Brenda Mae Tarpley also known as Brenda Lee was born on December 11, 1944, in Atlanta Georgia to parents Grayce and Reuben. Brenda attended several grade schools, mostly in Georgia. She attended Maplewood High School in Nashville, Tennessee and graduated from Hollywood Professional School in California on June 12, 1963.
By the time she was fifteen; Lee was being compared to the legendary Judy Garland and had fans all over the world. When she was only eight years old, Brenda’s loving father was tragically killed in a construction accident.
And by the time she turned ten, she was the primary breadwinner of her family through singing at events and on local radio and television shows. Brenda’s mother remarried a man named Jay Rainwater who opened a record store where Brenda sang on weekends.
Her first break came in 1955 when she was only ten. She turned down a performing gig in order to meet Country & Western star Red Foley. In 1959, Brenda’s stepfather deserted the family leaving them broke.
Even though 15-year-old Brenda was touring the world and singing her heart out, Brenda, her mother, her brother and two sisters were forced to live in a trailer park on 75 dollars a month. In 1960, Brenda hit the top of the charts with “I’m Sorry.” It was her biggest hit to date and won her both a Grammy nomination and a gold record.
For the entire decade of the 1960s, Brenda is the Top Female Charted Act and 4th overall behind Elvis Presley, the Beatles, and Ray Charles. Brenda is #27 which includes all acts since the beginning of the Billboard charts in 1955 according to Joel Whitburn’s “Top Pop Singles 1955-1990” based on the Billboard charts.
At Christmas 1958, she released “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” which sold only 5,000 copies during its initial release. However, it would eventually sell over five million copies.
Disc jockeys also dubbed her “Little Miss Razz Matazz” after her husky, pounding voice belted out her first U.S. Top 10 hit, “Sweet Nothin’s,” in late 1959. Chuck Berry wrote a song about Brenda Lee on the album St. Louis to Liverpool.
She was also immortalized in the hit Golden Earring song “Radar Love”: “Radio’s playing some forgotten song Brenda Lee’s ‘Coming on Strong’.”
Lee’s popularity faded in the late 1960s as her voice matured, but she continued a successful recording career by returning to her roots as a country singer with a string of hits through the 1970s and 1980s.
On September 23, 1997, Brenda was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. She is the first of the baby-boomers and the youngest person to ever be presented this prestigious honour.
Her general popularity faded as her voice suffered damage and matured in the late 1960s, but she successfully continued her recording career by returning to her roots as a country singer. She was able to chart in Billboard’s country-western top-ten twice in 1980.
Brenda Lee was given the Jo Meador-Walker Lifetime Achievement award by Source Nashville in September 2006.