‘Little Miss Dynamite’ blew up the charts when she was only 12: The story of Brenda Lee

Brenda Lee may not be a household name like some of the other music stars from the 1960s, but her music is timeless and will forever be associated with Christmas. You can’t help but start humming her catchy tune, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”

Lee, now 78 years old, made a splash in the music industry when she was just a young girl. Even at the age of 12, her powerful vocals catapulted her to unprecedented international popularity, making her the most successful female artist of the 1960s.

Born Brenda May Tarpley in 1944, Lee got her start in the late 1940s and became a huge sensation in the 1950s. Surprisingly, her career began before she even left elementary school. She topped the charts an incredible 55 times and earned the title of the most successful female recording artist of the 1960s. But Lee’s journey to stardom wasn’t an easy one.

When Lee was just eight years old, her father, a construction worker, tragically lost his life. This left little Brenda, who later changed her last name to Lee, as the family’s primary provider. As a young girl, she took on the responsibility of taking care of her younger brother, big sister, and mother, who worked in a cotton mill.

Helping her family was not just a duty; it was something she genuinely wanted to do. Lee recalls how thrilled she was when she earned her first $20, knowing it would contribute to their livelihood. “Even at that young age, I saw that it helped our life,” she says with gratitude. “It put some food on the table. It helped, and I loved it.”

Despite her incredible success, Lee remains incredibly humble and credits the people who supported her along the way. When asked about being a legend, she dismisses the notion, saying, “I’m just a girl who’s been really blessed to be doing what I’m doing, and there’s a lot of people who’ve sweated a lot of tears and put a lot of life’s work into me to be able to have my dream. So, if I’m a legend, then they’re legends too.”

The Early Years

Lee’s journey into music began when she joined country star Red Foley for a show in Augusta when she was just a young girl. She wowed the audience with her rendition of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya.” This led to her appearance on Foley’s Ozark Jubilee, a country music show that showcased her talent to millions of viewers, who quickly fell in love with the sassy 12-year-old. Soon after, Lee signed with Decca Records, and her unique fusion of country and rhythm and blues, highlighted by her distinctive hiccupping vocals, resulted in early rockabilly classics like “BIGELOW 6-200,” “Little Jonah,” and “Let’s Jump the Broomstick.”

Performing in front of large crowds was never nerve-wracking for Lee, even as a young girl. She explains, “No, not really. Nobody ever told me to be nervous. The stage always felt like hometown to me because I had been in front of people ever since I was 3 years old, singing to people. So it was a very comfortable spot for me.”

In 1957, Lee earned the nickname “Little Miss Dynamite” for her powerful recording of the song “Dynamite.” And in 1958, at the age of 13, she released “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” which has become a genre and generation-crossing holiday classic.

Life Challenges and Personal Triumphs
Despite her young age, Lee’s songs often contradicted her own experiences as a young girl. While her mother did not allow her to date, she sang about love and heartbreak, as exemplified in her hits “I’m Sorry” and “I Want to be Wanted.” However, when she turned 18 years old, she met Ronnie Shacklett, and they have been happily married for 60 years.

Life on the road as a young star had its challenges for Lee. She often felt lonely and missed out on the typical experiences of childhood. However, she also made lifelong friends along the way. She fondly recalls hanging out with John Lennon and cherishes the memories of dancing with Elvis Presley and being friends with Little Richard.

Lee, who leans on her faith, attributes much of her success, both personally and professionally, to her husband and God. She married her husband in 1962, and she believes that God looked out for her and brought them together. Furthermore, Lee continues to contribute to the music industry by being a part of Sunday Mornin’ Country, a faith-based joint event with CMA Fest that has been going strong for over 40 years. She has also become a role model to many young stars, like Taylor Swift, who wrote a highly personal essay about Lee’s influence in the book “Women Walk the Line, How The Women In Country Music Changed Our Lives.”

Brenda Lee’s Legacy
Today, even in retirement, Brenda Lee’s music is still adored and cherished by fans worldwide, especially during Christmastime. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” has become a holiday staple, and its popularity continues to grow year after year. Lee remains grateful for the incredible gift of music and the joy it brings to people’s lives.

It’s incredible to think that decades later, Brenda Lee’s music still brings happiness to her fans. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” continues to be a favorite, evoking memories of joyful holiday celebrations.

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