Brenda Lee was born Brenda Mae Tarpley on December 11, 1944 in the charity ward of Grady Memorial Hospital (part of Emory University Hospital complex) in Atlanta, Georgia. Her mother, Grayce Yarbrough Tarpley Rainwater, today resides in Lithonia, Georgia. Her father, Ruben Lindsey Tarpley, was a carpenter and semi-professional baseball player. He was killed in a construction accident in May 1953. Brenda has two sisters and a brother. Her sisters Linda (born in 1942) and Robyn (born in 1955) and her brother Randall (born in 1949) still live in Georgia.
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.
During a Jackie Wilson concert at the old Fairgrounds Coliseum in Nashville, Tennessee, Brenda met her future husband, Ronnie (born May 12, 1944). They were married on April 24, 1963 at Radnor Church of Christ in Nashville, Tennessee.
Brenda and Ronnie have two daughters, Julie and Jolie, and two granddaughters. Julie was born in 1964 and was married in October 1986. Jolie was born in 1969 and married in January 1993. Both granddaughters were born on November 12 - one in 1988 and the other in 1996.
In 1955, Brenda's mother married Jay Rainwater. The family lived in Cincinnati, Ohio. Brenda began working in Jimmy Skinner's Record Shop on two Saturday programs over WNOP in Newport, Kentucky. Brenda sang the big country music hits of the day.
Later that year, the family moved to Augusta, Georgia. Brenda appeared on the Peach Blossom Special on WJAT-TV. It was while appearing on this show that the name "Brenda Lee" was created by the show's producer, Sammy Barton. He felt that Tarpley was to difficult to remember and suggested that she shorten her last name to Lee. Jay Rainwater opened a record store in Augusta and called it the Brenda Lee Record Shop. Station WRDW originated a program in the shop each week and Brenda sang on the show. Disc jockey Charlie Raiford "Peanuts" Faircloth was the announcer. Brenda composed her own theme song:
"Brother, if you want to get the lowdown,
Come along and let's all have a hoedown,
At the Brenda Lee Record Shop Saturday at 3
, On the Brenda Lee Jam-bo-reeeeeeeeeeeeee!
Brenda received no money for these shows but the exposure led to several bookings.
In February 1956, a radio station in Swansboro, Georgia asked her to be a guest on the Peach Blossom Jamboree program for $30. Brenda turned down the offer to go see one of her favorite entertainers, country music singer Red Foley. Mr. Foley was visiting Augusta with the cast of the ABC-TV show Ozark Jubilee at the Bell Auditorium. Brenda met Mr. Foley and his manager, Dub Albritten. Peanuts Faircloth asked Foley if he would let Brenda sing a song on the show. Foley agreed to put her on the show. Foley said "I still get cold chills thinking about the first time I heard that voice." Mr. Foley introduced Brenda. "One foot started patting rhythm as though she was stomping out a prairie fire but not another muscle in that little body even as much as twitched. And when she did that trick of breaking her voice, it jarred me out of my trance enough to realize I'd forgotten to get off the stage. There I stood, after 26 years of supposedly learning how to conduct myself in front of an audience, with my mouth open two miles wide and a glassy stare in my eyes." Brenda performed Jambalaya then another tune, then another, and still another. She left the stage with the crowd shouting for more. "The way I stood back and enjoyed watching her work I felt guilty for not going out to the box office and buying a ticket," said Foley.
After this show, Brenda was offered a guest spot on Foley's Ozark Jubilee. On Saturday, March 31, 1956, Brenda made her first network television appearance on the Ozark Jubilee from Springfield, Missouri. Brenda sang "Jambalaya" on the Junior Jubilee portion which featured younger talent. The producers of the show received three times the day's usual fan mail with nearly all asking to see Brenda on the show again. Also, Jack O'Brien, a New York columnist for the Journal American opened his TV review by saying that "I didn't catch the name of the 9-year-old singer on last night's Ozark Jubilee but she belts a song like a star." This led to bookings on the Perry Como Show and other national TV shows. The family moved to Springfield and Brenda became a regular on the Ozark Jubilee. Brenda appeared on the Ozark Jubilee (later Jubilee U.S.A. - by 1957) from 1956-1959 as a guest then as a regular.
On May 21, 1956, Paul Cohen, the A and R man at Decca Records, signed Brenda to a recording contract with Decca Records.
Brenda's first recording session was on July 30, 1956. She recorded seven songs that day with Paul Cohen as her producer. The songs were: "Jambalaya," "Bigelow 6-200," "Some People," "Your Cheatin' Heart," "I'm Gonna Lasso Santa Claus," "Doodle Bug Rag," and "Christy Christmas." "Jambalaya"/"Bigelow 6-200" was released as the first single on September 17, 1956.
There was moderate chart success in early 1957 with Brenda's third release, "One Step At a Time." It climbed to #43 in the Billboard charts. The song peaked at 103 on the country charts. The next single, "Dynamite," has importance because it gave her the nickname of "Little Miss Dynamite". . . because of her explosive stage act. The title is still used today to describe Brenda. "Dynamite" was the last chart success for the next 2-1/2 years.
In 1957, Dub Albritten became her personal manager and remained so until his death in 1972. Brenda and her family also moved to Nashville in 1957.
Brenda's first Grand Old Opry Performance was in December 1957 at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. She met Elvis Presley for the first time. One of Brenda's fondest memories is of appearing on the show with Elvis.
Owen Bradley became Brenda's record producer with the recording session of May 8, 1958. "Ring-A- My-Phone" and "The Golden Key" were recorded that day. "Little Jonah" was recorded on May 15, 1958. "Ring-A-My-Phone" and "Little Jonah" was the first single release with Bradley as producer. Bradley was Brenda's record producer for most recordings until 1976.
