The Untold Truth Of Brenda Lee

Brenda Lee might not have the same kind of name recognition that her contemporaries do, and in the words of another great, ain't that a shame. Lee got her start in the late 1940s, hit it big in the 1950s, and over the course of her career, she hit the Billboard charts a shocking 55 times. Unbelievably, that career trajectory started before she left elementary school, hit some major milestones before she was old enough to drive, and made her the most successful female recording artist of the 1960s.

And she gave the guys a run for their money, too: The only artists more successful than she was were Elvis, The Beatles, and Ray Charles.

Lee — who reached an adult height of 4-foot-9 — was known as Little Miss Dynamite for a good reason. Her voice was nothing short of iconic, and more importantly, it was a gift that she truly loved to share. In 2007, she sat down for an interview with Christianity Today, and they asked what she thought of her "legendary" status among performers. She was incredibly modest: "I don't think of myself that way! 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."

All that talent? Brenda Lee was born with it

Brenda Lee was born — as Brenda Tarpley — with an innate talent for song: According to the Country Music Hall of Fame, she could listen to a song just twice and sing it back ... when she was 3 years old. Her family recognized her talent early, too, and it wasn't long before her hometown of Atlanta knew it, too. She won a talent show at five, but it took a while for her to get her real break: She had reached the ripe old age of 11 when she was hired by a Missouri-based variety show called "Ozark Jubilee." It was 1956, and the following year, her name would be on the music charts.

It's easy to judge a family who puts their child front and center on a stage when they're just a toddler, but what does Lee think about it with the hindsight of time? She told Rolling Stone that she simply didn't know life could be anything different, but there was more to it. She elaborated during an interview with the Women of Rock Oral History Project, saying that once she got paid her first $20 — and could give it to her family — she was all in. "Even at that young age, I saw that helped our life," she said. "It put some food on the table. It helped, and I loved it."

A supportive family got her through a tragic childhood

Brenda Lee wasn't just gifted with a brilliant voice, she had something more valuable: A loving family. When she spoke about her childhood to the Women of Rock Oral History Project, she mentioned her siblings — a younger brother and an older sister — and her mother, who worked incredibly long hours to support them. It was that closeness that helped them get through a catastrophic loss: When Lee was 6, her father died.

Other sources (like Rolling Stone) claim that she was 8 when her father died, but the loss was ultimately the same. Ruben Tarpley was a loving and caring father, but also experienced alcohol addiction. When he was killed in a construction accident, the family was penniless — and her mother was left to work long, back-breaking hours at a cotton mill to try to make ends meet. The sometimes 16-hour-long shifts took a toll, and Lee's singing became a way for the family to make some much-needed extra money.

Her mother ultimately remarried a record store owner named Jay Rainwater. It was at his store that Lee would sing on the weekends, and it was at the same time that a local DJ with the unlikely name of Peanuts Fairclough was helping her get recognition and air time — along with encouraging her to shorten her name to "Lee" from "Tarpley."

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She's spoken about growing up poor

Brenda Lee's most famous song is "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," which she recorded when she was 13 years old. She told Rolling Stone, "I knew it was magical," but it's not like a life-changing amount of money just started pouring in.

Lee's career ended up under the guidance of a manager named Dub Allbritten, who gave her the advice to branch out from rock and roll. It meant touring the world while she was still a teenager, and that's a lot of traveling, and stress that will break most adults. Over it all, though, was another pressure: "Nobody ever told me we had money," she shared. "So to me, the reality was to think, 'Well, if I don't make this gig, there might not be another.'"

Her earliest memories included anecdotes like living with whichever relatives were willing to open their doors and their spare rooms to them, and of Christmas. That, she told Billboard, was a special time for family and for fruit — it was the only time they could afford to buy it. Lee has said that she'd always suspected that's why so many incredible singers from the South had the drive and desire to make it big: "For a lot of us rural Southerners, ... this was our way out. This was the way we could make life better for everybody around us, for our family."

She has no idea where it all comes from

Listen to the words that Brenda Lee's singing, and it's not the stuff that's usually on a pre-teen's mind. "I'm Sorry" is a heartfelt plea to a significant other. "Sweet Nothin's" is about the secrets one lover whispers to another — and it's the sort of thing, she sings, that's private. And "All Alone Am I?" A lament sung after a breakup. To put things in perspective, when "I'm Sorry" and "I Want to be Wanted" became back-to-back, chart-topping hits, Lee was in school.

