15 Untold Facts About Brenda Lee

15 Untold Facts About Brenda Lee | I Love Classic Rock Videos

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It’s possible that Brenda Lee doesn’t have the same amount of celebrity as her contemporaries, but as another great singer once remarked, ain’t that a shame? Lee began her career in the late 1940s, made a big splash in the 1950s, and, astonishingly, appeared on the Billboard charts fifty-five times throughout her career.

Surprisingly, her career started before she had finished elementary school, she hit major landmarks before to receiving a driver’s license, and in the end, she became the most successful female recording artist of the 1960s.

She was notably equally successful as male performers, with only Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and Ray Charles being more successful than her. There’s a reason why Lee, who was only 4-foot-9, was dubbed “Little Miss Dynamite”.

When asked about her “legendary” status among performers in a 2007 interview with Christianity Today, she showed incredible humility by saying, “I don’t think of myself that way! I’m just a girl who’s been really blessed to be doing what I’m doing, and there’s a lot of people who’ve sweated a lot of tears and put a lot of life’s work into me to be able to have my dream. So, if I’m a legend, then they’re legends, too.”


1. She has been talented since young

Brenda Lee entered the world as Brenda Tarpley, endowed with an inherent musical gift. According to the Country Music Hall of Fame, at the tender age of 3, she could memorize and sing back a song after hearing it just twice. Her family promptly recognized this prodigious talent, and soon her hometown of Atlanta bore witness to it as well.

Winning a talent show at the age of five was just the beginning; however, it wasn’t until she turned 11 that she landed a significant opportunity with the Ozark Jubilee, a variety show based in Missouri. This breakthrough occurred in 1956, and by the following year, her name was gracing the music charts.

While it might be easy to pass judgment on a family putting their toddler in the spotlight, Lee reflects on this aspect with the wisdom of hindsight. In an interview with Rolling Stone, she shared that, at the time, she simply didn’t know life could be any different. But there was more to it than that.

In a conversation with the Women of Rock Oral History Project, she expanded on her perspective, revealing that receiving her first $20 and being able to contribute it to her family solidified her commitment. Lee shared, “Even at that young age, I saw that it helped our life. It put some food on the table. It helped, and I loved it.”

2. Her family’s love and support help her cope with her father’s death

Brenda Lee possessed more than just a remarkable voice; she had a priceless treasure: a loving family. When sharing her childhood with the Women of Rock Oral History Project, she fondly mentioned her younger brother, older sister, and her hardworking mother, who devoted long hours to supporting the family.

This familial closeness became a source of strength during a devastating loss when Lee was either 6 (or 8, depending on the source)—her father passed away.

Ruben Tarpley, a loving but troubled father grappling with alcohol addiction, met a tragic end in a construction accident. Left in dire financial straits, Lee’s mother took on grueling, sometimes 16-hour shifts at a cotton mill to make ends meet. It was during this challenging time that Lee’s singing emerged as a means for the family to earn much-needed extra income.

Eventually, her mother found love again and remarried Jay Rainwater, a record store owner. Lee would showcase her talents at his store during weekends. Simultaneously, a local DJ named Peanuts Fairclough played a pivotal role in gaining her recognition and airtime, encouraging her to adopt the name “Lee” instead of “Tarpley”.

3. She grew up poor

Brenda Lee recorded her biggest and most memorable hit “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” when she was just 13 years old. She admitted to Rolling Stone that although she recognized its magical potential, it didn’t bring about a transformational infusion of cash.

Under the direction of manager Dub Allbritten, who suggested she branch out from rock and roll, her career path changed. When she was still in her teens, this choice resulted in extensive international touring—a hard lifestyle that would exhaust most adults. The ongoing realization that money was tight added to the strain. “Nobody ever told me we had money,” Lee said, “So to me, the reality was to think, ‘Well, if I don’t make this gig, there might not be another’.”

When the singer thought back to her early years, she remembered the meaning of Christmas and living with a welcoming family who let them stay in extra rooms and open doors. She characterized it as a unique opportunity to afford fruits and a special time for family in an interview with Billboard.

