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Brenda Lee


Bill Miller Interviews Little Miss Dynamite

Edited by Edie R. Lambert

She made her first national television appearance at age 12. Two months later, Brenda Mae Tarpley signed her first recording contract. Thus began a Dynamite career in entertainment thatís still setting off fans internationally over 50 years later. Last November, Source Nashville honored Brenda Lee with the Jo Meador-Walker Lifetime Achievement award.

Her hit single, Rockiní Around the Christmas Tree, first recorded in 1958, has become a holiday classic. In 1995, Kansas City-based greeting card giant Hallmark released a jukebox Keepsake ornament of Lee singing the Christmas standard.

Since her recording debut in 1956, Brenda Lee has scored 29 gold records and five gold and platinum albums, including a triple gold and sold over 100 million records worldwide. Sheís in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the GRAMMY Hall of Fame.

During the 1960s, the number of Brenda Leeís charted hits eclipsed all other female vocalists and was surpassed only by Elvis Presley, Ray Charles and the Beatles. Sheís recorded songs in French, German, Italian and Japanese.††

The pint-sized songbird with the giant voice and exuberant spirit continues to captivate. Thereís a street named for Brenda Lee and a day dedicated to her in Lithonia Ga. Singer-songwriter Chuck Berry wrote a song about her, Brenda Lee for his album, St. Louis to Liverpool. And in 1990, the American Rose Society named a miniature rose in her honor. ďThe Brenda Lee rose is yellow with pink to red edges,Ē writes the ARS. ďThe little beauty is exceptionally hearty, smaller than other miniature roses, and an all-around winner.Ē

Beginning June 12, Heartland showbiz ace Bill Miller taped a series of five weekly interviews with Brenda Lee for broadcast on The Bill Miller Show, a weekly syndicated radio program heard in over 100 U.S. markets and Webcast on featuring American classics, adult standards and celebrity interviews.

Here, provided courtesy of Bill Miller, are excerpts from the velvet-voiced radio raconteurís recent tÍte-ŗ-tÍte with the gracious, bewitching Brenda Lee, eternally appealing songstress with the bourbon-and-soda vocal chords.

Bill:Weíre honored to have Brenda Lee with us, thanks to Ray Stevens who got us together because this is something Iíve wanted to do for a long time. Owen Bradley suggested to me some years ago that I ought to interview Brenda Lee. Somehow I dropped the ball, but here we are. Brenda, I bet youíve got some fond memories of Mr. Bradley.

Brenda:I do. He was a wonderful mentor and a great producer. I just loved working with him.

Bill: I never got to meet him, but he was a big fan of our show. Wasnít Owen the grandfather of the recording industry in Nashville?

Brenda:He was one of the architects, yes, of the Nashville sound, he and Chet Atkins.

Bill:Brenda Lee, you have a new album out called Gospel Duets with Treasured Friends with a Ďwhoís whoí in the music industry. Whose idea was that?

Brenda:It was my husbandís and my idea. Itís songs I grew up singing as a child in my church and songs my mother loved. She passed away last November, but I was very blessed that she got to hear it.

I was very lucky to get all the entertainers who agreed to work on it with me. The album took us several years to get done, and it just turned out wonderful. Weíre very proud of it. And itís doing very well.

Bill:Youíve got Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris and Huey Lewis. Heís not your typical country star, is he?

Brenda:No, but heís a sweet person and was so sweet to agree to do it.

Bill:Letís talk a little about you. Does it bother you when people say Ďlittle Brenda Leeí now?

Brenda:Not at all.

Bill:You were born in Lithonia, right?

Brenda:I was born in Atlanta in 1944 and raised in Lithonia, about 30 miles, I guess, northeast of Atlanta.

Bill:My dear departed dad, a native of Arkansas, didnít get carried away with many programs. But when Ozark Jubilee came on, youíd better be quiet because he was going to watch you and Red Foley. Tell us about Red and those days in Springfield.

Brenda:Red Foley discovered me in my home state of Georgia and was kind enough to give me a break on his network television show, Ozark Jubilee. I became a member and from that, I was seen by Perry Como and the people from The Steve Allen Show and The Ed Sullivan Show and got to be on those shows. Then I got to sign my recording contracts. Thatís basically how it all started.

Bill:You signed your first recording contract in 1956, and in 1963, Decca offered you a 20-year contract. That was kind of unheard of then and probably still is today. They must have had a pretty good idea of how good you were going to be.

Brenda:They were very good to me. I had a very long and good relationship with them and still do. My catalog is still with them.

Bill:You became an international star in a hurry Ė performing in France, Germany, Italy, Japan and South America and appearing on a show in the United Kingdom called Jack Goodís ĎOh Boy!í And as legend goes, the president of Brazil invited you to come and visit him in the presidential palace, is that right?