So, how on earth does someone with no experience sing such heartfelt songs? Lee told Rolling Stone that she has absolutely no idea where the longing and complete understanding comes from. It's just sort of ... there. 

Since her mother never let her date, she made it through high school without even knowing what it felt like to break up with someone. When she did finally date someone — at 18 years old — she married him, and they've been happily married ever since. Finding a childhood sweetheart-turned-husband while shooting to superstardom might make many envious, but that's not to say she didn't wonder what it would have been like to have a more normal life. "Many times, I yearned to be with my friends rather than be out there on the road," she explained. "But I knew I had a family to support and that was the way it was going to be."

Brenda Lee was playing in Vegas at 12

It's safe to say that Brenda Lee's life was unlike anyone else's, and her experiences — even as a kid — are the stuff of a Netflix special. Just take her 12th birthday. She spent it in Las Vegas, and she wasn't just visiting: "In 1956, I was at the Flamingo with the Ink Spots," she told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. "As I remember it, I was kind of weaved in and out of the show as a kind of little hostess. And I also sang — so we co-billed."

Even though she was lauded by critics, it wasn't all fun and games. As a 12-year-old, she technically wasn't allowed to be in any of the casinos, so she would be escorted to the stage by adult chaperones — who would also see her going into the building through the kitchen. When her performance was over, it would be an escort back out — again, through the kitchen — and from there, she'd be taken to her hotel room.

She'd later write in her autobiography, "Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee," that it was an incredibly lonely time: "There wasn't anything to do in Vegas for a kid. The most fun I had was on the stage," she recalled. She told Rolling Stone that, for the most part, she remembers it as a perfectly fine way to grow up: "I was getting to sing, and that's what I loved to do. So there were no complaints from me."

Her personal and professional life are polar opposites

When Rolling Stone sat down with Brenda Lee in 2018, they found that she hadn't just found a balance to a rock star life, but that she seemed to comfortably exist in two entirely different worlds. At the time they talked to her, she was sitting at home with her feet up. She was just hours from hosting a major Nashville event — honoring the behind-the-scenes women of the music industry — called the Source Awards. Perfectly ordinary, and perfectly extraordinary at the same time.

As she reminisced, she did some impressive yet seemingly effortless name-dropping. She'd become good friends with the group who opened for her when she was performing in Germany in 1962. They were, of course, The Beatles: "I hung out with John," she explained. "He was extremely intelligent, very acerbic with his jokes, just a gentle person. When I found out that they later said they were fans of my music, I was just floored." Also a friend? Elton John, who has talked about hearing her perform for the first time: "I was just stunned. I don't think I had ever heard anything like it." She was a favorite of Elvis, too. 

But at the same time, when she talked about her everyday life, it was almost shockingly normal. There were chores to be done in the morning, fixing lunch for her and her husband (whom she's been married to since 1963), and maybe some errands in the afternoon.

Brenda Lee was good friends with Little Richard

The 1950s changed music forever, thanks to powerhouses like Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, and Elvis Presley. That was the world that Brenda Lee not only joined but helped to shape — and along the way, she became lifelong friends with some of the biggest names in rock history. That included Little Richard.

In October 2019, Lee and Little Richard were both honored at the same event: Invited to the governor's house for the 2019 Governor's Arts Awards, they both received a Distinguished Artist award. At the time, no one knew it would be his last public appearance: He received his award early, spoke a bit, and was helped away.

Little Richard died in May of 2020, after the 87-year-old had been diagnosed with bone cancer. Accolades and tributes came pouring in, but perhaps none were as moving as Lee's. "I had been dancing to Little Richard's music at sock hops forever," she would write (via Rolling Stone). "How to summarize magic? ... I didn't understand the words, or what they meant, I just knew that I loved how that music made me feel." She spoke, too, about seeing him on that last day. She said they talked about the good old days, how music had changed, and how they had first met way back in the 1960s. She said, "I'm sure he's in heaven, he was such a man of God."

She absolutely loves Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree

It's easy to see how some bands might come to loathe their hit songs. Hearing and playing it all the time has to be exhausting, after all, and when it comes to Brenda Lee's biggest hit, it's on pretty constant rotation throughout the Christmas season. That, of course, is "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," a holiday classic that's perfect for those who aren't a fan of traditional carols. But how does she feel about it?

