At 4 ft 9 inches tall (approximately 145 cm), she received the nickname Little Miss Dynamite in 1957 after recording the song "Dynamite" and was one of the earliest pop stars to have a major contemporary international following.
Lee was born Brenda Mae Tarpley in the charity ward of Grady Memorial Hospitalin Atlanta, Georgia, the daughter of Annie Grayce (Yarbrough) and Reuben Lindsey Tarpley. She weighed 4 pounds 11 ounces at birth. She attended grade schools wherever her father found work, primarily in the corridor between Atlanta andAugusta. Her family was poor, living hand-to-mouth; she shared a bed with her two siblings in a series of three-room houses without running water. Life centered on her parents finding work, their extended family, and the Baptist church, where she sang solos every Sunday.
Lee's father was the son of a farmer in Georgia's red-clay belt. Although he stood 5 ft 7 inches (170 cm), he was an excellent left-handed pitcher and spent 11 years in the United States Army playing baseball. Her mother had a similar background of an uneducated working class family in Greene County, Georgia.
Lee was a musical prodigy. Although her family did not have indoor plumbing until after her father's death, they had a battery-powered table radio that fascinated Brenda as a baby. By the time she was two, she could whistle the melody of songs she heard on the radio. Both her mother and sister remembered taking her repeatedly to a local candy store before she turned three; one of them would stand her on the counter and she would earn candy or coins for singing.
Lee's voice, pretty face and stage presence won her wider attention from the time she was five years old. At age six, she won a local singing contest sponsored by local elementary schools. The reward was a live appearance on an Atlanta radio show, Starmakers Revue, where she performed for the next year.
Her father died in 1953, and by the time she turned ten, she was the primary breadwinner of her family through singing at events and on local radio and television shows. During that time, she appeared regularly on the country music show "TV Ranch" on WAGA-TV in Atlanta; she was so short, the host would lower a stand microphone as low as it would go and stand her up on a wooden crate to reach it. In 1955, Grayce Tarpley was remarried to Buell "Jay" Rainwater, who moved the family to Cincinnati, Ohio, where he worked at the Jimmy Skinner Music Center. Lee performed with Skinner at the record shop on two Saturday programs broadcast over Newport, Kentucky radio station WNOP. The family soon returned to Georgia, however, this time to Augusta and Lee appeared on the show The Peach Blossom Special on WJAT-AM in Swainsboro.
Her break into big-time show business came in February 1955, when she turned down $30 to appear on a Swainsboro radio station in order to see Red Foley and a touring promotional unit of his ABC-TV programOzark Jubilee in Augusta. An Augusta disc jockey persuaded Foley to hear her sing before the show. Foley was as transfixed as everyone else who heard the huge voice coming from the tiny girl and immediately agreed to let her perform "Jambalaya" on stage that night, unrehearsed. Foley later recounted the moments following her introduction:
I still get cold chills thinking about the first time I heard that voice. One foot started patting rhythm as though she was stomping out a prairie fire but not another muscle in that little body even as much as twitched. And when she did that trick of breaking her voice, it jarred me out of my trance enough to realize I'd forgotten to get off the stage. There I stood, after 26 years of supposedly learning how to conduct myself in front of an audience, with my mouth open two miles wide and a glassy stare in my eyes.
The audience erupted in applause and refused to let her leave the stage until she had sung three more songs. On March 31, 1955, the 10-year-old made her network debut on Ozark Jubilee in Springfield, Missouri. Although her five-year contract with the show was broken by a 1957 lawsuit brought by her mother and her manager, she made regular appearances on the program throughout its run.
Less than two months later, on July 30, 1956, Decca Records offered her a contract, and her first record was "Jambalaya", backed with "Bigelow 6‑200". Lee's second single featured two novelty Christmas tunes: "I'm Gonna Lasso Santa Claus", and "Christy Christmas". Though she turned 12 on December 11, 1956, both of the first two Decca singles credit her as "Little Brenda Lee (9 Years Old)."
Neither of the 1956 releases charted, but her first issue in 1957, "One Step at a Time", written by Hugh Ashley, became a hit in both the pop and country fields. Her next hit, "Dynamite", coming out of a 4 ft 9 inch frame, led to her lifelong nickname, Little Miss Dynamite.
Lee first attracted attention performing in country music venues and shows; however, her label and management felt it best to market her exclusively as a pop artist, the result being that none of her best-known recordings from the 1960s were released to country radio, and despite her country sound, with top Nashville session people, she did not have another country hit until 1969, and "Johnny One Time".
