Brenda Lee: Lessons from the Archetype of Modern Country Stardom

By Bill Friskics-Warren

Before “Star Search” gave us Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera, before “American Idol” brought us Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood and MySpace gave us Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift — decades before any of these female teen idols was born — there was Brenda Lee.

As attested by “Brenda Lee: Dynamite, Presented by Great American Country Television Network,” an exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum through July, none of these young megastars, despite their staggering success, has yet to eclipse the magnitude of the former Brenda Mae Tarpley.

The only woman inducted into both the Country Music and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame, and a member of the CMA Board for eight years, Lee was, according to rankings compiled by Billboard chart guru Joel Whitburn, the most commercially successful female singer of the 1960s. To date, she has sold more than 100 million records worldwide.

She also has the distinction of being the youngest headliner (12) on the Las Vegas Strip and of being a regular teenage guest on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” Red Foley’s “Ozark Jubilee” and other nationally syndicated television shows. Nicknamed “Little Miss Dynamite” for her diminutive stature, big voice and electrifying stage presence, she has performed internationally since the 1950s, including 30 separate trips to Japan and a 1962 tour of England with The Beatles as her opening act. In 2009, Lee, who still does about 20 shows a year, was feted with the Recording Academy’s highest distinction, a Lifetime Achievement Award.

“It still staggers me,” said Lee, standing before a glass case displaying a few of her many trophies as she recently walked through the Hall of Fame exhibit.

“When I look at these awards, it’s like they’re not mine,” she elaborated as she graciously accommodated the steady stream of fans that approached her for an autograph. “It’s like somebody did really good, but it’s not like that person is me because this was not my goal. I didn’t have an agenda to win a lot of awards or to make a lot of money or sell millions of records. I just wanted to sing and I’ve been blessed to do that. And then, along the way, I’ve been blessed to be recognized for it. But still, this is unbelievable. It absolutely is.”

Coming from another performer, such comments might come off as disingenuous or, at the very least, pat. But not coming from Lee, who went into business to help her mother and her sister after her father died. The exhibit’s most telling remembrance of this period of her career is a photo of Lee, not quite 10 years old, performing at the Biltmore Hotel in Atlanta shortly after her father’s passing. Accompanied by a clarinetist and an accordion player, she’s dressed in kiddie cowgirl boots and Western wear.

Two years later, the family moved from Augusta, Ga., to Springfield, Mo., so that they wouldn’t have to make such a grueling commute for her to appear on the “Ozark Jubilee” each week. “Otherwise,” she explained, “we had to take a Greyhound bus after school on Friday, ride all night, get there at some point on Saturday, do the show, get back on the bus, ride all night, get home Sunday and go back to school on Monday. That got old after a while.”

Alluding to these less glamorous days during her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, she acknowledged, “It’s been a long way from the Georgia cotton fields to the Waldorf Astoria.” Video footage of her speech, which lavished praise on her producer, the late Owen Bradley, and on the A-team of studio pros who played on her sessions, is included in the exhibit, along with clips from each stage of her career.

“Owen was wonderful,” Lee recalled. “He knew his artists so well, not just professionally but personally. He knew what each was capable of and made sure that he got that out of them.”

He also didn’t limit his imagination, or that of his artists, to the artificial boundaries between Country, pop and rock ‘n’ roll. “Owen’s theory was always ‘if it’s good, it’s everything,’” Lee said. “So we would always try to choose the best song that we could. The A-team guys, Buddy Harman, Bobby Moore, Floyd Cramer, Boots Randolph, Ray Edenton, Harold Bradley, Grady Martin, Hank Garland — who am I forgetting? — and of course the Anita Kerr Singers, we’d all sit around and they’d say, ‘Well, I think when she sings this line, we’ll come in with this scooby-dooby-do.’ And then Grady would say, ‘I’ll play this lick,’ and Boots would say, ‘How about I do this on the solo?’ And that’s how it came about.”