In short: She loves it. When she talked to the New York Post in 2021, it had been a Christmas staple for 63 years. She was 13 when she recorded it in 1958, in a studio that the song's producer had decorated for the holiday ... even though it was the middle of summer. Decades later, she said that even though she had retired from performing and wasn't singing it on-stage anymore, it was a staple at family gatherings throughout the holidays, "And I go caroling, believe it or not. I love to carol every year."

Faith and friendship kept Brenda Lee on the straight and narrow

When Brenda Lee sat down for a chat with Rolling Stone in 2018, they noted how impressive it was that she had completely avoided the pitfalls that many stars can't avoid. She had never waded into the rock star world of drugs and alcohol, and she suggested part of that was due to the unwavering support of her family.

Lee married at 18, and in an interview for The 700 Club, she said that she gave some serious credit to her husband for the success of her career, their marriage, and their family. And that, she said, was all because of God. "He was looking out for me when I chose my husband," she said. "I wanted somebody with integrity, honesty, and somebody that loved me ... and that would protect me and take care of me. I have found that. And I can only attribute that to God."

She's also a major part of a faith-based event held in conjunction with CMA Fest. According to Forbes, Sunday Mornin' Country started in the 1980s, and was meant to be a festival wrap-up with a Christian vibe, and in 2022 it wasn't just going strong, Lee was still going, too. For her, she says there's no question: "Oh, goodness sakes, I've been coming for years and years. When they call me, I say yeah, I'll be there." It's not surprising, given her strong faith. She explained: "God has never disappointed me."

She has a wildly impressive autograph collection

Do famous, successful musicians look up to and idolize other famous, successful musicians? They do if they're Brenda Lee, and they collect the memorabilia to prove it. When she invited Rolling Stone into her Nashville home in 2018, they were surrounded by years and years of collectibles. Most important to her? "I'm an autograph hound," she said.

In addition to pieces like a framed photo of her dancing with Elvis — alongside a necklace he gifted her — were scores of autographs. The Beatles were on the wall — they'd signed a picture from their days performing with her in Germany — and while there were quite a few old ones, there were some new ones, too. She had Taylor Swift's autograph on a guitar, and only got Fats Domino's autograph not long before he passed away in 2017. It was fairly recently that she realized she'd never had Jerry Lee Lewis sign something for her, either. What's a star to do? She called him — out of what must be one of the most impressive contacts lists in the industry — and asked him for his autograph.

Her prized possession was something deeply personal, though: Her high school diploma. There was something sad about the trip down memory lane, too, as Rolling Stone noted that out of all the people in all the photos, she was one of the last survivors of her era.

She's a dog person

Anyone who has lost a beloved pet knows how devastating it is, and when Brenda Lee lost her dog, Buddy, she told her family that she absolutely didn't want another one. That sentiment started to fade a bit when her husband came home with a 4-week-old puppy he'd found, sitting where she had been dumped in the middle of the Tennessee interstate.

The idea, Lee told The Tennessean, was to get the dog healthy and then send her on to her forever home. It quickly became obvious that she was already there: Now called Little Girl, Lee says she's the best dog she ever had. "Little Girl has added a lot to our lives," she explained. "We love her."

Dogs have been a staple part of Lee's life, from touring with her pet poodle to welcoming Little Girl into her home on a permanent basis. She has spoken about treasuring their company for their unconditional love and loyalty, and shared an important message: "If [Little Girl] could talk, she would tell everybody out there, 'Please find you a baby to love. Your life will be so much better and enriched.'"

Brenda Lee has given other young stars invaluable advice

When it comes to experience, Brenda Lee has a literal lifetime of it. From breaking into show business as a child star to being the only woman inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame, she's seen and done a lot — and through it all, she's become a brilliant role model.

In 2016, she sat down for an interview with MusicRow. She, along with Jeannie Seely, was getting ready to host the induction ceremony for Source's Hall of Fame — the organization that recognizes the women who work behind the scenes in the music industry. When asked what advice she would give to women in the industry, she told a story about LeAnn Rimes' mother, who reached out to her after her daughter hit it big with "Blue." Rimes was a child, too, and Lee had some invaluable advice that included continuing to get an education, getting the same sort of regular job most teenagers get, and being active in things like after-school activities. 

She explained: "I went all over the world, went to school, graduated from high school, and was on the debating team. ... Get that education and, as Judy Garland once told me sitting poolside at the Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, don't let anyone take your childhood away. I'll always remember that."

