MOzarks Moments: Little Brenda Lee becomes a big star

Clockwise from top left: Brenda Mae Tarpley (Brenda Lee) in a publicity still from the Ozark Jubilee. Brenda “dances” with Elvis during their performance together on the Grand Old Opry. One of Brenda's early albums. A more mature Brenda Lee on a later album cover. Brenda's “16 Greatest Hits” album cover.

When Brenda Mae Tarpley, performing as Brenda Lee, was discovered by Ozark Jubilee host Red Foley and brought to Springfield as a regular on the nationally-broadcast television show, the exposure and her resulting popularity gained her appearances on other national TV shows such as the Perry Como Show, and made her a good prospect for a recording contract.

That came about on July 30, 1956, when the 11-year-old singer signed a record deal with Decca Records. Her first record was the first song Red Foley heard her sing; “Jambalaya” with the flip side being a song called “Bigelow 6-200” (which was a telephone number) written by Southwest Missouri State University student and KICK deejay Don Woody along with fellow songwriter, Paul Simmons.

Her second 45 record held two novelty Christmas songs; “I'm Gonna Lasso Santa Claus” and “Christy Christmas.” Both records listed her as “Little Brenda Lee” on the labels. None of those songs were hits.

By then, Brenda's family had moved to Springfield and she began attending Phelps Elementary School.

Her first record in 1957 held a song entitled, “One Step at a Time.” It was written by an Ozarker named Hugh Ashley, who in later years owned a music store in Harrison, Arkansas. This song landed on both the pop and country charts.

Brenda Lee’s next hit was a song called, “Dynamite” and led to her showbiz nickname, “Little Miss Dynamite.”

Because of her popularity, her mother, stepfather and manager decided the grass might be greener in Nashville instead of Springfield. They broke their contract with the Ozark Jubilee in 1957 and moved there. Springfield's Crossroads Entertainment, which produced the Jubilee and held her contract, took them to court, but Brenda's parents and manager prevailed, so she was no longer a regular on the show. However, Brenda Lee continued to make frequent guest appearances on the Ozark Jubilee throughout 1959 and 1960.

In 1958, she recorded another Christmas song, this one written by Johnny Marks who had written “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” for Gene Autry and “A Holly Jolly Christmas” for Burl Ives. It was an upbeat song called “Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree.”

The song didn't sell many records in 1958 nor in 1959 when it was released again. However, it became a hit in its third release and sales skyrocketed. In 1991, it was featured in the movie “Home Alone” and became popular once again. On Dec. 13, 2017, 59 years after it was first released, the song hit No. 37 on the Billboard Hot 100. In total it has sold some 7 million records.

Fourteen-year-old Brenda performed on TV in England in 1959 and had a three-week engagement booked for Paris, where she was so popular she was held over for five more weeks. 

Late that year, she recorded a song written by Ronnie Self from Tin Town, Missouri (east of Pleasant Hope and northwest of Fair Grove). His song, “Sweet Nothin's” was a big hit for Brenda. And her rendition on Decca Records of another of his songs, “I'm Sorry,” in 1960, hit No. 1 on the charts, sold millions of records and became the biggest hit of her career.

From 1960's “That's All You Gotta Do” to 1962's “All Alone Am I” Brenda Lee set a record for a female solo artist of nine consecutive top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hits that was not equaled until Madonna did it in 1986.

In 1961, Brenda added “actress” to her resume. She made her film debut in “Two Little Bears” with Eddie Albert and Jane Wyatt. In 1962, she took the role of Dorothy in summer stock performances of the “Wizard of Oz.” The next summer she appeared as Kim in “Bye Bye Birdie.”

At the age of 17, Brenda toured West Germany in 1962, appearing at the famous Star-Club in Hamburg where four guys from Liverpool who called themselves the Beatles opened for her. She also toured England for a second time in 1963 and a third time in late 1964, when she also appeared at the annual Royal Variety Performance for Queen Elizabeth II.

Brenda also toured Italy and South America, which included a month-long tour in Brazil with 21 concerts.

In November 1962, Brenda met Ronnie Shacklett at a Bo Diddley and Jackie Wilson concert in Nashville. She was 18 when she had her first single date ever and it was with Ronnie. They married five months later and are still married today.

In the early 1970s, Brenda dived back into country music again with a series of top 10 hits. One of those, according to Wayne Glenn in his book, “The Ozarks Greatest Hits,” was a song co-written by Springfield’s Wayne Carson called, “Always On My Mind.” They wrote it for Elvis and his 1972 recording made the charts, but was surpassed in the charts that same year by Brenda Lee’s recording of the song.

In her teenage years, Brenda toured constantly and slept on an inner tube in the back of the family's station wagon. She loved playing state fairs because she always rode all the rides. She returned to Springfield in 1972, at the age of 27, for a performance at the Ozarks Empire Fair. There are no reports as to whether she rode all the rides or not.

Her string of hit country songs continued into the ‘80s and her album “The Winning Hand” in 1982, which also featured her longtime friend Dolly Parton (whom Brenda met before Dolly was even a teenager and who calls Brenda “one of the greatest entertainers ever”), along with Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson reached the top 10 for country albums charts.

In her long career, Brenda has received four Grammy Award nominations, won England's ‘”Musical Express Award for Best Female Vocalist” for five years running, won the National Association of Record Merchandisers award for “Best Selling Female Vocalist” two years running, won its award for “Most Promising Female Vocalist” and its award for “Top Female Vocalist on Singles.”

In 1984, she won the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences “Governor's Award.” Oct. 3, 1987 was declared “Brenda Lee Day” in Lithonia, Georgia. 

In 2008, she won a Dove Award for Country Gospel Album of the Year. In 2009, she won the Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award. Brenda Lee is the only woman artist to be inducted into all four of the following: the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Rhythm and Blues Hall of Fame, and the Hit Parade Hall of Fame.

Brenda Mae Tarpley wrote her autobiography in 2002, entitled “Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee.” Now 74 years of age, she and Ronnie still live in Nashville, where she is active with the Country Music Hall of Fame and with a multitude of charities.

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