Brenda Lee- Little Miss Dynamite, Rockabilly Pioneer

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Little Miss Dynamite-

Brenda Mae Tarpley is an extraordinary human. Born in the charity ward of Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta GA (weighing only 4lbs 7oz at birth), she came into the world in Dec of 1944, about 10 months before the end of World War ll. When she was very young, her family moved in and out of three houses (none with running water) between Atlanta and Augusta, following the construction work her dad was able to get. She regularly sang solos in her family’s baptist church. She sites Mahalia Jackson as one of her early influences. (for a little taste of Mahalia’s singing and grace, check out this video of her at the Newport Jazz Fest helping celebrate the upcoming 70th birthday of another great of her time, Louis Armstrong) Despite being poor, the family did have a battery powered radio which Brenda listened intently to starting at around 8 months of age. By age 2, she could whistle the melodies of songs she heard on the radio, and by age 3, she was full on singing with a sound well beyond her years. Her mother and sister remember taking her to a local candy store, where they would put her on the counter and she would get candy and coins for her singing.


It was a great time for music on the radio. Between the years of 1945-52, the chitlin circuit was scaling back from big bands to smaller ensembles, like Louis Jordan and his Tympany 5 (Ain’t Nobody Here but us Chickens 1946; Chicken Ain’t Nothin But a Bird 1949; ). The western swing and honkytonk bands were filling up dance halls with a blend of country, r&b, boogie and hillbilly jazz (Ragg Mopp -Johnny Lee Wills and his Boys 1950, Ernest Tubb- Drivin Nails In My Coffin). The very earliest stirrings of rockabilly were coming through in songs like Hot Rod Race (Red Foley, 1951). Tennessee Ernie Ford and Kay Star crooned I’ll Never Be Free in 1950, populating the pop charts along with the Andrew Sisters (Bushel And A Peck 1950) and Les Paul/Mary Ford (How High The Moon 1951). Brenda’s mom sang Hank Williams songs to her. She absorbed it all like a thirsty sponge.


Going Professional-

Brenda won her first talent show at age 5,(1949) Two weeks later, she auditioned for the Atlanta radio show Starmakers Review (ironically, singing a song called Too Young). She continued to work on the show for the next year. In 1951 brothers Smitty and Tennessee Smith started hosting a TV show out of Atlanta un-creatively named Ranch TV. Brenda’s rendering of Hank William’s Hey Good Lookin’, landed her a regular slot on the show. That same year her dad was killed in a construction accident, and her singing became a primary source of income to support her mom and 3 siblings. She had singing gigs nearly every weekend. She would get on a bus on Friday, and head for, say, Ohio, and get home Sunday evening. Her teacher would let her sleep with her head on the desk until about 1 pm every Monday. Local disc jockey, Peanuts Fairclough convinced her to use the stage name Brenda Lee, saying it would be easier for people to remember for when she got famous. His instincts were good on both counts. No telling why he didn’t use the same logic to come up with a better name for himself. Maybe he wasn’t planning on becoming famous. 😉


Her mom remarried, and the family briefly moved to Cincinnati, OH, where her new stepdad worked at a record store. He and Brenda used to play for two radio shows that were broadcast from the store over WNOP in Newport, KY. Soon they moved back to Augusta, which is where Red Foley heard her sing the Hank Williams classic, Jambalaya, thanks to the persuasion of a local disc jockey who caught him just as he was about to go onstage. He was blown away and invited her to sing the song onstage at his show that night. Red himself was dumbfounded at her amazing singing, and the audience went wild and wouldn’t let her leave until she had done 3 more songs. He hired her on as a regular on his Ozark Jubilee show out of Springfield, MO. She debuted on the show in March, 1955. A 10 year old, stepping into the national spotlight, somehow with humility and grace intact. She would keep those traits strong for many years to come.


Making Records-

She started working with Decca Records by mid 1956. Her first two cuts were Jambalaya and Bigelow-6200, neither of which made much headway into the charts. Her third side, One Step At A Time, made it into the charts, and she followed that with the song that inspired her nickname, Little Miss Dynamite. The performance in this clip (Dynamite, on the Ozark Jubilee in 1957), really brings home how unlikely it is for that amazing singing to come roaring out of her tiny body. She is 12 here, and looks 8, yet sings with more maturity than a lot of adult singers EVER get. Her maturity and feistiness came out in the studio as well. In the excellent book, Finding Her Voice, The Saga Of Women In Country Music, authors Robert Oermann and Mary Bufwack (who is serious need of a pseudonym) include a quote from an interview with Brenda talking about her first recording session. “I think I was kind of outspoken as a youngster about how I wanted to sound and how I wanted things done when I was singing. It might have come off just a little bit bratty, I’m sure. In the first session that I did, we had finished and were listening to the cuts, and I said ‘The bass player hit a wrong note”. Owen Bradley asked “what do you mean?’ and I said “Play it back and hear the wrong note.’ Nobody believed me, but we played it back, and he did”. Right on girl. The book’s author share another story of Decca A&R man, Paul Cohen using baby talk with Brenda in a recording session.  She looked him square in the eye and said “well goo goo!”. Cracked up everyone in the room, while establishing the fact that she would not be disrespected or patronized. My kind of gal. Gracious and sweet, but by no means a pushover.


