‘Little Miss Dynamite’ blew up the charts when she was only 12: The story of Brenda Lee

Brenda Lee’s name may not be as recognizable as some of the other music stars from the 1960s but when you think of Christmas, you’ll know her song, and start humming her catchy tune, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”

When Lee, now 78, first hit the stage, she wasn’t old enough to drive but her powerful vocals steered her “unprecedented international popularity” as the most successful female artist of the 1960s.

Lee, whose voice defied her diminutive stature at only 4 foot 9, became a fan favorite when she was only 12.

Brenda May Tarpley, born in 1944, got her start in the late 1940s, became huge in the 1950s, and over her career–that started before she left elementary school–she topped the charts 55 times, earning the title as the most successful female recording artist of the 1960s.

When Lee was only eight (according to Rolling Stone), her father, a construction worker, was killed at work and little Brenda–who then changed her last name to Lee–became the family’s primary provider.

Photo of Brenda LEE (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)

Taking care of her younger brother, big sister, and mother–a cotton mill worker–was not a duty, but something she wanted to do. She said that she was thrilled when she made her first $20, so she could help her family: “Even at that young age, I saw that helped our life,” Lee said, adding “It put some food on the table. It helped, and I loved it.”

The Atlanta-born chanteuse, called a “pioneer of early rock and roll,” by the Georgia Encyclopedia, achieved “unprecedented international popularity in the 1960s.”

But, an incredibly humble human, Lee credits those who helped her achieve her dreams. When Christianity Today asked what she thinks about being a legend, Lee said “I don’t think of myself that way!” She continued, “I’m just a girl who’s been 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.”

In 1956, the young girl joined country star Red Foley for a show at the Bell Auditorium near her home in Augusta, and she belted out “Jambalaya,” by Hank Williams.

Public Domain

She was then signed to appear on Foley’s Ozark Jubilee, a country music show, where millions of viewers fell in love with the sassy 12-year-old whose talent was developed well beyond her age.

In the same year, Lee signed with Decca Records, and the next year, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and fusing country with rhythm and blues–highlighted by her hiccupping vocals–she recorded early rockabilly classics like “BIGELOW 6-200,” “Little Jonah,” and “Let’s Jump the Broomstick.”

When asked if–when as a young girl–she was nervous performing in front of large crowds, she answered: “No, not really. Nobody ever told me to be nervous. The stage always felt like a hometown to me because I had been in front of people ever since I was 3 years old, singing to people. So it was a very comfortable spot for me.”

In 1957, Lee earned the nickname “Little Miss Dynamite” for her pint-sized powerhouse recording of the song “Dynamite,” and in 1958, fans heard “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree,” a genre and generation-crossing holiday standard, released when she was only 13.

“I knew it was magical,” she told Rolling Stone.

Over the next couple of years, she charted with hits like “Sweet Nuthin’s,” “All Alone Am I,” and “Fool #1.”

Most of her songs, however, contradicted her experience as a young girl. Her mother didn’t let her date and she graduated high school not understanding the heartbreak of young love.

Brenda Lee, kissed by Fabian Forte, 1961 / Public Domain

She was only 16 when she said “Love could be so cruel” in the song “I’m Sorry” and only 16 when she said “I want his lips to kiss me” in the song “I Want to be Wanted,” both back-to-back hits when she was still in school.

And when she turned 18, she met Ronnie Shacklett, whom she’s now been happily married to for 60 years.

Life on the road for Lee as a youngster had its difficulties. She celebrated her 12th birthday in Las Vegas and speaking with the Las Vegas Journal, Lee explained her loneliness.

“Of course, I wasn’t even allowed to walk through a casino, I was so young. So I didn’t even know what a casino looked like. They took me into the kitchen, then into the showroom. And then when my show was over, I was brought back out through the kitchen and back up to my room. Children weren’t allowed … in the casino area.” She continued, “There wasn’t anything to do in Vegas for a kid. The most fun I had was on the stage.”

Speaking on what she missed out on as a child, the award-winning Lee said, “Many times, I yearned to be with my friends rather than be out there on the road.”

Turns out she made new friends on the road, like with the music group that opened for her at a 1962 show in Germany. “I hung out with John,” she says effortlessly, speaking of John Lennon. “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.”

BREAKING: Kate Middleton Announces She Has Cancer

Tonight, the Princess of Wales shared in a heartfelt video message that at the age of 42, she has received a cancer diagnosis and is currently undergoing preventative chemotherapy. Filmed at Windsor on Wednesday, Catherine expressed the immense shock of this news, emphasizing that she and William have been diligently navigating this situation privately, prioritizing their young family’s well-being.

GEORGE ROGERS/SIPA/East News

Seated amidst daffodils and blossoming spring trees, she spoke earnestly, «This of course came as a huge shock, and William and I have been doing everything we can to process and manage this privately for the sake of our young family. As you can imagine, this has taken time. It has taken me time to recover from major surgery in order to start my treatment. But, most importantly, it has taken us time to explain everything to George, Charlotte and Louis in a way that is appropriate for them, and to reassure them that I am going to be ok.»

«As I have said to them; I am well and getting stronger every day by focusing on the things that will help me heal; in my mind, body and spirits. Having William by my side is a great source of comfort and reassurance, too. As is the love, support and kindness that has been shown by so many of you. It means so much to us both.»

George Rogers / SIPA / Sipa Press / East News

During her January abdominal surgery, Kensington Palace initially stated it was non-cancerous. They reiterated tonight that no tests had indicated cancer. However, subsequent post-operative tests revealed its presence. This evening’s revelation will undoubtedly reverberate globally, following weeks of speculation and unfounded conjecture about her health. It presents a new challenge for the British Royal Family, coinciding with King Charles’s own cancer battle.

The princess is currently following a recovery plan, having begun chemotherapy in late February. Consequently, Prince William withdrew from a memorial service honoring his late godfather, King Constantine of Greece. Kensington Palace has emphasized against speculation regarding the type of cancer.

© Doug Peters / Alamy Stock Photo

In her video statement, the Princess appeared casually attired in a striped Breton top paired with jeans. She said: «I wanted to take this opportunity to say thank you, personally, for all the wonderful messages of support and for your understanding whilst I have been recovering from surgery. It has been an incredibly tough couple of months for our entire family, but I’ve had a fantastic medical team who have taken great care of me, for which I am so grateful.»

«In January, I underwent major abdominal surgery in London and, at the time, it was thought that my condition was non-cancerous. The surgery was successful. However, tests after the operation found cancer had been present. My medical team therefore advised that I should undergo a course of preventative chemotherapy, and I am now in the early stages of that treatment.»

«We hope that you will understand that, as a family, we now need some time, space and privacy while I complete my treatment. My work has always brought me a deep sense of joy and I look forward to being back when I am able, but for now I must focus on making a full recovery.»

DANIEL LEAL/AFP/East News

Even amid her personal turmoil, she had a message of hope for others battling cancer. She went on, saying, «At this time, I am also thinking of all those whose lives have been affected by cancer. For everyone facing this disease, in whatever form, please do not lose faith or hope. You are not alone.»

We extend our well-wishes for a swift recovery to Catherine, Princess of Wales. Recently, the princess was seen in public for the first time since her surgery, accompanied by her mother. View her photo here.

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