April 24, 2024

They say good things come in small packages and Brenda Lee is living proof! The 4’9” dynamo started singing by age 3, was recording music by 6, and was barely 13 when she released the now holiday hit “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” among other Brenda Lee songs. The tune just hit No. 1 on the Billboard 100 chart. That made for the perfect holiday — and birthday! — gift for the singer, who just turned 79 on Dec. 11, as she became the oldest artist to achieve that honor. Congratulations came pouring in from everyone from longtime pal Dolly Parton to fellow Christmas queen Mariah Carey, who sent some flowers to mark the occasion.

Brenda Lee (2015)Rick Diamond / Staff / Getty
Brenda Lee (2015)Rick Diamond / Staff / Getty A360

She boasts a whole catalogue of stellar work — six decades’ worth — that prove her boundless talent, energy and spunk. “When we sang together, it really was a dream come true,” Parton wrote in her 2020 book Songteller: My Life in Lyrics of teaming up with Lee on “What Do You Think About Lovin’” in 1982. “It was pure joy for me. I was singing with my little childhood idol.”

Lee was still inspiring future artists decades later. At 18, Taylor Swift penned an essay about Lee that was later featured in the 2017 book Woman Walk the Line: How the Women in Country Music Changed Our Lives. “There’s a reason she’s been able to move people to their feet for almost sixty years,” Swift wrote. “Brenda Lee is grace. Brenda Lee is class and composure. And when she hears the roar of a crowd, Brenda Lee smiles like she’s five years old and receiving her first standing ovation. Brenda Lee is someone I will always look up to because of the way she shines.”

The artist certainly has tons she could brag about — like having had The Beatles open for her when they were still without a record contract and they were touring the same clubs in Europe in the early ’60s — but she’s always remained incredibly humble. “I think that the greatest thing was nobody ever told me I was famous,” she shared with NPR. “I loved what I did. I loved singing. I loved the whole scope of the industry, and I just wanted to be a part of it. I didn’t have to be No. 1 to be happy.”

Well, her No. 1s sure made us happy! As do all these other can’t-miss Brenda Lee songs that should be on everyone’s playlist.

12. “Big Four Poster Bed” (1974)

“It was just some boards of rough-cut pine and a quilt of patchwork cotton, a place to lay your body down, was that big four-poster bed.” With its foot-stomping country chorus belted out with gusto by Lee, this hit, among many other Brenda Lee songs, was tucked in nicely at No. 4 on the country charts. Written by poet and children’s author Shel Silverstein (Where the Sidewalk Ends), it’s a surprisingly moving story song about a family’s hand-built bed that gets passed down through multiple generations.

11. “Rock On Baby” (1974)

“Rock on, baby, rock on, I’m not gonna beg ya to stay, Momma didn’t raise me that way, do what ya wanna do.” The singer isn’t putting up with any you-know-what in this decidedly ’70s influenced track that reached No 6 on the country charts. It’s fun hearing her put her “rolling stone” of an ex in his place while still keeping it classy with lines like, “If your rainbow’s fading and ya start to think it over, remember you’re the only one who wanted to be free.”

10. “Jambalaya (On the Bayou)” (1956)

Lee’s first hit at age 11 was this Hank Williams cover, which she sang to audition for her TV debut a year earlier on the Ozark Jubilee TV show. She’d perform it many times throughout her career, of course, including on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1963, and the upbeat Cajun romper has remained a favorite of her fans for decades. It’s hard to listen to this one and not start dancing across the room!

9. “Fool #1” (1961)

“Am I fool #1, or am I fool #2?” Good question, and one that Lee bluntly puts to her shifty beau in this country classic produced by Owen Bradley, who is credited with creating the famed Nashville Sound that elevated his other popular artists, including Patsy Cline and Kitty Wells. By the end of the song, Lee’s realizing that “I’m the biggest fool of all,” and her emotive delivery throughout tugs at the heart.

