Born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia on December 11, 1944, was Brenda Mae Tarpley. She was raised in a household that had struggled to make ends meet as they relocated often in a series of small houses as the family traveled often as her parents struggled to try to find steady work. Brenda Lee’s young life centered around the struggles of her family and the Baptist Church, which she began to sing solos each Sunday. Brenda Lee was blessed with an angel’s singing voice, as well as physical beauty and a stage presence that won her much attention even when she was just a small child.
When she was six years old, she won a local singing contest that earned her a live appearance on a radio show in Atlanta. When her father was killed in 1953 due to a construction-related accident, Brenda Mae Tarpley suddenly became the chief moneymaker in the family, thanks to singing at events, local radio stations, and television programs. It would be during this timeframe shed was a regular on Atlanta’s country music show, TV Ranch.
Two years after the death of Brenda’s father, her mother remarried and the whole family briefly moved to Cincinnati, Ohio. Lucky for Brenda, her step-father worked at the Jimmie Skinner Music Center that had Lee perform with Skinner at the record shop during a couple of radio broadcasts before the family moved back to the state of Georgia, this time in Augusta.
In February 1955, Brenda went to ABC-TV Augusta to see Red Foley at his Ozark Jubilee program. A disc jockey already familiar with Brenda’s work encouraged Foley to hear her sing before the start of his show. When he agreed, he had her perform on stage that night, singing Jambalaya. According to Foley, Brenda’s performance had him in awe. On March 31, 1955, at just ten years old, Brenda made her network debut on Ozark Jubilee in Springfield, Missouri. She enjoyed a five-year run on the show, before making regular appearances on the program as her 1956 contract commitment with Decca Records shifted Brenda Lee’s career into a new direction.
At first, Brenda Lee’s performances catered to the country music genre and its venues. However, the record label wanted her to record as a pop artist. Even as a pop artist, there was always a hint of country in her lyrical performances, which would eventually bring her back to focusing on country music further down the road of her singing career. From 1958 until 1966, Brenda Lee realized the height of her singing career that ultimately made her become one of the music industry’s most beloved singing icons. The majority of her greatest hits come from this timeframe, as well as emerging from North America’s singing princess to international glory. One of her crowning achievements as an internationally recognized artist came when she performed before Queen Elizabeth II at the London Palladium on the November 2, 1964, Royal Variety Performance.
Now as a star who is more in control of her destiny, Brenda Lee returned to her first genre love, country music. The 1970s saw Lee earn a string of top ten hits on the country charts and has performed some of the most memorable duets that have ever graced the music charts. Even venturing into the 21st century, Brenda Lee has continued to record chart-hitting music and has demonstrated that lyrical talent has no age limit.
Brenda Lee was inducted to the Atlanta Music Hall of Fame on September 26, 1986, and was inducted into the Country Hall of Fame in 2002. In 2009, Brenda Lee was also the recipient of a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award, courtesy of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. In total, Brenda Lee has twenty-nine studio albums to her credit, along with twenty-six compilation albums, four video albums, and seventy-two singles.
Top 10 Brenda Lee Songs
#10 – Jambalaya (On the Bayou)
“Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” was the song that started it all for Brenda Lee in 1956. From performing it upon the request of her mentor, Red Foley for Ozark Jubilee, then as her debut single, the impression the young songstress left has been a memorable one, to say the least. The original recording of this single was in 1952 by country music legend, Hank Williams, and has been covered by many different artists throughout the years. The subject behind the song revolved around the Bayou’s famous cuisine, a Cajun meets Creole dish named jambalaya.
Although many talents have covered this single well, it is argued the best version since the original has been Brenda Lee’s. Since she was eight years old, she immortalized this song. As Brenda Lee grew into a fine young woman, she continued to perform this classic and it sounds just as good with her adult voice as it did when she first performed it on stage.
#9 – Losing You
In 1963, “Losing You” became another chart-hitting classic single for Brenda Lee that reached the most amount of music charts, thanks to the versatility and overall appeal of her performance that was poured into this song. On the US Billboard Adult Contemporary chart, Losing You peaked at number two and it was a number six hit on the US Billboard Hot 100, as well as on New Zealand’s Official Singles Chart. It was a number ten hit on US Cash Box and on the UK Singles Chart.
“Losing You,” also peaked at number thirteen on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, at number fifteen on Australia’s Kent Music Report, at number twenty on Canada’s CHUM Hit Parade, as well as appearing on two of Belgium’s music charts. Belgium’s Ultratop 50 Flanders chart peaked Losing You at number eighteen while its Ultratop 50 Wallonia peaked it at number thirty-four. This powerful ballad has been covered by many artists, including Doris Day, Bobby Russell, and Alison Krauss.
#8 – Too Many Rivers
In 1965, on the US Billboard Adult Contemporary chart, “Too Many Rivers” peaked at number two. On the US Billboard Hot 100, it climbed as high as number thirteen, and on the US Cash Box at number fifteen. It was also charted at number ninety-nine in Australia and as high as number twenty-two on the UK Singles Chart. Many music artists were inspired by Brenda Lee’s performance of “Too Many Rivers,” which spawned a number of cover versions, including The Forester Sisters, who recorded and released the song in the country music genre, which did very well as it peaked as high as number five on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart and at number four on the Canadian Country Singles Chart.
As for Brenda Lee and her original recording, the beauty of her performance in laying out the tale that love isn’t always enough to bring back what’s been lost has become a big favorite among music fans, especially among those who can relate to the theme of this song.