Her early recordings and Ozark Jubilee appearances got her invited onto a bunch of other TV shows, including Ed Sullivan, Steve Allen, and the Perry Como show. Here is a great clip of her singing the Doodle Bug Rag. I am so glad no one ever tried to get me to wear such ridiculous outfits, but her dance moves are just another indication of her deep feel for the swinging’ grooves she was singing over. In an appearance on the Jubilee, they had her sing Hound Dog with Thumbs Carlisle playing the solo dressed in a hound dog costume.

Following her #4 hit, Sweet Nothings, she played the Olympia Theater in Paris. Her show was held over for 5 weeks, and from there she continued to tour West Germany, Italy and the UK. A local and barely known beat band opened her German shows, and she tried to convince Decca to sign them when she got back to the states. One of their biggest mistakes was to not listen. The band was called the Beatles. Yeah, those guys. Bad call, Decca.


She got to record with an A-team of excellent Nashville musicians, each of whom played an essential role in the direction that popular music was taking in those exciting years of the late 50s and early 60s. Grady Martin was one of the excellent guitar players mixing jazz, country and boogie, to help form the sound of the rockabilly/early rock and roll that dominated the charts during that period. Here is a taste of his picking’ on a 1957 recording by Red Sovine, Juke Joint Johnny. Hank Garland was another of the guitar pickers at her Decca sessions. The great drummer Buddy Harmon, featured in this surfy instrumental, Drum Twist, on the kettle drum. On steel, she had Don Helms, of Hank’s Driftin’ Cowboys band, who played the iconic steel into on Patsy’s recording of Walkin’ After Midnight. On her record Rock On Your Steel Guitar, Little Jonah, a young Buddy Emmons was making his mark on pedal steel. Buddy also played with Little Jimmy Dickens, Ray Price, Ernest Tubb and the Everly Brothers, to name a few. Floyd Cramer played on a number of her sides, including possibly one of her most loved songs, Rocking Around The Christmas Tree. This session also included the great Boots Randolph on sax. Then, of course, there was producer/piano player Owen Bradley and his brother (guitarist) Harold. All these great players helped steer the development of Brenda’s style and sound as she matured in the rich environment of having regular musical conversations with such masters.


The Teen Years-

On the road, Brenda traveled in package tours with many other musicians and singers who would further inspire her in the ongoing process of learning how to use that amazing talent. Pasty Cline, Elvis Presley, Webb Pierce, Carl Perkins, Fats Domino, Mel Tillis and George Jones. She was surrounded by great music. She continued to sing through her teenage years, scoring a few more hits and playing a variety of shows. As the rockabilly luster began to fade, Owen Bradly experimented with songs from different styles with varying degrees of success. She sang jazz standards (After You’ve Gone and Lover Come Back To Me), blues standards (Kansas City) and ballads (Fool #1). Some fun facts from the Fool #1 video- “Owen Bradley first heard Fool #1 on a demo tape by an unknown singer. Bradley thought the singer too “country”, but he wanted the song for Brenda Lee. Brenda, in a 1962 interview, recalled the Fool #1 demo as “some girl and an out of tune piano”. The Wilburn brothers were the song’s publishers and would not release Fool #1 without a contract for the demo singer. Bradley finally gave in and signed the raw talent. Her name was Loretta Lynn. Supposedly, Bradley told Doyle Wilburn to “get all that Uncle Remus talk out of her” before they recorded. Later, Bradley remarked that it was the best deal he ever made. At this point in time, then, Owen Bradley was producing records for Brenda Lee, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells.” Also, Brenda was apparently very good at learning other languages. She recorded Fool #1 in 3 other languages, Italian, French and German. She surprised her own daughter once by speaking fluid french to a maitre d’ at a restaurant. Great music and showmanship were not the only things she picked up in all her travels. Thank you to the Mostly Brenda youtube channel for these last two tidbits and for a bunch of these videos.


In her later teen and adult years, Brenda turned toward some styles that I have little to no interest in. Her only gold record, I’m Sorry, is decidedly not my kind of song. Still, all that early music she made leaves me with the deepest respect for her skill, talent and charm. I hope you have enjoyed delving into her music and influences with me.

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