In 1960, she recorded her signature song, "I'm Sorry", which hit No. 1 on the Billboard pop chart. It was her first gold single and was nominated for a Grammy Award. Even though it was not released as a country song, it was among the first big hits to use what was to become the Nashville sound — a string orchestra and legato harmonized background vocals. "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" got noticed in its third release a few months later, and sales snowballed; the song remains a perennial favorite each December and is the record with which she is most identified by contemporary audiences.
Her last top ten single on the pop charts in the United States was 1963's "Losing You" (No.6), though she continued to have other chart hits such as 1964's "As Usual" (which peaked at No.12 in the US and made No.5 in the UK), her 1966 song "Coming on Strong" (which peaked at No.11 in the US) and "Is It True" (No.17 in both the US & the UK) in 1964. The latter, featuring Big Jim Sullivan, Jimmy Page on guitars, Bobby Graham on drums, was her only hit single recorded inLondon, England, and was produced by Mickie Most (but the slide guitar and background singers were overdubbed in Nashville). It was recorded at Decca Records' number two studio at their West Hampstead complex, as was the UK B-side, a version of Ray Charles' 1959 classic cut, "What'd I Say?", which wasn't released in America.
Lee was popular in the UK from early in her career. She toured the UK in 1959, before she had achieved much pop recognition in the United States. Her first hit single in the UK was "Sweet Nothin's", which reached No.4 on the UK singles chart in the spring of 1960. She subsequently had a UK hit (in 1961) with "Let's Jump the Broomstick", a rockabilly number recorded in 1959, which had not charted in the United States, and reached No.12 in the UK.
Lee had two Top Ten hits in the UK that were not released as singles in her native country: the first, "Speak to Me Pretty" peaked at No.3 in May 1962 and was her greatest hit in the UK by chart placing, swiftly followed by "Here Comes That Feeling", which reached No.5 in the summer of 1962. The latter was issued as the B-side to "Everybody Loves Me But You" in the United States (which peaked at No.6 on the Billboard Hot 100); however, it should be noted that "Here Comes That Feeling" also made an appearance in the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No.89, despite its B-side status in the US.
During the early 1970s, Lee re-established herself as a country music artist, and earned a string of top ten hits in the United States on the country charts. The first was 1973's "Nobody Wins", which reached the top five that spring and became her last Top 100 pop hit, peaking at No. 70. The follow-up, the Mark James composition "Sunday Sunrise", reached No. 6 on Billboard magazine's Hot Country Singles chart that October. Other major hits included "Wrong Ideas" and "Big Four Poster Bed" (1974); and "Rock on Baby" and "He's My Rock" (both 1975).
Over the ensuing years, Lee continued to record and perform around the world, having previously cut records in four different languages. In 1992, she recorded a duet ("You’ll Never Know") with Willy DeVille on his album Loup Garou. Today, she continues to perform and tour.
Although Lee's songs have often centered on lost loves, her marriage to Ronnie Shacklett in 1963 has endured. He was able to deal with the music industry and is credited with ensuring her long-term financial success. They have two daughters, Jolie and Julie (who was named after Patsy Cline's daughter) and three grandchildren, Taylor, Jordan and Charley.
Lee reached the final ballot for induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 and 2001 without being inducted, but was voted into the hall for 2002.
Celebrating over 50 years as a recording artist, in September 2006 she was the second recipient of the Jo Meador-Walker Lifetime Achievement award by the Source Foundation in Nashville. In 1997, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.
Chuck Berry wrote a song about Lee on the album St. Louis to Liverpool. She was also mentioned in Golden Earring's 1973 hit "Radar Love": "Radio's playing some forgotten song / Brenda Lee's 'Coming on Strong'." She was also remembered as a heroine to Burton Cummings on his 1978 album Dream of a Child in the title track including the lines "When I was a child, dreamed that Elvis Presley, was standing on the corner, kissing Brenda Lee", and in the closing line, "I love Brenda Lee / Brenda Lee loves me / yeah...". Ben Vaughn wrote and released "I'm Sorry (But So Is Brenda Lee)" in 1985, which has also been covered byMarshall Crenshaw. Lee is also referenced in the film Smokey and the Bandit.
"I Wonder", released in 1963, was the song playing at Colleen's funeral in the episode "The Cost of Living" in Season 3 of the ABC television show Lost. The episode originally aired on November 1, 2006. Kelly Clarkson appeared as Lee on two episodes of the NBC series American Dreams. "Break It To Me Gently" plays during theCREDITS of "The Gold Violin", Season 2: Episode 7 of the AMC series Mad Men and Season 1: Episode 7 of the ABC series Pan Am.
After being name-dropped in Smokey and the Bandit as a favorite of the Bandit, Lee put in an appearance in the sequel Smokey and the Bandit II listed as "Nice Lady", a wedding guest who seems to take some glee at reminding Sheriff Justice of his previous encounter with Bo "Bandit" Darville.