of my music, I was just floored.”
When she wasn’t hanging out with the Beatles or playing shows, Lee did her best to maintain a regular adolescent life. She attended Maplewood High School in Nashville, where she joined the cheerleading team. She went to class whenever she wasn’t on tour, and stayed up on Friday nights talking about boys with her girlfriends. “She fit right in,” says her high school classmate Kay Smith, with whom Lee remains close to this day. “She studied and took exams like everybody else. I’m not sure how she did it, but that’s Brenda.” But after “I’m Sorry” and “I Want to be Wanted” became consecutive Number One hits in 1960, Lee became a bona fide pop star, and left Maplewood for a school in Hollywood.
She traveled tirelessly in those early years, playing two gigs a day and sleeping on an inflatable inner-tube in the back of a station wagon. “Many times, I yearned to be with my friends rather than be out there on the road,” Lee once wrote. “But I knew I had a family to support and that was the way it was going to be.” Through it all, Lee refrained from drugs and alcohol, instead indulging in more wholesome pleasures. “It would just thrill me to death if we’d play a state fair, because I’d get to go on all the rides,” she says.
I ask Lee if spending much of her adolescence riding carnival attractions by herself in strange towns also got impossibly lonely. Lee pauses for a moment. “A friend of mine was once going to Japan and he asked me, ‘How is the jetlag?'” she says. “I told him, ‘I never had jetlag when I flew to Japan.’ He said, ‘You’ve got to be joking, how is that possible?’ And I said, ‘Because nobody ever told me that I should.’ To me, doing my shows and getting on my inner-tube and sleeping in the backseat and then getting up and doing it again, I didn’t know anything else. I was getting to sing, and that’s what I loved to do. So there were no complaints from me.”
Expectations on Lee skyrocketed as she began to experience serious success in the early Sixties. “I wasn’t told every day that I could sing good, or ‘Oh, that show was wonderful.’ I was told, ‘You should have hit that note, you can hit it, and you should have hit it.’ I always got those kinds of remarks.”
Lee continued to support her mother and siblings long after she attained mainstream success, although she was not generally clued in on her own finances. “Nobody ever told me we had money,” she says. “So to me, the reality was to think, ‘Well, if I don’t make this gig, there might not be another.'”
She barely even took time off to give birth to her first of two daughters in the spring of 1964: Before her baby had left the hospital, Lee was back onstage. By the time she was 25, the breakneck pace had caught up to her. In the fall of 1970, she canceled a series of shows after she was hospitalized for a week for what her spokesperson described at the time as “nervous exhaustion.” Over the next five years, Lee underwent seven operations for an assortment of stomach and kidney problems, and suffered from a condition that caused blood clots.
During the Seventies, she would nonetheless reinvent herself as a country star, scoring a half-dozen Top Ten hits between 1973 and 1975 with songs like “Big Four Poster Bed” and the Kris Kristofferson-penned “Nobody Wins.” But by the end of the decade, for the first time in 25 years, Lee began to fade from the top of the charts.
She remained busy in the Eighties, performing internationally and establishing a residency at Opryland. In the Nineties, she took up songwriting; her very first co-writing credit was a song recorded by Kenny Rogers. But these years also saw Lee spending more time at home, where she continued to amass, among other things, a sizeable dollhouse collection.
“You can make them what you want them to be,” she told an interviewer about the dollhouses. “You can have a kitchen with a lot of food on the table. You can have a daddy reading the paper in the living room.” In a different interview, she said, “I think maybe I’m living a dream I had as a child about a happy home.”
It’s a few hours before Lee is supposed to be onstage, and her foot is still aching. “I’m having more pain than I should,” she says. Lee is slated to appear at the Musician’s Hall of Fame as the co-host of the Source Awards, which honor women who work behind the scenes in Nashville’s music industry. Lee has hosted it nearly every year during the organization’s 15-year existence.
Lee relishes paying tribute to these women, many of whom she’s worked with, and nearly all of whom would never be formally acknowledged otherwise. “It’s interesting to see ladies behind the power of the boys who make the noise on 16th Avenue,” she says, referring to the former center of Nashville’s Music Row.
During the second-wave feminism movement of the late Sixties, Lee was either on the road, touring incessantly, or at home with her husband and her two daughters. Did Lee ever identify with Sixties feminism? “No,” she says, before I finish the question.
“My mother always taught me, if you don’t really know something about something, stay out of it. So I never disrespected anything but stayed with what I knew,” she says. “They did their thing, and of course that’s still going on, in a sense. At that time, so much was happening in the world. But I was raised to be and let be. And even though I was raised in the rural South, I was raised with a sense of respect for all of humankind, and for all people. And that, I think, will serve anyone well throughout their life.”
Lee is proud of the ways in which she avoided being sexualized as a young female singer. She’s dismayed, however, by the lack of progress in the world of country music when it comes to acceptance of women artists. “You’d think that it would’ve changed some,” she says. As “the first rocker girl,” as she puts it, Lee once experienced some double standards herself. “It was hard being a girl back then,” she says. “Back in my day, boys didn’t buy records.”
And though she never dwells on it, Lee will occasionally find herself wondering if the reason her music isn’t more appreciated is simply because she’s a woman. “I don’t think Brenda Lee has been acclaimed as much as she should,” says Wanda Jackson, who, like Lee, was a pioneer in the male-dominated worlds of country, rockabilly and rock & roll. “I would hesitate to put her in a box and say she’s country, or she’s pop. I played a different type of rock than she did, but she was right there with all of us. She’s a world-class, powerhouse singer.”
Lee looks down at her throbbing left foot and starts thinking about the night ahead of her. She still loves the thrill of getting onstage, still performs a dozen or so concerts each year, but she also doesn’t need the thrill to sustain her anymore. “I do just enough to keep the urge from coming up, to satisfy my creative juices that I need to expose every once in a while,” she says.
Finally, less than a couple of hours before the award show begins, Lee makes a decision, the type of decision that’s taken her the better part of a lifetime to come to terms with, the type of decision that, in the old, breakneck days, would have been antithetical to the core of who she is.
Tonight, she says, she’s going to stay home.