Lee stated that she thought many gifted singers from the South had a similar desire to be successful because they saw it as a means of escaping their small-town lives. “For a lot of us rural Southerners, … this was our way out. This was the way we could make life better for everybody around us, for our family,” she said.


4. She didn’t know where her heartfelt singing of adult problems came from

When listening to Brenda Lee perform, the songs’ themes don’t align with what preteens often think about. While “I’m Sorry” is an earnest apology to a romantic partner, “Sweet Nothin’s” explores the private and intimate secrets shared between lovers. “All Alone Am I?” on the other hand, captures the sadness that follows a breakup. To put things in perspective, Lee was still a student when these hits became consecutive chart-topping successes.

It begs the question: How can someone who has never experienced life express such genuine feelings in their songs? In an interview with Rolling Stone, Lee revealed that she cannot quite put into words the intensity of understanding and longing that permeates her performances; it’s just something that comes naturally.

Being up in a household where her mother forbade dating, Lee got through high school without ever feeling the hurt of a breakup. At the age of eighteen, she finally started dating, and she married her boyfriend right away. The two of them have been happily married ever since.

While many would be envious to have a childhood sweetheart who grew up to become a lifetime companion while rocketing to celebrity, Lee admits that she sometimes wondered what a more normal existence might have been like. “Many times, I yearned to be with my friends rather than be out there on the road,” she said. “But I knew I had a family to support, and that was the way it was going to be.”

5. She spent her 12th birthday in Las Vegas performing

Brenda Lee led an incredibly remarkable life; her early years may make an interesting Netflix special. Think back to her 12th birthday, which she spent in Las Vegas rather than as a normal adolescent.

She performed a unique role in the performance, circling around as a sort of teenage hostess and sharing the billing with the artists. As she recalled to the Las Vegas Review-Journal, “In 1956, I was at the Flamingo with the Ink Spots.”

Even though she received positive reviews, she didn’t have a great experience in Vegas. She was theoretically not allowed in casinos at twelve. She would be accompanied to the stage by adult chaperones who would subtly lead her through the kitchen to make her debut. She returned to her hotel room using the same route after her performance.

The singer described this time as remarkably lonely in her autobiography, Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee, writing, “There wasn’t anything to do in Vegas for a kid. The most fun I had was on the stage.” However, in an interview with Rolling Stone, she remembered it as a reasonably fine way to grow up, saying, “I was getting to sing, and that’s what I loved to do. So there were no distractions.”

6. She’s quite a laidback star despite her popularity and connections

Brenda Lee was found to have not only found balance in her career as a rock musician but also to be comfortable juggling two quite different worlds when Rolling Stone interviewed her in 2018. 

She was discovered at home, idly kicking back a few hours before hosting the Source Awards, a big Nashville event, during the interview. This was an occasion that seemed both entirely normal and incredibly significant, as it was devoted to celebrating the women who work behind the scenes in the music business and are frequently disregarded.

Brenda Lee casually mentioned people while reminiscing, demonstrating her extensive network. She recalled her stay in Germany in 1962 and that she made close friends with The Beatles, who were her opening act. Thinking back on her conversations with John Lennon, she characterized him as incredibly smart, witty, and kind. She was shocked to learn later that The Beatles enjoyed her music. Elton John, another acquaintance in her group, said he was astounded the first time he saw her perform. She mentioned Elvis’s fandom as well.

Even still, she seemed fairly regular when talking about her daily life despite these well-known links. She spent her mornings taking care of housework, making lunch for her husband (to whom she has been married since 1963), and maybe going on errands in the afternoon.

7. She and Little Richard are good friends

The 1950s saw a revolutionary change in the music industry, largely due to the influence of Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Elvis Presley. Brenda Lee not only came of age in this exciting time, but she also helped to mold it. She made lifelong friendships with some of the biggest stars in rock history along the road, including rock icon Little Richard.

Little Richard and Lee were both recognized at the same ceremony in October 2019—they were both invited to the governor’s mansion for the Governor’s Arts Awards, where they were both recognized as Distinguished Artists. Nobody could have predicted that this would be Little Richard’s last appearance in public.

