A native of Georgia, a singer at ten years old and an international celebrity just a couple of years later. A lifetime if experience has not put BRENDA LEE back firmly in the country music camp. ALAN CACKETT tells the story.
You could say I grew up with Brenda Lee. I was still in school when her voice first hit me; her songs, packed with warmth and emotion, seemed to explain away all of the tribulations of growing up during those exciting teenage years of the early 1960s. If you are around 35 years old, chances are you have a special memory tucked away that is instantly rekindled when you hear an old Brenda Lee hit such as I’m Sorry, Fool No.1, As Usual, All Alone Am I or Here Comes That Feeling.
When these songs were hits in the 1960s, it didn’t matter whether Brenda Lee was country, rock, middle-of-the-road or blues. All that mattered was that she was singing of your lost love and your feelings. Consequently, most of us grew up cherishing Brenda Lee and the emotions she touched in all of us.
Now in her early thirties, Brenda made a highly successful European tour last spring, including a stunning performance at the annual Wembley Country Music Festival. I spoke to ‘Little Miss Dynamite,’ as she used to be affectionately known, about her career, family and future plans.
She had just arrived back in London from Holland when I met her in the Royal Lancaster Hotel lounge. She was feeling rather dejected, having undertaken a hectic tour, and to top it all off, her luggage had mistakenly been sent back to America. So some hurried visits to Oxford Street had to be squeezed into her already tight schedule.
“It's always nice to come back to Britain,” she said, “because the fans over here have always been so good to me, but next time it needs to be more organised and less hectic.” It is still amazing how short Brenda is, yet she more than compensates for her size by her dynamic vocal range.
She came from Atlanta, Georgia, a typical southern girl, who grew up surrounded by country music. She started singing professionally towards the end of 1955 to help support her family following her father’s death. Debuting as a straight country singer and appearing on shows like Red Foley’s Ozark Jubilee when she was only ten years old, she is one of the few child stars who has successfully stayed the course.
Her first recording, made in 1956, was the Hank Williams’ country classic Jambalaya, and naturally enough this young singer soon got caught up in the while rock’n’roll thing, She became almost the closest thing to a female rocker that a young teenager could, as from a five-foot frame came a rasping, belting voice on numbers like Sweet Nuthin’s, Dum Dum and Let’s Jump The Broomstick.
It wasn’t just a powerful and strong voice, it was flexible, too. She could dip low and growl in a way that was a little sexy, but not so as to offend parents. Pop music was still in its infancy and had to be really careful not to offend. Brenda was more playful and friendly. She could soar on the ballads and still hit each note, while keeping that distinctive huskiness in her voice.
It is incredible to think that Brenda first visited Britain some twenty-odd years ago “The first time I came over here must have been way back, 1958 I think it was, before I had made any impression with records. I did Oh Boy and those other rock’n’roll shows with people like Gene Vincent and your own Cliff Richard and Marty Wilde. I used to come over quite regularly. But this is the first time I’ve been back since 1973.”
Her success with rockin’ pop sings made the diminutive teenager a household name throughout the early 1960s. “I was voted Top Female Singer by the British pop fans more times than anyone else,” she said. “The New Musical Express had an annual poll, and I won the award for six straight years. That was a real honour, and I’ve never forgotten how good the people over here have been.”
But with all that success in the pop market, she always retained her connections with country music. She first made the country charts in the spring of 1957 with One Step At A Time, a teenage pop song with a strong rock’n’roll feel provided by saxophones and a pronounced beat. She wasn’t to make any more entries on to the country charts for another twelve years, yet many of her pop hits were penned by country songwriters. Jerry Reed wrote That’s All You Gotta Do in 1959, Marijohn Wilkin and John D. Loudermilk teamed up for Weep No More My Baby in the same year, and Mel Tillis and Wayne Walker penned Rock The Bop in 1957, and rockabilly singer Don Woody was responsible for Bigelow 6-200.
Her later ballads hits came from Nashville writers like Alex Zanetis (As Usual), Johnny Cash (I Still Miss Someone), Harlan Howard (Too Many Rivers), Willie Nelson (I’m A Memory), Buzz Cason (The Waiting Game), Mel Tillis (Emotions), and Dallas Frazier (Johnny One Time). Most of Brenda’s recordings were done in Nashville with Owen Bradley producing and the string arrangements handled by Bill McElhiney.
By the mid-1960s a certain sophistication began creeping into her records. Her choice of songs steered away from the teenage emotions that she had previously sung about. By the time she was 19 years old, she had spent almost half of her life singing pop songs, but now she had become a young married woman, and it was this situation that the songs reflected. She was now singing of adult relationships and quite often had to dig back in the past to find the song she wanted.
I’d often wondered if Brenda had been forced into recording these old pop standards by her producer, but she put me straight on that point. “Oh no! I really like those old songs, such beautiful melodies and lyrics I could really get into. Now I’m not able to record the old songs because it’s not what the public wants. I’m constantly looking for new material, but luckily in Nashville we have some fine songwriters, and I’ve been fortunate in recording some really good songs.”
Her albums were full of pop standards. Songs like Fly Me To The Moon, Night And Day, Dear Heart and Days Of Wine And Roses brought her closer to the cabaret circuit. On the single front she found the hit parade slipping away from the top more rapid. The emergence of The Beatles and the British beat boom of 1964 only made her demise from the top more rapid. To her credit she did manage a few hits in the face of this stiff opposition, and was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1969 for her superb rendition of Johnny One Time.
