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Sunday, 27 May, 2007 5:54 PM

Brenda Lee is Still "Dynamite" After All These Years


Country artist Brenda Lee.

By Peter Cronin
© 2007 CMA Close Up News Service

With boundless energy and an incendiary vocal style, Brenda Lee was being billed as "Little Miss Dynamite" in the late 1950s, selling millions of albums and becoming an international superstar - all before she entered her teens. Five decades later, the pint-sized powder keg is still running on full power and influencing a whole new generation of artists in both rock and Country. She may have slowed down her busy touring schedule in favor of family (she's the mother of two and grandmother of three), but the woman John Lennon once said "has the greatest rock 'n' roll voice of them all," is now a respected role model for women in the ever-evolving music business, and a tireless champion of several charitable causes.

In September 2006 at the new Musician's Hall of Fame, the Nashville-based organization SOURCE, a networking foundation that mentors women working in the music industry, bestowed upon the 61-yearold singer the Jo Walker-Meador Lifetime Achievement Award, named after the first woman CMA Executive Director, who, along with surprise guest Garth Brooks, presented her with the award.

"Brenda has certainly been a long and faithful contributor to the music industry in general and especially to Country Music, because, of course, that's where she started her career," Walker-Meador said. "When CMA was established, it was some of the Board members' idea that it could be supported by the artists doing benefit shows, and Brenda did CMA's second benefit show in 1960 in Fort Wayne, Ind. She's such a trouper. She appealed to people, not just because of her talent but because she was Brenda."

"I was stunned to accept the award in the Musician's Hall of Fame, which honors the guys and girls that helped me make my music and helped get me to this point in my life," Lee said. "And then to have the award presented to me by Mrs. Walker-Meador and Garth Brooks, I was shocked. He flew in especially to do it, and flew right out because he had to take his kids to school on Friday morning. All I could think of to say when he walked on stage was, 'I love your wife!' And he said, 'I do too!'"

Although Brooks' wife, singer Trisha Yearwood (who, like Lee, is a Georgia native) was on the road in Pennsylvania and couldn't attend the event, she called Brooks earlier that day to remind him to convey her congratulations.

A member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (elected in 2002) and the Country Music Hall of Fame (inducted in 1997), Brenda Mae Tarpley's career began at age 5 when she won a talent contest, representing Conyers (Ga.) Grade School. Soon after, she appeared for a year on an Atlanta radio show, and was later seen on local television. In May 1953, when Lee was 9, her father was killed in a construction accident. Two years later, her mother remarried, and the family moved to Cincinnati. In February 1956, the 11-year-old who by this time was being billed as Brenda Lee, returned to Georgia and was living in Augusta where her big break came during a meeting with another future Country Music Hall of Fame member, Red Foley, then host of the popular "Ozark Jubilee" TV program.

She also met Dub Allbritten, Foley's manager and the man who would guide her career as her manager until his death in 1971. The meeting with Foley led to a Decca Records contract, and in early 1957 Lee's first chart success came with "One Step at a Time," which climbed to No. 43 on the pop charts and No. 15 on the Country charts. Although it would be another 12 years before Lee returned to the Country charts, a string of pop hits began in 1960 with the No. 4 hit, "Sweet Nothin's" and the No. 1 smash, "I'm Sorry."

The streak continued for the next seven years, accompanied by such heady experiences as meeting her idols Judy Garland and Elvis Presley, sharing a concert bill with The Beatles, becoming (at age 12) the youngest headlining performer in Las Vegas history and appearing before Queen Elizabeth II in a Royal Command performance.

An internationally-recognized superstar before she turned 21, Lee had nonetheless only been allowed to double-date, until her first "solo car date" with the young man she would marry in 1963, Ronnie Shacklett. Lee took time off to be at home with the couple's two daughters when they were born, Julie in 1964, and Jolie in 1969, but returned to a full-time music career in 1973 with "Nobody Wins," the first of six consecutive Top 10 Country singles.

Julie is now an author working on her third book. She shares co-writer credit on Brenda's 2002 autobiography, Little Miss Dynamite, with her mother and journalist Robert K. Oermann. Younger daughter Jolie works within the criminal justice system in Tennessee.

Preferring to spend less time touring these days, and more time with her three grandchildren, Lee does about 25 singing engagements per year instead of the 100-plus she has in years past. The doting grandmother says that 18-year-old Taylor is, "fluent in French and brilliant in math," while 10-year-old Jordan is "a very good artist." Grandson Charlie, is "a 4-year-old and he's just precious. He has music in him."

Speaking volumes for her influence and for the esteem in which she's held by her peers, Lee released on April 10 her first gospel album, Gospel Duets with Treasured Friends, a spare, acoustic collection of duets with some notable partners: fellow Country Music Hall of Fame members George Jones ("Have a Little Talk with Jesus") and Dolly Parton ("This Old House"), along with Kix Brooks of Brooks & Dunn ("Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"), Charlie Daniels ("This Little Light of Mine"), Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn ("Where Could I Go But to the Lord"), Vince Gill ("I Saw the Light"), Emmylou Harris ("Jesus Loves Me"), Alison Krauss ("In The Garden"), Martina McBride ("Uncloudy Day"), Delbert McClinton, Pam Tillis ("Precious Memories"), Trisha Yearwood and rocker Huey Lewis ("Oh! Happy Day").

Lee, whose first gospel performance was with Georgia's Master Worker's Quartet when she was 5, said, "When you're a poor daughter of the South, church is where you go for your social activities because it's free. So every time the doors were open, we were there. As I child, it was just ingrained in me."

Taking almost two years to complete because of all the schedules that needed to be coordinated, Lee calls the resultant project, "an upbeat, happy thing." Other happy things in Lee's busy life include her involvement as a board member for organizations including Habitat for Humanity and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). She also gives four scholarships per year to two Nashville universities, and is quick to pass on a bit of the wisdom she learned from the man who was one of the most important keys to her success, producer Owen Bradley.

"[He] always told me two things: Don't ever try to compete with anybody else; and, you don't have to be the conductor, you just want to be on the train. I've been on the train for a long, long time and I really appreciate it. I see strong women every day in our world of entertainment, more so in the last decade than I've ever seen. And I'm always glad to see the girls do well, because no matter what they say, the girls have a harder time breaking that glass ceiling than the guys do in this town. Once the door is opened by people before us, it's a little bit easier to get through the cracks. I hope that the young group that's coming - and I was in that young group, too - I hope they have a passion and a love for whatever it is they do. The entertainment world is hard enough when you love what you do. In any business, without that passion, it must be truly hard."

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