The Architect of Rock and Roll, who was diagnosed with bone cancer at the age of 87, sadly passed away in May 2020. Following his passing, many paid tribute to him, but Brenda’s stood out as especially moving. She also shared memories of their last conversation, talking about the good old days, the evolution of music, and their first meeting in the 1960s.

She expressed her deep connection to his music by writing, “I had been dancing to Little Richard’s music at sock hops forever. How to summarize magic?… I didn’t understand the words or what they meant; I just knew that I loved how that music made me feel.” She concluded, saying, “I’m sure he’s in heaven, he was such a man of God.”

8. She won’t ever get tired of her biggest hit

It makes sense that some bands could get tired of performing their hit tunes. It can be tiresome to hear and perform them all the time, particularly Brenda Lee’s biggest song, which is played nonstop throughout the Christmas season.

Naturally, the hit song is “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, a beloved holiday tune that’s ideal for people who don’t enjoy traditional carols. However, what is Brenda Lee’s opinion of it?

To put it briefly: She adores it. In her 2021 New York Post interview, she revealed that the song had been a Christmas favorite for 63 years. In 1958, she was just 13 years old when she recorded the song at a studio that the song’s producer had decorated festively, even though it was summer.

Decades later, she said the song was still a staple at family get-togethers around the holidays, despite her having retired from performing and not singing it live. She said, “And I go caroling, believe it or not. I love to carol every year.”

9. Her home has an impressive collection of autographs and memorabilia from other musicians

Do well-known and successful musicians have respect and admiration for their colleagues in the industry? The response is unquestionably yes if they’re Brenda Lee, and she even goes so far as to gather souvenirs to mark these relationships. Upon visiting her Nashville residence in 2018, Rolling Stone discovered that it was filled with a plethora of memorabilia, autographs being very important to her.

Some of the goodies included a framed picture of her dancing with Elvis and a necklace he had given her. The walls were covered in autographs from famous people, such as The Beatles, who signed a photo from one of their joint concerts in Germany. There were even modern autographs among the old ones, such as Taylor Swift’s autograph on a guitar.

Not long before Fats Domino passed away in 2017, Brenda Lee even got his autograph. When she realized she had forgotten to get Jerry Lee Lewis’s autograph, she decided to take matters into her own hands and contacted him directly to obtain the desired signature.

But her most treasured item was something very personal: her high school diploma. There was a bittersweet note in the walk down memory lane when she thought back on her adventure. Rolling Stone pointed out that Brenda Lee was one of the last living examples of her generation among all the people in the pictures.

10. She loves dogs

Being devastated by the terrible loss of a beloved pet is an extremely painful experience. Brenda Lee was quite clear to her family that she was not going to take another dog into her life when she said goodbye to Buddy. But when her husband came home carrying a 4-week-old puppy he had found abandoned on the Tennessee interstate, this determination started to falter.

According to Lee, The Tennessean, the first idea was to nurture the dog back to health before finding her a permanent home. However, it soon became clear that Little Girl, the puppy, had already found her everlasting home. The singer shared, “Little Girl has added a lot to our lives. We love her.”

Dogs have always been a big part of Lee’s life—from traveling with her beloved poodle to bringing Little Girl into her house permanently. She has emphasized the traits of unconditional love and loyalty while expressing the tremendous worth of their friendship.

The singer even sent out a tender message, saying, “If [Little Girl] could talk, she would tell everybody out there, ‘Please find you a baby to love. Your life will be so much better and enriched’.”

11. She has given invaluable advice to stars who became famous at a young age

Brenda Lee has an abundance of real-life experiences, from her early career as a child star in show business to becoming the only woman to be inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She has shown herself to be an excellent role model throughout her path.

In a 2016 interview with MusicRow, she offered insightful counsel for women in the music business as she was ready to co-host the Source’s Hall of Fame induction event with Jeannie Seely.

Inspired by her enlightening meeting with LeAnn Rimes’ mother, who looked for direction after her daughter became well-known with “Blue” at a young age, Lee stressed the value of education, going after-school activities, and obtaining a regular teenage job.

Thinking back on her personal experiences, she said, “I went all over the world, went to school, graduated from high school, and was on the debating team. … Get that education and, as Judy Garland once told me sitting poolside at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, don’t let anyone take your childhood away. I’ll always remember that.”