The “it” of which Lee speaks includes some 250 songs recorded for Decca, a company that’s now part of the Universal Music family, by the time she was 21. Some 30 of these were Top 40 pop hits; another 20 or so, most of them recorded in the ’70s and ’80s, reached the Country Top 40. The biggest, from “I’m Sorry” and “I Want to Be Wanted” to “Dum Dum” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” have long been regarded as classics.

Learning of the exhibit in Nashville, Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards sent Lee an autographed photo with a note saying that he listens to her growling 1959 hit, “Sweet Nothin’s,” on his iPod before every show he plays. Elton John, who has said that he wrote his 1972 smash “Crocodile Rock” with Lee in mind, sent her a blinged-out pair of sunglasses.

These and other celebrity connections pop up throughout the exhibit, including a photo of Lee with the Queen of England and video footage of her cutting up with Bob Hope on one of his TV specials. But maybe most inspirational, amid all her accolades, are the items that testify to how steadfastly Lee has balanced family and show business over the course of her nearly 60-year career.

“We wanted to tell the story of this phenomenal family, of Brenda’s incredible focus as a mother and a wife and, now, a grandmother,” explained the exhibit’s curator, Carolyn Tate, VP of Museum Services, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “She works around her grandkids’ schedule every day. It’s amazing, and she’s been doing that sort of thing from the beginning.”

She has also been married to the same man, Ronnie Shacklett, for the better part of five decades. More than just her childhood sweetheart, Shacklett has guided Lee’s career since the death of Dub Albritten, who managed her during her formative years. He even made a note on the back of their marriage license, which also appears in the exhibit, that his brand new bride had a 3 PM rehearsal that day for her May 12, 1963, appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

“I’m like, ‘Wow, Ronnie, how romantic,’” Lee recalled, laughing.

Her personal and professional accomplishments are a matter of record, as is her position in history as something of a prototype for contemporary female teenage idols. Still, Lee admitted, “I’m not sure that I could make it starting out today. Back when I was starting out, the main ingredient was talent, but today it’s the complete package. It’s the whole look, the whole image, the whole demeanor, the whole attitude. You’re a product. You’ve passed the line of being unique.”

That said, Lee does follow and genuinely enjoy many of the young stars of today. For those who are now following the path she blazed as a very young phenomenon, her advice is straightforward: “Commit yourself wholeheartedly to your dream and be prepared to believe totally in yourself, even when no one else believes in you.

Sometimes it can be a very long haul with a lot of heartbreak before you see any form of success with your music. I often have young artists come to me and say, ‘Well, I’m going to give it a few years and if things don’t work out, I’ll go back to whatever I was doing before.’ I think to be successful in this business, you have to block out that there was a ‘before.’

“Meanwhile,” she continued, “If you can be happy doing something else other than having a career in music, do it. Music careers are not for the faint of heart or the easily discouraged or for those who can easily resort to a Plan B. Music can be a very tough vocation. It’s a career for those who could never be happy doing anything else.”

As for today’s young stars, Lee singles out Miranda Lambert and Taylor Swift among other favorites. “They’re real people singing about real things,” she said. “That’s why people are responding to Taylor Swift. It may be teenagers. It may be young adults. I don’t care. But they are responding in millions and millions and millions of ways. She’s outselling everybody in the industry right now. It’s phenomenal. “

Swift fully reciprocates the respect Lee shows to her. “One of the things that I’ve been so thankful for this year is the support of my fellow artists, and Brenda Lee has been so wonderfully gracious toward me,” she said. “She’s not only a great artist, but also a great role model for other artists who start their careers at a young age.”

As Lee sees it, she and Swift share one trait that has proven indispensible to their successes: “She is who she is. She’s just being her. She doesn’t have a record company saying, ‘You have to cop an attitude because you’re smiling too much. You need to be a little bit more sullen because that’s what’s happening right now.

“I had a record company one time tell me, ‘Don’t smile. You smile too much.’ I said, ‘Are you joking? That’s me. That’s what I do,” concluded Lee — with, of course, a smile.

Brenda Lee Photo Courtesy of Country Music Association

© 2010 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.


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