At the age of 5 Brenda represented Conyers Grade School in an annual talent contest at the Spring Festival, conducted among several elementary schools in the area. Brenda won first prize in that contest and was runner-up in the beauty contest. This competition led to an offer to sing on a regular basis on Starmakers Revue, a popular Atlanta radio show where she stayed for a year. The sponsor of the show was Borden's Ice Cream. "They didn't pay any money for singing on the show but you could get all the ice cream you could eat," Brenda recalled.
From there she landed a regular slot on a local TV program called TV Ranch on Atlanta's WAGA-TV. Brenda appeared each Saturday and sang with Boots Woodall and the TV Wranglers. On the first show Brenda sang "Hey Good Lookin." The audience demanded an encore and she sang "Too Young." Brenda received no money, not even ice cream. Appearances on TV Ranch lead to her first professional job for Shriner's Club Luncheon for which Brenda was paid $20.
In 1955, her family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio, where Brenda began working in Jimmy Skinner's Record Shop on two Saturday programs over WNOP in Newport, Kentucky. Brenda sang the big country music hits of the day. Later that year, the family moved to Augusta, Georgia, and Brenda landed a spot on the Peach Blossom Special on WJAT-TV. It was while appearing on this show that the name "Brenda Lee" was created by the show's producer, Sammy Barton. He felt that Tarpley was to difficult to remember and suggested that she shorten her last name. Her step-father, Jay Rainwater opened a record store in Augusta and called it the Brenda Lee Record Shop. Station WRDW originated a program in the shop each week and Brenda sang on the show. Disc jockey Charlie Raiford "Peanuts" Faircloth was the announcer. Brenda composed her own theme song and although she received no money for these shows, the exposure led to several bookings.
In February 1956, a radio station in Swansboro, Georgia asked Brenda to be a guest on the Peach Blossom Jamboree program for $30. Brenda turned down the offer to go see one of her favorite entertainers, country music singer Red Foley. Mr. Foley was visiting Augusta with the cast of the ABC-TV show Ozark Jubilee at the Bell Auditorium. Brenda met Mr. Foley and his manager, Dub Albritten. Peanuts Faircloth asked Foley if he would let Brenda sing a song on the show and Foley agreed. Brenda performed "Jambalaya" then another tune, then another, and still another. She left the stage with the crowd shouting for more. "The way I stood back and enjoyed watching her work I felt guilty for not going out to the box office and buying a ticket," said Foley.
After this show, Brenda was offered a guest spot on Foley's Ozark Jubilee. On Saturday, March 31, 1956, Brenda made her first network television appearance on the Ozark Jubilee from Springfield, Missouri. She sang "Jambalaya" on the Junior Jubilee portion which featured younger talent. The producers of the show received three times the day's usual fan mail with nearly all asking to see Brenda on the show again. Jack O'Brien, a New York columnist for the Journal American opened his TV review by saying that "I didn't catch the name of the 9-year-old singer on last night's Ozark Jubilee but she belts a song like a star." This led to bookings on the Perry Como Show and other national TV shows. The family moved to Springfield and Brenda became a regular on the Ozark Jubilee, appearing from 1956 to1959.
On May 21, 1956, Paul Cohen, the A&R man at Decca Records, signed Brenda to a recording contract and on July 30, 1956, she recorded seven songs. "Jambalaya" was released as the first single on September 17, 1956. She achieved moderate chart success in early 1957 with her third release, "One Step At a Time." It climbed to #43 on the Billboard Pop chart and #15 on the country chart.
The next single, "Dynamite," has importance because it gave her the nickname of "Little Miss Dynamite". . . because of her explosive stage act. The title is still used today to describe Brenda. "Dynamite" was the last chart success for the next 2-1/2 years. In 1957, Dub Albritten became her personal manager and remained so until his death in 1972. Brenda and her family also moved to Nashville that same year. Brenda's first Grand Old Opry Performance was in December 1957 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. One of Brenda's fondest memories is of appearing on the show with Elvis.
Owen Bradley became Brenda's record producer with the recording session of May 8, 1958. "Ring-A- My-Phone" and "The Golden Key" were recorded that day. "Little Jonah" was recorded on May 15, 1958. "Ring-A-My-Phone" and "Little Jonah" was the first single release with Bradley as producer. Bradley was Brenda's record producer for most recordings until 1976. Brenda's first album, "Grandma What Great Songs You Sang" was released on August 3, 1958.
On August 13, 1959, Brenda recorded "Sweet Nothin's." The song was released on September 29, 1959 and peaked at #4 on the Billboard charts in late April 1960. This single became the first of many top 10 songs for Brenda. "Sweet Nothin's" was Brenda's first chart success in England climbing to #4 and the first chart success in Germany, peaking at # 34.
On March 28, 1960 Brenda recorded "I'm Sorry." The song was released on May 30 and hit # 1 during that summer. It stayed on the Top 100 for over 6 months. "I'm Sorry" was also Brenda's first gold record selling over one million records.