12. Her biggest hit took 65 years to reach the top spot

The constant parade of many old favorites is one thing you can always bank on during the Christmas season. Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” has been a timeless song for many years. Though she dressed up a donkey with reindeer antlers and put up a billboard, the song failed to become an instant hit in 1958.

The unexpected route to its initial modest success, however, is chronicled in her biography, Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee. The singer shared, “The gimmick was a bust. My future holiday classic fared no better than my other rockabilly records during its first release.”

But patience is a virtue, as they say, and in 2023 Lee accomplished the incredible accomplishment of topping the singles chart. What had changed in the sixty-five years since the song’s release?

The change probably has something to do with Billboard updating their ranking methodology, aside from the fact that they shot a new video in which Lee was submerged in every endearing Christmas scene imaginable. It wasn’t until 2018 that they modified their data processing techniques to support streaming services due to the increasing popularity of streaming.

13. Her father and uncle served in the Army

In Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee, Lee explores the experiences of her parents and highlights the significant effects of the two World Wars on her family.

As she considers her father’s upbringing as the youngest of six siblings, she learns that his father’s older brother fought in the First World War and was left crippled for the remainder of his life after suffering a chemical assault. That didn’t stop Lee’s father from joining the military, though.

In 1939, having served in Hawaii for 11 years as an Army soldier, he decided not to reenlist. This decision was made since the military would not ensure that he would remain in Hawaii. He had no idea that Pearl Harbor would turn into a famous conflict just a few years later, in 1941.

Brenda Lee notes that the family took pride in their military service, and he wasn’t the only one to enlist. Her uncle’s dedication came at a heavy cost, though. Similar to Lee’s father, Ivan Tarpley was stationed in Hawaii but was later sent to the Philippines because of the severe Pacific War. There, he was taken prisoner by the Japanese and held as a Prisoner of War for around three years. Before his final release, in 1944, Brenda Lee was born.

14. She learned that her beloved manager had been using her money on the day he died

Brenda Lee told The New York Times in 2023 that she gave credit to her manager, Dub Allbritten, for helping her keep her sense of innocence despite the strains of touring and performing. She emphasized that he was considerate of her and honored her desires, which kept her from having to deal with the difficulties that young celebrities frequently encounter.

But in her biography, Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee, she describes the events leading up to Allbritten’s passing in striking detail, revealing a surprising turn of events. Following severe paralysis, the manager had surgery in 1970, which resulted in the discovery of lung cancer. Lee acknowledged that he knew his time was running out, even if he didn’t want to talk about it much. It was at this period that he requested her presence at his apartment, revealing a surprising revelation.

Allbritten revealed that he had been accumulating money for her over the years and was about to reveal a large safe when some uninvited guests showed up. Lee and her husband excused themselves, intending to come back the next day, only to learn of his unexpected death.

They were shocked to find that Allbritten was penniless, the money in the safe had disappeared, and the courts said she owed money to his estate. Brenda Lee described the experience as “one of the lowest times of her life”, remarking, “To say that I felt betrayed is an understatement.”

15. Everyone doubted her marriage at first

Brenda Lee’s life story is one of enthralling love that spans decades of beautiful matrimony. But as she adds, this union did not start off smoothly because of any problems between Brenda and her beloved. Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee, her memoir, describes her early dating experiences with Ronnie Shacklett. She described her meeting 18-year-old Ronnie at the age of 17 as “love at first sight.” Though she didn’t share this insight with anybody, she was positive he was the man she should marry.

After three months of dating, Ronnie immediately asked for the proposal. Brenda and Ronnie were unfazed by the doubts of many who thought it was too soon, questioned their youth, and voiced worries about the possible effects on her work and popularity.

Only Ronnie’s family attended their 1963 wedding because Brenda expected her mother to be unsupportive—a choice she subsequently regretted.

The marriage survived the first doubts. Brenda was reminded of their continuing journey in a comical way by Ronnie, who was present for an interview with The New York Times in 2023. Brenda, in an attempt at comedy, said that she had only had three letters complaining about being married: one from her mother, one from her manager, and one from the Prince of Arabia.