Musical Prodigy: The Rise of Brenda Lee, ‘Little Miss Dynamite’ at Just 12 Years Old

Brenda Lee’s name may not be as widely recognized as some of the other music stars from the 1960s, but when Christmas rolls around, her iconic song “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” becomes an instant reminder of her influence.

At the age of 78, Lee reflects on a career that started when she was too young to drive but propelled her to “unprecedented international popularity” as the most successful female artist of the 1960s, thanks to her powerful vocals.

Despite her diminutive stature at only 4 feet 9 inches, Brenda Lee became a fan favorite at the tender age of 12. Born Brenda May Tarpley in 1944, she made her mark in the late 1940s and rose to fame in the 1950s. Her remarkable career, which began before she left elementary school, saw her top the charts 55 times, earning her the title of the most successful female recording artist of the 1960s.

Tragedy struck when Lee was just eight years old, as her father, a construction worker, lost his life at work. Little Brenda, who then adopted the last name Lee, became the family’s primary provider, taking care of her younger brother, big sister, and mother, who worked in a cotton mill. Far from being a duty, this role was something she embraced. Lee expressed her joy at making her first $20, stating, “Even at that young age, I saw that helped our life. It put some food on the table. It helped, and I loved it.”

Hailing from Atlanta and recognized as a “pioneer of early rock and roll” by the Georgia Encyclopedia, Lee achieved “unprecedented international popularity in the 1960s.” Despite her legendary status, she remains incredibly humble, crediting those who played a role in her success. When asked about being a legend, Lee remarked, “I’m just a girl who’s been really 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, Lee joined country star Red Foley for a show, where she performed “Jambalaya” by Hank Williams. This led to her appearance on Foley’s Ozark Jubilee, a country music show, where her talent captivated millions of viewers. Signing with Decca Records in the same year, she moved to Nashville in 1957. Fusing country with rhythm and blues, characterized by her distinctive hiccupping vocals, Lee recorded early rockabilly classics like “BIGELOW 6-200,” “Little Jonah,” and “Let’s Jump the Broomstick.”

Reflecting on her early performances, Lee emphasized her comfort on stage, stating, “The stage always felt like 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, Brenda Lee earned the nickname “Little Miss Dynamite” for her powerful recording of “Dynamite.” The following year, at the age of 13, she released the genre-defying holiday standard “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree,” which would transcend genres and generations.

Reflecting on the impact of “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree,” Lee told Rolling Stone, “I knew it was magical.” In the ensuing years, she continued to make her mark with hits like “Sweet Nuthin’s,” “All Alone Am I,” and “Fool #1.”

Despite the success of her songs, they often contradicted her personal experience as a young girl. While her mother prohibited her from dating, Lee found herself singing about the complexities of love. At the age of 16, she expressed the sentiment “love could be so cruel” in the song “I’m Sorry.” Another hit, “I Want to be Wanted,” featured lyrics like “I want his lips to really kiss me” when she was still in school.

At the age of 18, Lee met Ronnie Shacklett, and the two have been happily married for 60 years. However, life on the road as a young artist had its challenges. Celebrating her 12th birthday in Las Vegas, Lee described feelings of loneliness. Restricted from walking through a casino due to her age, she explained, “I really didn’t even know what a casino looked like. Children weren’t allowed in the casino area.” Despite the limitations, Lee found solace on stage, stating, “The most fun I had was on the stage.”

Acknowledging the sacrifices of her youth, Lee shared, “Many times, I yearned to be with my friends rather than be out there on the road.” Despite the challenges, Brenda Lee’s undeniable talent and resilience have left an enduring mark on the music industry.

Brenda Lee’s remarkable journey in the music industry led her to forge friendships with iconic figures. During a 1962 show in Germany, she connected with John Lennon of The Beatles. Describing Lennon as “extremely intelligent” and “gentle,” Lee was surprised to learn later that The Beatles were fans of her music.

Her circle of friends also included Elton John, who was stunned upon hearing her perform. Additionally, she danced with Elvis Presley and had a friendship with Little Richard since the 1960s. Both Lee and Little Richard received Distinguished Artist awards at the Governor’s Arts Awards in 2019, marking Richard’s last public appearance before his passing in 2020.

Reflecting on her friendship with Little Richard, Lee expressed her admiration for his music, stating, “I didn’t understand the words, or what they meant, I just knew that I loved how that music made me feel.” She believes that Little Richard, a man of God, is now in heaven.

Lee attributes much of her personal and professional success to her husband, whom she married in 1962. She emphasizes the importance of qualities like integrity and honesty in a relationship, expressing gratitude for finding such a partner.

A woman of faith, Lee is involved in Sunday Mornin’ Country, a faith-based event with CMA Fest, celebrating over 40 years. Despite her retirement from performing, she remains a role model, influencing younger stars like Taylor Swift, who wrote a personal essay about Brenda Lee in “Women Walk the Line, How The Women In Country Music Changed Our Lives.”

Lee’s enduring legacy is particularly evident during Christmastime, where her iconic song “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” continues to be a beloved holiday staple. In 2019, the song reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, 59 years after its recording, leaving Brenda Lee grateful for the enduring gift of her music.