The Ultimate Brenda Lee Primer

The Ultimate Brenda Lee Primer

Sitting at No. 8 on this week’s Billboard Hot 100 — right between a sleek hit from the 20-year-old pop star Tate McRae and the latest offering from Taylor Swift’s vault — is a 65-year-old song, sung by an artist who is about to turn 79. Which, if you do the math (I’ll wait), means that artist recorded it when she was just 13.

That song is the holiday anthem “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” and the artist is Brenda Lee, an icon of American music I was lucky enough to interview in her Nashville home a few weeks ago, for a profile published earlier this week. Christmas classics often have a longer tail than most pop songs, but the emphasis that Billboard places on streaming numbers now means that some of those classics climb (and even top) the charts each December. The fact that this year marks the 65th anniversary of “Rockin’” is also giving it an added boost.

But the reason I wanted to profile Lee is to remind people that she is much, much more than her Christmas standard. In the 1950s, the petite firecracker was an early pioneer of rock ’n’ roll, her raspy voice providing a fitting soundtrack for teenage rebellion. But she could also win over those teenagers’ parents with sophisticated ballads that recalled crooners three times her age. Though the Georgia-born Lee was marketed as a pop act, she was a Southern girl at heart, and in the 1970s she settled in Nashville and was a consistent presence on the country charts.

Lee is a local legend in Music City, but in the wider world she’s not quite a household name — at least not compared to her peers. She is among the four artists who charted the most singles in the 1960s, a whopping 47. Who are the others? Oh, just Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Ray Charles.

For today’s playlist, I want to show why Lee deserves the same respect as those marquee names. To show her impressive range, I’ve selected some of her early rockabilly numbers (“Sweet Nothin’s,” “Let’s Jump the Broomstick”), her most heartstring-tugging ballads (“I’m Sorry,” “Emotions”) and a few of her later country hits (“Nobody Wins,” “Big Four Poster Bed”). By the time you’re done listening, you’ll understand why they call her Little Miss Dynamite.

Listen along on Spotify as you read.

One of Lee’s most enduringly cool classics, this song — recorded when she was just 14 — is a showcase not only for her soulful vocals, but for the sharp production style of her longtime collaborator Owen Bradley. It’s a testament to his innovative ear that the song would be sampled long after its release, first in the backing vocals of Prince’s sparse 1986 smash “Kiss,” and later in the “uh-huh, honey” that recurs throughout Kanye West’s 2013 single “Bound 2.” (Listen on YouTube)

The sumptuous atmosphere, smoky crooning and vaguely eerie strings — how has this 1961 torch song not yet been used in a David Lynch movie? (Listen on YouTube)

This is the song that gave Brenda Lee the nickname “Little Miss Dynamite,” a moniker that stuck so long that she used it as the title of her 2002 autobiography. If you were to listen to it out of context, you’d probably think the person singing it, with her bluesy growl and intuitive phrasing, was a woman of at least 25. So viewers of the country music showcase “Ozark Jubilee” must have been shocked to see it performed on TV by an unbelievably precocious 12-year-old dressed like Shirley Temple. (Listen on YouTube)

Let’s jump ahead to the later part of Lee’s career with this 1972 tune penned by a then up-and-coming talent who represented country music’s future: Kris Kristofferson. “Nobody Wins” was one of the songs that heralded Lee’s return to her country roots, while also displaying a new richness and maturity in her voice. (Listen on YouTube)

First recorded by the Black, Nashville-based group Alvin Gaines & the Themes, this 1959 ditty finds Lee leaning into the rockabilly sound that suited her voice so well. (Listen on YouTube)

One of my absolute favorite Brenda Lee vocal performances, this wrenching ballad — originally written in Italian by the songwriters Pino Spotti and Alberto Testa as an entry in a local song contest — topped the Billboard Hot 100 in October 1960, becoming Lee’s second No. 1 hit. She was still just 15 when she recorded “I Want to Be Wanted,” effectively blending the song’s emotional maturity with some good ol’ teenage melodrama. (Listen on YouTube)

Another later country hit for Lee, released in 1974, this rollicking tune poignantly charts a family’s history through a handmade bed that is passed down from generation to generation. For Lee, it’s a relatively rare foray into narrative storytelling, but it was written by someone who certainly knew how to spin a yarn: Shel Silverstein. (Listen on YouTube)

One of Lee’s greatest heartbreak ballads, “Break It to Me Gently” from 1963 — featured in an early episode of “Mad Men” — represents the more sophisticated, supper-club side of her artistry. (Listen on YouTube)

This upbeat Jerry Reed-penned 1960 single shows that Lee can pull off R&B, too. (Listen on YouTube)

A sassy, slinky, gum-smacking Top 10 hit from her 1961 album “All the Way,” this song demonstrates some of the sonic changes that were taking place in rock ’n’ roll as the 1950s became the 1960s — and how well suited Lee was to adapting to them. (Listen on YouTube)

Lee’s first No. 1 hit was this dreamy, contrite 1960 ballad, which she imbued with an emotional wisdom well beyond her years. It also has an unexpected connection to “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” When Lee’s holiday single was first released in 1958, she wasn’t yet very well known, so it failed to chart. After the success of “I’m Sorry,” though, her savvy label rereleased “Rockin’” to capitalize on Lee’s newfound popularity. The rest is history. (Listen on YouTube)

Uh-huh, honey,


Listen on Spotify. We update this playlist with each new newsletter.

“The Ultimate Brenda Lee Primer” track list
Track 1: “Sweet Nothin’s”
Track 2: “Emotions”
Track 3: “Dynamite”
Track 4: “Nobody Wins”
Track 5: “Let’s Jump the Broomstick”
Track 6: “I Want to Be Wanted (Per Tutta La Vida)”
Track 7: “Big Four Poster Bed”
Track 8: “Break It to Me Gently”
Track 9: “That’s All You Gotta Do”
Track 10: “Dum Dum”
Track 11: “I’m Sorry”

Speaking of profiles of legends, here’s Jon Pareles on Peter Gabriel, whose new album “I/O” is out today.

And in this week’s Playlist, we have new music from Beyoncé, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Oxlade and more. Listen here.

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