By this time she had settled down happily to her status as a mother and only returned for the occasional night club appearance and released a steady stream of albums. With her husband Ronnie Shacklett, a successful contractor, and two daughters, Julie and Jolie, Brenda Lee proved that a show business star can sustain a marriage. She has always put her family before her career, which is part of the reason why she slipped from the top.
“I think that a successful marriage had to be built around partnership,” she says “There must always be give and take. If I’m away on tour, then Ronnie looks after the children, then when I’m home I take charge.”
But isn’t it difficult for a husband to play second-fiddle to a successful show-business star? I asked
“There’s no way that Ronnie plays second to me or my career,” She replied. “He is a businessman, as successful as I am. When I’m at home I’m happy to be a housewife, looking after my children and husband, The bright lights are forgotten and I’m just an ordinary mother.”
By 1970, somewhat disillusioned with the music business, she faded into semi-retirement, Her last album of the 1960s MEMPHIS PORTRAIT, took her away from Nashville into strange studio surroundings and though it included some fine songs like Leaving On A Jet Plane, Games People Play, and Proud Mary, the Chips Moman production didn’t blend with Brenda’s husky vocal tones, It would have been a loss to music if she had decided to end her career on such a low note. After all, in the early 1960s she had been one of the world’s very best singers, with one hit record following another.
Two years away from the music business was too much for Brenda. Her whole life had been singing and entertaining, and besides she was a mere youngster in her late twenties, with a career stretching out in front of her. In 1972, she once again teamed up with Owen Bradley in the studio and began a whole new phase of her career. She made the country charts with Ben Peters’ Misty Memories and continued a fine run of successes with Always On My Mind and Nobody Wins, a Kristofferson song which she took into the country top five.
This led to the release of a fine album, BRENDA, which cleverly blended country and pop, ranging from Johnny Nash’s I Can See Clearly Now To Mickey Newbury’s Sweet Memories. The highlight of the album was her superb version of Shel Silverstein’s Here I Am Again. Her voice was ideally suited to the country style; soulful and full of depth and edge, it blended well with the modern Nashville backing line-up.
She continued to appeal to country music lovers, achieving success with Sunday Sunrise, followed by Wrong Ideas and Big Four Poster Bed (a couple of Shel Silverstein’s songs), and Rock On Baby, which all made the country top ten. Albums like NEW SUNRISE, BRENDA LEE NOW and SINCERELY followed, offering ample proof of the new-found maturity and confidence that Brenda Lee possessed. The rough edges had been smoothed out, the little girl with the big voice had matured into a young lady with the voice of experience.
Plagued by several illnesses, she found it hard to devote enough time to her musical career and the success on the country charts became harder to find. By 1976 she was only just scraping into the top hundred with song like Brother Shelton, Ruby’s Lounge and Takin’ What I Can Get. MCA became worried and tried several ways to re-ignite her career. They brought in the pop producer Snuffy Garrett and packed Brenda off to the West Coast to make L.A. SESSIONS, an album full of excellent songs which were dressed up all wrong.
Garrett tried to recapture the old Brenda Lee sound and it didn’t work, though she turned in good vocal performances on songs like Your Favourite Wornout Nightmare’s Coming Home, Oklahoma Superstar and I Let You Let Me Down Again. Brenda battled on, but decided that a change of record labels might help. At the end of 1977 she signed with Elektra, but it turned out to be the wrong move.
One single, Left Over Love, emerged in the summer of 1978, and she was left to sit out her one-year contract. Elektra tried her on disco, r&b and pop on a series of sessions that produced nothing worth releasing.
MCA then underwent a series of changes at the top, especially in their Nashville offices and Brenda was contacted regarding re-signing with the label. Towards the end of last year she spent much time in the studio with a new producer, Ron Chancey, and the initial results show a great partnership blossoming. A single, Tell Me What It’s Like, from the pen of Ben Peters, climbed high on the country charts and Brenda began grooming herself for yet another comeback.
“I was really surprised to find I was nominated for a Grammy Award for Tell Me What It’s Like,” Brenda says. “I’d been away from the scene for quite some time, and to be so readily accepted back was encouraging. It has made me more determined to re-establish myself, and with my new producer, Ron Chancey, I think we are beginning to get some good things together.”
A new hairstyle, revamped stage-show and a stunning 1980 image are the result. Yet underneath she is still that same country girl at heart. Her first single of the 1980s, Bobby Goldsboro’s The Cowboy And The Dandy, is one of her best performances yet. She is the victim of a basic contradiction. She is singing better now than she ever has, but the mass commercial success she once had is now completely eluding her.
There’s no stifling of her exuberance and she sounds comfortable injecting the pop-country music to her two albums of the past year, EVEN BETTER and TAKE ME BACK, with an undercurrent of energy that is at least one successful remnant from her days as a rock’n’roller.
She has the cream of the new songs being penned by some of Nashville’s best new writers, like Rafe VanHoy, Don Cook, Eddy Raven, Deborah Allen, Linda Hargrove and Jimbeau Hinson. There’s no doubt that Brenda Lee has the talent and dedication to make quite a comeback on the music scene, and modern-day Nashville country music is certainly the perfect vehicle for her voice and natural feel for music.
“I’ve been a little taken aback by my reception on this trip,” Brenda reflected. “It had been a long time since I enjoyed any success on record in England, yet the audiences seem to know the newer songs as well as the older ones. Hopefully we can come back, perhaps during 1981, and do a longer tour, I think I would really like that.”