Brenda Lee: The Phenomenal Success Story of a 12-Year-Old Music Sensation

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

When Lee, who is now 78 years old, first stepped onto the stage, she wasn’t even old enough to drive, yet her powerful vocals steered her toward “unprecedented international popularity” as the most successful female artist of the 1960s. She became a fan favorite when she was only 12 years old.

Born Brenda May Tarpley in 1944, she started her career in the late 1940s and became a sensation in the 1950s. Over her career, which began before she left elementary school, she topped the charts 55 times, earning her the title of the most successful female recording artist of the 1960s.

Lee’s journey wasn’t easy. Her father, a construction worker, was tragically killed at work when she was just eight years old, and she took on the role of the family’s primary provider. Taking care of her younger brother, older sister, and mother, who worked in a cotton mill, was a responsibility she willingly embraced. She remembers her joy when she earned her first $20, which helped her family put food on the table. Even at that young age, she saw the impact of her efforts.

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

Despite her legendary status, Lee remains incredibly humble and gives credit to those who helped her achieve her dreams. She doesn’t think of herself as a legend, saying she’s just a girl who’s been blessed to do what she loves. She acknowledges the people who invested their efforts and tears to make her dreams come true.

Lee’s journey to stardom began when she joined country star Red Foley for a show at the Bell Auditorium near her home in Augusta at the age of 12. She wowed the audience by singing Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya.” This performance led to her appearance on Foley’s “Ozark Jubilee,” a country music show, where millions of viewers fell in love with the talented 12-year-old.

In 1956, Lee signed with Decca Records, and by 1957, she had earned the nickname “Little Miss Dynamite” for her powerful recording of the song “Dynamite.” She continued to charm the music world and her fans, releasing classics like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” at the age of 13.

Although her songs often portrayed the experiences of young love, Lee’s own life was quite different. Her mother didn’t allow her to date, and she graduated from high school without experiencing the heartbreak of young love. She got married to Ronnie Shacklett at the age of 18, and they’ve now been happily married for 60 years.

Lee’s life on the road as a young performer had its challenges. She celebrated her 12th birthday in Las Vegas, but she couldn’t experience the city’s casinos due to her age. Despite the glamour of show business, she often felt lonely and missed spending time with her friends.

Throughout her career, Lee made friends with fellow music legends like John Lennon and Elton John. She’s also known for her strong faith and attributes much of her success to her husband and to God.

Brenda Lee continues to be an icon, especially during the holiday season when her classic hit “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is a cherished favorite. The song reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 2019, 59 years after it was recorded, a testament to her enduring appeal.