Brenda's first album, Grandma What Great Songs You Sang was released on August 3, 1958. On August 13, 1959, Brenda recorded "Sweet Nothin's." The song was released on September 29, 1959. It peaked at #4 on the Billboard charts in late April 1960. This single became the first of many top 10 songs for Brenda. "Sweet Nothin's" was Brenda's first chart success in England climbing to #4 and the first chart success in Germany, peaking at # 34.
On March 28, 1960 Brenda recorded "I'm Sorry." The song was released on May 30, 1960. The song hit # 1 during the summer of 1960 and stayed on the Top 100 for over 6 months. "I'm Sorry" was also Brenda's first gold record selling over one million records and is her biggest selling record. The song became a huge international hit, and by the end of 1960 Brenda was an international recording artist.
On October 19, 1958, Brenda recorded "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree." The song was released as a single but the record failed to chart in either 1958 or 1959. The song was re-released in 1960 and became a big hit this time. This song is a Christmas standard and is #4 in the Top 10 All Time Christmas Songs. It is Brenda's second biggest selling record. On June 12, 13, and 23, 1964, Brenda recorded songs for her "Merry Christmas" Album, which was released on October 19, 1964. In 1991, Brenda recorded her second Christmas album for Warner Brothers Records.
In 1959, Dub Albritten decided it was time to book her on an international level. He arranged a booking in Paris, France. On February 18, 1959 Brenda opened in Paris, France at the Olympia Music Hall with Gilbert Becaud. She was originally signed for 3 weeks and was held over for another 5 weeks. The appearance almost ended before it started. Publicity pictures had been sent over and showed Brenda dressed in her typical schoolgirl clothes. The theatre kept writing asking for more recent pictures because they could not believe that such a big voice could come from such a little girl. Albritten kept writing and said that these were recent pictures. Then Dub had an idea to manufacture a story which ran in the French paper, La Figaro, that Brenda was actually a 32 year old midget. Albritten denied the story. The result was great publicity for her. La Figaro compared Brenda favorably to Judy Garland.
The response of the Paris engagement lead to more European dates in Germany, Italy, and England followed by a tour of South America. Jack Good's Oh Boy! TV show introduced Brenda to the British audience. In Brazil, she received the greatest reception ever accorded an American entertainer as she made a month-long tour with 21 performances. The tour netted 51 front page newspaper stories and features in nine magazines. Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitshek de Oliveira said she was "the best goodwill ambassador the U.S. ever had." After these tours Brenda returned to the states an international star.
On November 30, 1961, Brenda recorded her first records sung in German, ("Anybody But Me" and "Fool # 1"), Italian ("Fool # 1"), and French ("Fool # 1") in Nashville, Tennessee. On February 26, 1963, Brenda recorded four songs sung in German. The recording took place in West Germany with Bert Kampfert as producer. Brenda recorded six more songs in German on March 26, 1964 in Nashville, Tennessee. Several songs which became hits in Germany including "No My Boy," "Wiedersehn Ist Wunderschen," and "Ich Will Immer Auf Dich Warten" which became Brenda's highest charted record in Germany reaching #13 in the charts by the end of 1964.
On September 17, 1964, Brenda recorded "Is It True" and "What'd I Say" in England with Mickey Most as producer. "Is It True" was released in England and then in the States and become a very big hit and gained gold record status. "What'd I Say" was released in Europe but never in the United States.
In July 1965, Brenda conquered Japan with her first of many tours. Her first Japanese recording was recorded in Nashville, Tennessee on February 16, 1965. The song was "One Rainy Night in Tokyo" sung in English and Japanese. This song became one of Brenda's many gold records and one of many standards in Japan. On July 13, 1965, Brenda recorded three Christmas songs ("White Christmas", "Silent Night," and "Jingle Bells"), originally released on the "Merry Christmas" album, in Japan. These three songs were never released in the United States. Two live albums have been released in Japan. The first was "Live in Tokyo" in 1965 and the second one was "Live in Japan" in 1975. On October 13 and 14, 1977, Brenda recorded twelve songs in Japan, which were originally released on the Japanese album "Just for You, Something Nice."
Brenda made summer stock appearances in the Wizard of Oz (1963) as Dorothy and Bye Bye Birdie (1962) as Kim. Brenda starred for 3 highly successful seasons at Opryland in Nashville, Tennessee. In the 1988 and 1989 seasons, she performed in Music, Music, Music. In the 1990 season, Brenda starred in Spirit of America. Brenda performed in 754 shows during the 3-year run, NEVER missing a show!!!!
Brenda made her film debut in the movie, Two Little Bears, in 1961 with Eddie Albert, Jane Wyatt, and Jimmy Boyd. One of Brenda's songs was "Speak To Me Pretty." This song became very popular in Great Britain and was actually her most popular UK single release, climbing to the #3 position on the charts. Strangely, the song was never released as a single in the United States.
Brenda had a small role in Smokey and the Bandit 2 and sang one song, "Again and Again," in the movie. In 1990, she recorded "You're in the Doghouse Now" for the Dick Tracy soundtrack album. The song was not included in the motion picture. Brenda sang the song daily during the Spirit of America show at Opryland. "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" was heard in the 1991 movie, Home Alone. "I'm Sorry" can be heard in the 1991 movie, The Fisher King, and the the 1993 movie, This Boy's Life.
May 21, 1996 marked Brenda's 40th anniversary as a recording artist and 1990 marked Brenda's 40th anniversary in show business. Brenda still lives in Nashville with her husband, Ronnie and continues to tour and perform to sell-out audiences all over the world.
Robert K. Oermann said in the Nashville Gazette: "They ought to erect a monument to her on Music Row." The late John Lennon said of Brenda: "She has the greatest rock and roll voice of them all."