8. “I Want to Be Wanted” (1960)

Che bella! Lee’s gorgeous version of this Italian tune (“Per Tutta La Vita”) went all the way to numero uno, becoming her second single to top the charts. “I want someone to share my laughter and my tears with, someone I know I’d love to spend a million years with, where is this someone, somewhere meant for me?,” she sings, and you can feel the longing in her voice throughout, on both the restrained sections and the parts that she really punches.

7. “Coming on Strong” (1966)

If you’re going to have your heart broken by someone who leaves you with nothing but “misery for company,” you might as well put a groovy beat to that misery, like Lee does on this No. 11 hit. “I can feel the heartaches coming on strong, I can feel the teardrops, the pain and sorrow, ever since you’ve been gone,” Lee sings, defiantly telling the pain “to come on in” and welcoming the teardrops with open arms, “’cause you can help drown my pride.”

6. “That’s All You Gotta Do” (1960)

Penned by Jerry “Guitar Man” Reed, this upbeat, percolating tune allows Lee to playfully add so much flair and inflection to her vocals that she challenges the saxophone soloist and the rest of the musicians to keep up with her energy. “I’ll love and squeeze you, uh huh huh, I’ll try to please you, ’cause baby I want you to be my lovin’ man,” she sings on this charmer that went all the way to No. 6.

5. “Dynamite” (1957) Brenda Lee Songs

This irresistible single, which came so early in her career that it only reached No. 72, is what earned Lee her nicknames of “Little Miss Dynamite” and “Little Miss TNT.” One listen — or viewing of this performance — makes it clear why: the then 12-year-old’s voice is perfection as it pops and explodes throughout the “crackling rockabilly song,” Slate notes, adding that “even at that tender age, Lee was a spitfire.” The hand claps sure are fun too!

4. “Dum Dum” (1961) Brenda Lee Songs

This No. 4 hit was written by Sharon Sheeley and Jackie DeShannon, the original singer of Burt Bacharach’s “What the World Needs Now Is Love” and the songwriter of “Bette Davis Eyes,” a future smash tune for Kim Carnes. There are a handful of playful, whispered lines from Lee throughout that are fun, and trust us: You’ll be humming or singing the song’s silly but earwormy chorus (“A-dum-dum, a-diddly-dum, oh yea!”) for hours after you hear it.

3. “Sweet Nothin’s” (1959) Brenda Lee Songs

Here’s another that will get stuck in your head from the second Lee belts out “My baby whispers in my ear…psst psst…mmmm, sweet nothin’s!” This iconic track, just like other Brenda Lee songs, went all the way to No. 4 and was a turning point for the artist. “That was my first Top 10 record and it kind of put me on the map,” she told CMT, who interviewed her when its opening “uh huh honey” line was sampled by Kanye West for 2013’s “Bound 2.” Her original had also influenced a Prince’s “Kiss,” as the Purple One’s producer noted he adapted Lee’s vocals for a bit of the 1986 hit’s background parts.

2. “I’m Sorry” (1960) Brenda Lee Songs

Lee’s first No. 1 remains one of her most popular, and the Owen Bradley gem was recorded in just two takes, she’s shared. She’s also noted that people question how she so brilliantly delivered her performance on this heartbreak song since she was too young when it was worked on to have lived through the experiences herself. “I said it was because I wanted to date, and I saw my friends dating and breaking up and crying and sad. So I incorporated that into my interpretation,” she told CMT of her trick. In 1999, the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

1. “Break It to Me Gently” (1962)

If you’re looking for sheer vocal and recording perfection, this one gets our vote, even though it peaked at No. 4. The way Lee’s voice breaks on “easy” in the line “let me down the easy way” is simply sublime, as is the whole vibe and musicianship of this treasure of an Owen Bradley track. And the lyrics by Diane Lampert deftly capture the sorrow of anyone realizing their true love is slipping away. “Love me just a little longer, ’cause I’ll never love again,” Lee sings, and it’s just how we feel, hoping that this stunning song, just like many Brenda Lee songs, never ends.

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This story was originally published December 17, 2023, 11:25 AM.

source: star-telegram

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