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Album cover for her new Gospel CD
SANTA ANA, CA (ANS) -- Can you imagine having The Beatles opening for you during a European tour? Well that’s what happened to Brenda Lee, who is the only woman to be inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, following a whole string of hits that include "I'm Sorry," "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," "Break It to Me Gently," "Fool No. 1," and "Jingle Bell Rock."
In all, she has sold more than 100 million albums in an extraordinary 50 year career.
Brenda, who was born Brenda Mae Tarpley on December 11, 1944 in Lithonia, GA, recently agreed to talk to me about her career and her new album, Gospel Duets with Treasured Friends, which features her singing with a parade of country and rock superstars, including Vince Gill, Huey Lewis, Dolly Parton, Kix Brooks, Ronnie Dunn, Martina McBride, George Jones, Allison Krauss, Pam Tillis, Emmylou Harris, and Charlie Daniels, for my Front Page Radio program on KWVE 107.FM in Southern California.
I began by asking Brenda Lee to recount how The Beatles opened for her.
“Well, I was not having a whole lot of success in The United States in the late fifties, and early sixties, even though I’d had records out here,” she said. “I had a record out called ‘Dynamite’ and it was a huge hit in England and so I went over to tour in there and I continued to have records that were hits there that were not hits here.
The Silver Beatles
“While in England, I had met this group of young men and they toured with me throughout Germany and parts of England. They were then called The Silver Beatles and they later became known as The Beatles.”
Brenda Lee said she was so impressed with Liverpool’s “Fab Four” that she brought a demo record back to her label in the United States as well as a picture of them, but they turned down the opportunity of signing what was to become the world’s biggest rock group.
“Because they looked completely different to the rockers here in the United States, my company said no stating, ‘They will never happen here.’ My reaction was that they couldn’t see the forest for the trees. Then, about six months later or thereabouts, they came out with “I Want To Hold Your Hand”, and the rest is history.”
|An early picture of Brenda Lee|
“I started out singing in church as a small child and really I think a lot of my roots; my heritage; are I derived from the field of Gospel because, being a poor daughter of the South, the way we heard music, because we couldn’t afford record players or radios, was the music we heard was in the church and, of course, our social life revolved around the church as well. So I am steeped in Gospel music and then I traveled with the wonderful Master Workers Quartet when I was a little girl and that was a great experience.”
Brenda Lee said that she was raised in a Baptist church and so I asked her how she made the transition to becoming a Rock And Roll singer.
“Well back then, all the churches were saying that Elvis was the devil and were burning his records, but somehow that missed me because I had a kind of ‘the-girl-next-door’ type of image,” she said. “I’m a nice girl and was raised very good by my mom. So I kind of missed all that stuff that happened to a lot of them.”
Later she revealed that she got to know Elvis Presley.
|Dancing with Elvis|
I asked Brenda is she had been saddened by his later years.
“Oh terrifically saddened,” she said. “I was saddened to see the state he was in and that people around him really didn’t try to get him more help. I understand both sides, but when he was crying out for help with the actions he was taking, I’m just sorry that he didn’t appear to get any.”
She also toured with another pioneer of Rock and Roll.
“I used to tour with Gene Vincent and we were called the ‘King and Queen of Rock And Roll,’ and it was a lot of fun,” Brenda Lee. “It was mainly in England which has been so good to me. I have been over there so many times and they are still very supportive and loyal to my career.”
I shared with Brenda that I had once seen Gene Vincent perform in Birmingham, England, and noticed that he had quite a limp and so wondered if that was part of his act.
“No, he had a bad leg after having a very serious motorcycle accident and actually he wore a steel brace on his leg which was stiff from the accident,” she said.
She also worked many times with Jerry Lee Lewis and so I asked her if he was as wild off stage as he was on.
Brenda Lee laughed and said, Yes, yes he was.”
What about Chuck Berry?
“Chuck Berry is a very different unique personality,” she said. “He was one of the innovators of Rock And Roll and I’ve worked with him several times but I never really got to know him because when you’re doing shows with people, you show up and you do your part and then they do their part and you really don’t get to see each other and you go on your separate ways. He was very talented and very unique.”
With so many of her friends in show business taking drug overdoses and dying, I wondered how she had been able to continue so long in the business without getting into these kind of problems.
“A lot of it has to do with my faith and my upbringing,” said Brenda. “To say that I was never around it or never tempted, would be telling a lie, but God has been so good to me and He gave me the knowledge to know which roads to take and which roads would end up in a dead end; and I learned that very early in life.”
Brenda Lee also attributed being kept safe from drugs to her mother.
“Starting out as a child and being successful as a young child through my teen-age years, my mom traveled on the road with me and also I had a wonderful manager who was like a father to me as my own father died when I was seven. I was just blessed to have good people around me that cared about me as a person and not just as a product.”
Role of prayer
I wondered what role prayer has played in the career.
“I always prayed before concerts, and I still do,” she said.
I then asked her to talk about her new album, Gospel Duets With Treasured Friends.
“We have the great George Jones, who’s a dear friend of mine, singing with me, as well as Vince Gill, Huey Lewis, Dolly Parton, Kix Brooks, Ronnie Dunn, Martina McBride, George Jones, Allison Krauss, Pam Tillis, Emmylou Harris, and Charlie Daniels,” she said “These are all my good buddies that I’ve always wanted to sing with and do something with and they were kind enough to be on this album with me.”
The tracks are:
I asked Brenda how she had selected the various tracks.
“These are songs that I grew up with when I was a child in the church; and these are songs that I’ve loved all my life,” she said. “A lot of them are my mom’s favorite songs and I put those in because I basically did this album for my mother. My Mom passed away November of 2006 and I had just gotten it finished and she was able to hear it and she was so proud of it and she loved it. So that was a blessing. Her favorite track was Precious Memories.
“That’s been a song that has meant so much to me and I sang that at my mom’s funeral and I also sang it at my father in-law’s funeral and it’s a song that’s meant a lot to me since I was a little girl.”
I then asked Brenda how she has kept going for the past 50 years as a singer.
|With her family -- Ronnie, Jolie, Brenda and Julie|
“I’ve just been blessed with a lot of energy and good health and I love to work. In fact, what I do on stage is not work to me, so it’s not hard for me at all. It’s just a blessing for me to be able to sing and I just appreciate the fans and all still giving me a place to sing after all these years. They’ve been very good to me.”
I concluded by asking her about her family.
“I just celebrated my forty-fourth wedding anniversary with my childhood sweetheart, Ronnie Shacklett,” she said. “We have two girls; my oldest girl’s name is Julie and she is forty-three and my youngest girl’s name is Jolie and she is thirty-eight. And then I have three grand-children. I have a girl Taylor, who is eighteen and she’s getting ready to graduate from high school that’s Julie’s daughter. And then Jolie’s little girl is named Jordan and she’s ten years old and her son is named Charlie and he is going to be five in June.”
With a personality like she has, it’s not surprising that so many of her friends have rallied around to participate in her new album. To get more information about or her extraordinary life, you can go to www.brendalee.com.
Note: I’d like to thank Robin Frost for transcribing this interview.
|Dan Wooding is an award winning British journalist now living in Southern California with his wife Norma. He is the founder and international director of ASSIST (Aid to Special Saints in Strategic Times) and the ASSIST News Service (ANS). He was, for ten years, a commentator, on the UPI Radio Network in Washington, DC. Wooding is the author of some 42 books, the latest of which is his autobiography, "From Tabloid to Truth", which is published by Theatron Books. To order a copy, go to www.fromtabloidtotruth.com. firstname.lastname@example.org.|