It took her most famous song 65 years to hit No.1

If there's one thing that can be absolutely guaranteed about the Christmas season, it's that countless old favorites are going to be played often ... relentlessly even, some might say. For decades, Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" has been one of those classics, but the story of how well it's actually done is kind of surprising. In her memoir, "Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee," she says some Christmas-related antics — including dressing up a donkey with reindeer antlers and a billboard — in 1958 completely failed to make the song a hit. "The gimmick was a bust," she wrote. "My future holiday classic fared no better than my other rockabilly records during its first release."

Patience is, as they say, a virtue, and in 2023, Lee hit No.1 on the singles chart. A full 65 years had passed since it was released, so what's different?

In addition to filming a new video that put Lee in every heartwarming Christmas scene imaginable, it probably has something to do with Billboard's revamp of their criteria for rankings. It's no secret that streaming is getting more and more popular, and it wasn't until 2018 that they caught up with the times and changed how they processed data from streaming services. We all know that the holidays are the time to play the classics — again and again — and finally, Lee got her No.1.

Her uncle was a World War II POW (and her father could have been)

When Brenda Lee looked back at her parents' lives for her memoir, "Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee," she shared a bit about the impact that the two World Wars had on her family. As her father was the youngest of six, his older brother served in World War I and — after being caught in a chemical attack — spent the rest of his life on disability. It didn't dissuade her father from enlisting, though, and he did. After spending 11 years in the Army and being stationed in Hawaii, he opted not to reenlist when the time came. Why? The military refused to guarantee he'd stay in Hawaii.

That was 1939, and everyone's familiar with what happened a few years later: Pearl Harbor. While Ruben Lindsey Tarpley returned to his family stateside, Lee wrote, "If he had stayed there, he might have become a statistic instead of a new father."

He wasn't the family's only son who had enlisted, and in fact, Lee wrote that they prided themselves on their military service. It was her uncle who paid perhaps most dearly for that: Ivan Tarpley had also been stationed in Hawaii, and as the war in the Pacific raged, he found himself transferred to the Philippines. It was there that he was captured by Japanese forces, and would spend the remainder of the war — about three years — in a POW camp. Lee was born in 1944, before he was released.

Her manager and the missing money

In 2023, Brenda Lee told The New York Times she credited her manager, Dub Allbritten, with looking after her in a way that still made room for her to be a child, even as she toured and sang. "I had people that cared about me. [Allbritten] respected my wishes."

She says that's the reason she didn't end up like a lot of child stars, but there's a massive "but" here. In her memoir, "Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee," she recalled the circumstances of his death. In 1970, he went through surgery after suffering a major paralysis. He was diagnosed with lung cancer, and Lee says that although he didn't talk much about it, he did know when he was getting to the end. That, she said, was when he asked her to come to his apartment: He had something for her.

Allbritten said that for years, he had been putting money away for her, and he had just been about to open a massive safe when visitors showed up at the door. Lee and her husband excused themselves — thinking they would see him the following day — but that following day, he was dead. They quickly found out that whatever money had been in the safe was gone, Allbritten himself was broke, and the courts claimed that she owed money to his estate. "To say that I felt betrayed is an understatement," Lee wrote. "It was one of the lowest points of my life."

Her secret, stressful marriage ended up lasting a lifetime

Everyone loves a good love story, and Brenda Lee's is one for the ages. Not only has she been happily married for decades, but it was a union that started off more than a little rocky ... but not, she stresses, because of either her or her beloved. In her memoir, "Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee," she shared her earliest memories of dating Ronnie Shacklett: She was 17, he was 18, and she wrote, "... it was love at first sight. I didn't say anything to anybody, but I knew from the moment I saw him that he was the guy I wanted to marry."

And he asked pretty quickly. They'd been dating for about three months when he proposed, and Lee said that no one was thrilled. Some said it was too soon, they were too young, and it would impact her popularity and her career ... but they weren't about to be dissuaded, and married in 1963. They only invited his family as she knew her mother wouldn't be supportive, and she wrote that was one of her lifelong regrets.

Still, the marriage lasted: When she spoke with The New York Times in 2023, he was on hand to remind her just how long they'd been together. And hilariously, Lee says that she received only three letters lamenting the fact that she was now a married woman — they were from her mother, her manager, and the Prince of Arabia.