Deckle edge

Brenda Lee
by Chris Flisher © 1993 /
(first published August 1993 Worcester Phoenix)

Brenda Lee
By the time she turned 21, Brenda Lee had recorded 256 songs. Of those 256 recordings, she charted two, #1 hits, an additional 12 hits in the top ten and an another 13 that cracked the top 40, not to mention the singles that didn't break into the high end of the charts (41 and below). Between 1960 and 1967, Lee was one of the most consistently requested and played artists on the American popular music charts, winning awards as the most programmed female artist from 1960 to 1965. To date, she has sold over one hundred million records worldwide, currently plays to sold out audiences throughout the globe, and, at 49, still feels comfortable with her nickname, "Little Miss Dynamite."

In her prime she was a pop star, in every sense of the word, often portraying an image of women that, by today's standards, would appear unfathomable. Evoking a mawkish style, she epitomized the helpless lover and emphasized feminine vulnerability. While her music is locked in time, Lee's contribution to the evolution of American popular music cannot be overstated. Traces of her powerful country-based delivery can be heard in the work of contemporary artists as diverse as Cyndi Lauper, Chrissie Hynde and k.d.Lang.

Recording her first single at the impressionable age of 11, Lee endeared country music fans with her rendition of Hank Williams' "Jambalaya." Like Shirley Temple, her feisty, precocious temperament and surprisingly arresting vocal style quickly won over country and pop music fans alike. She literally grew up on stage, singing her way through junior and senior high school, supporting her widowed mother and siblings. By the time she turned 16, Lee had amassed enough wealth to finally buy her family a house.

Brenda recalled her humble beginnings while watching her grandchildren in a recent interview from her daughter's home in Nashville. "I came from a very poor family. We lived in a mobile home in rural Georgia. My mother knew I had talent, but she couldn't afford to send me to have music lessons so I just learned on my own." As a result of her poverty, Brenda grew up with few idols or musical role models. She continued, "I had very few influences when I was young. We didn't have a TV, radio or record player. The biggest influence I had was the church and the gospel singers. Occasionally my momma would sing me a Hank Williams song, but other than that I heard very little music. So I made my own."

Coached and marketed by her mother, Brenda's career is a model example of adolescent artistry brought to flower . By avoiding the common pitfalls of artists raised from the stage (reclusive Michael Jackson, anorexic Karen Carpenter, for example), Lee had a relatively ordinary upbringing. She comments, "I didn't know what an ego was when I was growing up. I didn't really know that I was supposed to be under pressure, no one ever told me it was supposed to be tough, so it wasn't. I was very normal. I went to school, had friends and did all the things other kids did."

The only time it became difficult for Lee was when the tables turned and she became a mother. Married to the same man for 30 years (another uncommon feat for an artist) and mother to two daughters, Brenda recalls parenting as the hardest part of her career. "It was tough raising children, while I was gone so much of the year traveling. But much of the success of that goes to my husband, who raised the girls." Traveling and timing, are two unavoidable facts of the business. She continued, "You don't have a whole lot of choice. It's just the way the business is. When Ed Sullivan called me up and said 'Can you be on the show this weekend' for example, I had to go. I wish I had the sense to stay home and see my children walk for the first time, but you have to go with the flow. It's not clear that my career would have been the same had I walked away and stayed home for a few years."

Although pegged as a country artist, Lee's career has been marked by a slow progression through a number of musical styles, beginning with her earliest rockabilly singles ("Bigelow 6-200," "Let's Jump The Broomstick") and her flat-out rock n' roll sides ("Sweet Nothin's," "Weep No More My Baby"). She eventually moved into pop where she reached her peak, amassing huge record sales and recognition. Looking back she reflects on her path. "Country music, at the time I was recording, was really very traditional. It was very acoustic, like bluegrass and mountain music. I wasn't a traditional country artist," Brenda remembers. "I guess I was what you'd call a pop artist, because I felt comfortable with many styles of music; gospel, rock, blues, whatever. I liked it all."

Working with Nashville producer Owen Bradley she developed a decidedly formulaic sound that secured her two number one hits ("I'm Sorry" and "I Want To Be Wanted"), defined her image, and left her with her most memorable trademark—her delivery. Lee remarked on her mentor, "Owen Bradley is the most knowledgeable man in music today. He helped to groom his acts to fit a style that obviously worked. Even today, at 80 plus years, he still knows what's happening. He is a true wizard."

What Owen Bradley heard in Brenda (Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn as well) was the power to transform songs into heart-wrenching mini-dramas, musical love letters. Brenda's voice floats between a fluttering tremolo, squeezing out emotion with every twist of a phrase, and a gutsy growl that belies her petite stature. Supported by layers of violins, the backup vocals of the Anita Kerr Singers and a ringing piano, few could argue with her sentimental effectiveness. The formula pushed Lee into the superstar status, crossing her over the country charts and out into the world of pop. "What makes an artist crossover is not that the songs are really different. It's sales. Garth Brooks, Ray Charles, Kenny Rogers, Willie Nelson all crossed-over, because they sold millions of records. That's what makes you a crossover artist." commented Lee.

While she has faded from the pop charts, she still is a voice to be reckoned with in Nashville. Brenda's last album was released in 1985, and she currently has a new project in the works, the scope of which is still unknown. "I'd love to do an album like Natalie Cole did, of jazz standards, but I'm not sure what the record company wants," she lamented. "I love all kinds of music. I love Miles Davis and Billie Holiday as much as I love Tanya Tucker and George Jones, but don't know how I'd sing if it weren't for Mahalia Jackson," said Brenda referring to the towering gospel singer. Her diverse tastes reflect in her performances, which draw on the numerous stages of her career. "I perform a little bit of everything," said Lee, "I'll sing a little country, a little pop, some slow ballads, some gospel and of course some rock. I'll just mix it up. The one thing you can be sure of is that what you see on stage is the way I am off. No pretensions, no act, just me. That's why I have lasted so long. I'm honest and real."

True, Brenda Lee was and is, a schmaltzy country-pop diva playing on the weaknesses of the broken-hearted, but when her voice pours out of a dashboard radio, how many fall victim to the hook in her voice, opting to keep the station until she's finished her song.

Chris Flisher

Deckle edge