On October 19, 1958, Brenda had recorded "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree", which was released as a single but failed to chart in either 1958 or 1959. The song was re-released in 1960 and this time became a big hit. This song is a Christmas standard and is #4 in the Top 10 All Time Christmas Songs. It is Brenda's second biggest selling record.
In 1959, Dub Albritten decided it was time to book her on an international level. He arranged a booking in Paris, France. On February 18, 1959 Brenda opened in Paris, France at the Olympia Music Hall with Gilbert Becaud. She was originally signed for 3 weeks and was held over for another 5 weeks. The appearance almost ended before it started. Publicity pictures had been sent over and showed Brenda dressed in her typical schoolgirl clothes. The theatre kept writing asking for more recent pictures because they could not believe that such a big voice could come from such a little girl. Albritten kept writing and said that these were recent pictures. Then Dub had an idea to manufacture a story which ran in the French paper, La Figaro, that Brenda was actually a 32 year old midget. Albritten denied the story. The result was great publicity for her. La Figaro compared Brenda favorably to Judy Garland.
The response of the Paris engagement lead to more European dates in Germany, Italy, and England followed by a tour of South America. Jack Good's Oh Boy! TV show introduced Brenda to the British audience. In Brazil, she received the greatest reception ever accorded an American entertainer as she made a month-long tour with 21 performances. The tour netted 51 front page newspaper stories and features in nine magazines. Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitshek de Oliveira said she was "the best goodwill ambassador the U.S. ever had." After these tours Brenda returned to the states an international star.
Brenda made her film debut in the movie, Two Little Bears, in 1961 with Eddie Albert, Jane Wyatt, and Jimmy Boyd. One of Brenda's songs was "Speak To Me Pretty." This song became very popular in Great Britain and was actually her most popular UK single release, climbing to the #3 position on the charts. Strangely, the song was never released as a single in the United States. She did, however, place six records on Billboard's Top 40 chart that year, including "Emotions" (#7), "You Can Depend On Me" (#6), "Dum Dum" (#4") and "Fool #1" (#3).
1962 brought more chart success with "Break It Too Me Gently" (#4), "Everybody Loves Me But You" (#6) and "All Alone Am I" (#3). The following year saw six more Top 40 hits including "Losing You" (#6).
During a Jackie Wilson concert at the old Fairgrounds Coliseum in Nashville, Tennessee, Brenda met her future husband, Ronnie. They were married on April 24, 1963 at Radnor Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee.
When The Beatles led what would become known as The British Invasion in early 1964, Brenda, like most other American acts, had a little more difficulty achieving hit records. She did however crack the Top 20 that year with "Is It True" (#17) and again in 1965 with "Too Many Rivers (#13). In July 1965, Brenda conquered Japan with her first of many tours. Her first Japanese recording, "One Rainy Night in Tokyo" became one of her many gold records and one of many standards in Japan.
In late 1966, with the American music scene dominated by rock and roll groups, Brenda reached the Top 20 on the Billboard Pop chart for the last time with "Coming On Strong" (#11). Her final Pop chart appearance was in February, 1967 with "Ride, Ride, Ride" which made it to #37.
Just as her pop presence was waning, Brenda broke onto the country charts. Between 1973 and 1975, she had six consecutive Top 10 hits on Decca's successor label, MCA. She continued to inhabit the country charts through the '80s and '90s with "Tell Me What It's Like", "The Cowgirl and the Dandy" and "Broken Trust" (with the Oak Ridge Boys) all going Top 10.
Brenda had a small role in Smokey and the Bandit 2 and sang one song, "Again and Again," in the movie. "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" was heard in the 1991 movie, Home Alone. "I'm Sorry" can be heard in the 1991 movie, The Fisher King, and the the 1993 movie, This Boy's Life.
Apart from performing, Lee is a tireless supporter of the Nashville music community at large and of numerous charitable organizations. She has served on the boards of the Country Music Association and the Recording Academy (the Grammy organization) and has been active with the Kidney Foundation, the American Cancer Society, the Multiple Sclerosis and Cerebral Palsy organizations and the March of Dimes.
Brenda Lee was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997 and to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002. Her autobiography, Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee, was published in 2003.
Brenda maintains a vast army of fans, and adds scores of new fans annually. They encompass a generation of "baby boomers" who grew up with rock 'n roll. They also include her parents generation who were charmed with Brenda as a child performer and watched her grow up before their eyes. Perhaps the biggest surprise of all are the young people who populate her concerts and comb classic record bins to find her old singles.
In February, 2007, Brenda announced that she would be releasing a new gospel album called "Gospel Duets with Treasured Friends", which includes guests Vince Gill, Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton, George Jones, Pam Tillis, Charlie Daniels, Huey Lewis and others. It is Lee's first album of gospel music.
In 2008, her recording of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" marked 50 years as a holiday standard, and in February 2009, the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences gave Lee a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.
Brenda still lives in Nashville with her husband, Ronnie and continues to tour and perform to sell-out audiences all over the world.
For more, be sure to read Gary James' Interview With Brenda Lee