Brenda:Yes, and I did.

Bill:And Iíve got a quote here from a Paris newspaper. It says, ďNever before since Judy Garland has anyone caused so much clapping of the hands and stamping of the feet.Ē Thatís pretty good company youíre in Ė legends like Judy Garland.

Brenda:I was lucky enough to have started at a very young age in this world of entertainment that I could get to work with some of those folks before they passed away.

Bill:When you were just a little gal appearing on some of these national TV broadcasts, did it really dawn on you what you were doing and how many people were watching you perform?

Brenda:I donít think it does when youíre that age. I was just having fun. Singing was what I loved to do, and as long as I was getting to do it, it was fine with me. I donít think you realize the enormity of it while youíre doing it.

Bill:Before Ozark Jubilee, werenít you on a radio station in Conyers, Ga. where they had some live talent shows, and you were one of the talents?

Brenda:Yes. I was on a radio show early, early in my career.

Bill:Ever appear on stage with Elvis?

Brenda:Once. We did The Grand Ole Opry together.

Bill:Arenít you in the Country Music Hall of Fame?

Brenda:I am. Iím the only woman thatís in the Rock and Roll and the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Bill:Iíve seen somewhere that youíre the most successful crossover artist of the decade. Quite a feat. Not everybody can do that -- make that jump from rock to country to adult standards. You did it all.

Brenda:I sing all types of music. I was blessed to be programmed for a lot of different genres.

Bill:You kept your home in Nashville all these years. I guess thatís a pretty dear place to you. You did a show called Music Music Music at Opryland? Who else was on there with you?

Brenda:I did that show for three years. It was just me and a cast of 22 singer-dancers and a 16-piece orchestra. It was a trip down memory lane through several decades of music starting in the 1940s.††

Bill:Didnít you work with the Anita Kerr Singers?

Brenda:I certainly didÖon every record just about.

Bill:Earlier you mentioned Steve Allen. Iíve had Steve on the show with his wife when he was still alive. Was he a pretty funny guy off-camera?

Brenda:Steve Allen was fabulous. He was the sweetest, kindest guy. He was a wonderful entertainer and of course wrote thousands of songs. I just loved him dearly.

Bill:All Alone Am I by Brenda Lee. That has to be one of my favorites songs of yours. But I was thinking, youíre probably heard on the radio as much as anybody other than Bing Crosby every Christmas.

Brenda:Iím blessed to have had Rockiní Around the Christmas Tree in my life. Itís now the number four song in the top 10 Christmas songs of all time.

Bill:†† Perry Como was part of your early career that put you in the spotlight and on your way to stardom. Talk about Perry.

Brenda:Perry was justÖI donít have enough time to describe what a sweet, gentle, kind man he was and what he meant to my career. He was very easygoing, very relaxed, very laid back Ė exactly what you saw on TV. He was very respectful of me even though I was a child. I had a wonderful relationship with him and a wonderful friendship.

Bill:When he passed away, we interviewed several people who knew him, and you couldnít find an unkind word, even off the record, about Perry Como.

Brenda:Thatís right.

Bill:Brenda, youíve been married for quite some time, havenít you?

Brenda:Yes, Ronnie and I married in 1963.

Bill:And you have two daughters?

Brenda:Yes, Julie is the oldest, and Jolie is the youngest. And we have three grandchildren, Taylor, who is 18, Jordon who is 10 and our grandson, Charley who is five.

Bill:Iíve got a feeling you enjoy them very much.

Brenda:I just love 'em to death.

Bill:You sound like youíre a loving grandmother. Itís hard, though, to say Brenda Lee, grandma. But here you are, eligible for the AARP and having the time of your life apparently.

Brenda:I am. Iím at a good time in my life and just haviní a ball.

Bill:Most Programmed Female Vocalist for five consecutive years; 50 ĎHot 100í songs between 1957 and 1973; 15 album charts between 1960 and 1969 Ė my goodness, youíve had a lifetime full of success. Iím sure there have been some down times too, but I have a feeling you probably donít think too much about those. Youíre just thinking about the good times.

Brenda:I do, and I think about how blessed Iíve been to have the life that Iíve hadÖthe wonderful family and GodÖI just feel very blessed.

Bill:Brenda Lee, Iím sure your new album, Gospel Duets with Treasured Friends has good distribution -- available at all the good record stores, bookstores...Barnes & Noble, BordersÖ

Brenda:Yes, and Christian bookstores and retail stores, or you can go to my Web site, and thereís a link to the record company where you can buy it.

Bill:Now, youíre probably going to go in the Gospel Music Hall of Fame. There just arenít Too Many Rivers (one of Leeís all-time top 20 hit singles) for Brenda Lee. She just keeps on keepiní on. Brenda, itís been a joy and a delight to be with you the last five weeks. I hope we can do this again.