#7 – Big Four Poster Bed
The 1970s saw Brenda Lee return to her first love, country music, which saw her perform a number of singles for the genre, including “Big Four Poster Bed,” which became a number two hit on the Canadian Country Singles Chart and peaked at number four on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 1974.
This sentimental song, sung beautifully by Brenda Lee, was narrated as a tear-jerking vigil of a father’s final days that saw him perish in a bed he had made that is now in her possession as she and her new husband start a new life together exactly as her parents did. For music fans who can personally relate to the story, it was, and still is, a favorite song to play, especially at a wedding reception.
#6 – Nobody Wins
In 1973, “Nobody Wins” saw a number one hit on the Canadian Country Singles Chart, as well as a number five hit on the US Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. It was also a crossover hit as it charted at number seventy on the US Billboard Hot 100. Brenda Lee’s performance with this single not only produced another classic hit but as a musical announcement that she is just as capable of bringing forth country music chart-toppers as she did pop, especially when it comes down to a powerful ballad that revolves around a love that’s gone wrong and nobody comes out as a winner because of it.
#5 – Sweet Nothin’s
“Sweet Nothin’s” was a swingy single recorded and released by Brenda Lee in 1959 that quickly became the talented artist’s first breakthrough hit that would catapult her career into stardom. On the US Billboard Hot 100 and UK Singles Chart, Sweet Nothin’s peaked at number four and it was a number three hit on the US Cash Box. It also climbed as high as number twelve on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart and it was the first time one of Brenda Lee’s songs would make an appearance on Australia’s Kent Music Report, which peaked at number twenty-five.
The toe-tapping impression of this song was enough for Prince to adapt Brenda Lee’s vocal performance as the distinctive backing vocals to his hit single,”Kiss.” Lee’s harmonic vocals were also sampled in Kanye West’s single, Bound 2, which then led to Sigma’s 2014 single, Nobody to Love.
#4 – All Alone Am I
In 1962, “All Alone Am I” was a heartbreaking ballad Brenda Lee made immensely popular on the US Billboard Adult Contemporary chart as it reached number one and was a number three hit on the US Billboard Hot 100 and the US Cash Box. In the UK, it was a number seven hit and in Australia at number ten. Originally, All Alone Am I was composed by Manos Hadjidakas, then recorded by fellow Greek, Tzeni Karezi. It was featured on the soundtrack to the Greek film, To nisi ton gen neon, which is The Island of the Brave in English. When the song and lyrics were translated into English for Brenda Lee to perform, it was by request by the same people who produced the 1960 Greek classic film, Never on Sunday.
#3 – I Want to Be Wanted
“I Want to Be Wanted” was one of Brenda Lee’s best-charting singles as it peaked at number one on the US Billboard Hot 100 and the US Cash Box. It is the English adaptation of the Italian song by Pino Spotti and Alberto Tesla, Per Tutta la vita (For All Lifetime). This song was the original version belonging to the 1960 romantic comedy, Never on Sunday. The English translation of the song was written by lyricist songwriter, Kim Gannon, which then was sent to Decca Records.
The album, This is… Brenda was her third studio recording that featured twelve tracks. I Want to Be Wanted also made an impression on the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart as it climbed up to number seven. Both the song and the album featured perfectly orchestrated music that harmoniously matched the angelic vocals that became a Brenda Lee trademark.
#2 – I’m Sorry
In 1960, Brenda Lee’s lyrical plea, “I’m Sorry” was her first number-one single, plus that signature song that catapulted then fifteen-year-old star from local favorite to international fame. On the US Billboard Hot 100 and US Cash Box, the cult classic ballad reached the very top of their respective charts. Although the single was never officially released to any official country music charts, I’m Sorry has since become a country song standard as Brenda Lee’s music style always displayed a hint of country, even as a pop artist.
On the US Billboard Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, I’m Sorry peaked as high as number four and it was a number six hit in Australia and a number twelve hit in the UK. This song, as well as the rest of her debut album, featured a music score that was more sophisticated compared to the rest of the pop music that was distributed during the early 1960s, as was Brenda’s lyrical talent. At first, this song was held back by her record label, which felt a fifteen-year-old expressing her regret as a woman in love would not achieve commercial success among the audience. Oh, how they were wrong.
#1 – Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
Whether it’s the original 1958 recording, or the 2017 cover, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is that one song that nobody seems to have done better than Brenda Lee herself. With the British Phonographic Industry, the single became double platinum and was a number five hit in that nation. On the US Billboard Hot 100, the catchy Christmas classic peaked at number two, as well as on the Rolling Stone Top 100, and on the Canadian Hot 100.
It was a top ten hit single among a multitude of nations and has easily become the most beloved song ever produced by Brenda Lee’s vocal genius. Interestingly enough, when the single was first released in 1958, then again in 1959, it didn’t catch on until Brenda Lee’s name became famous in 1960. That would be the year Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree saw a chart performance. It, however, wouldn’t be just a single occasion. When the US Billboard made some ruling changes to its chart system in 2014, the single returned to the Billboard Hot 100 charts, year after year.
In 2019, 2020, and 2021, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” has peaked at number two on the US Billboard Hot 100 each time the Christmas season rolls around. In addition to becoming double-platinum with UK’s BPI, this Christmas classic has also earned platinum with Recorded Music New Zealand (RMNZ), and gold with Denmark’s IFPI, Greece’s IFPI, Italy’s FIMI, Portugal’s AFP, and Spain’s PROMUSICAE. In the US, Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree also became one of the best-selling Christmas singles with over 1,170,000 copies sold within the US as of 2019.
Top 10 Brenda Lee Songs article published on Classic RockHistory.com© 2022
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