Brenda Lee Reflects on Some of the Best Records From Her 60-Year Career — And One We All Need To Thank Her For!
When you cut your first record — a little toe-tapper titled “Jambalaya” — in 1956, it’s only natural that some folks in 2019 tend to Google you to see if you’re still inhaling on a regular basis. Atlanta native Brenda Lee, one of Nashville’s first global superstars and a central figure in documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’ new 16-hour “Country Music” set to debut on PBS stations Sept. 15 (it airs on GPB at 8 p.m.), says it happens to her constantly.
The truth is, Lee was only 11 when she cut her debut single for Decca Records with legendary producer Owen Bradley, a guy responsible for twisting the knobs on iconic records by Lee, Buddy Holly, Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline.
“People think I’m ancient or near-death, darlin’!” Lee, now 74, says, laughing during a recent phone call from Nashville. “They can’t believe I’m walking!” she adds. “I just go along with it. One time when I was playing in Branson, I’m not kidding you, we had people in the lobby buying tickets to the show asking if I was still alive. My name was on the ticket. Who did they think they were gonna see? I just thought, ‘Oh lord in heaven!’
On Sept. 7, Lee was back in her hometown to accept the inaugural Georgia Public Broadcasting Georgia Legend Award at a gala in her honor in the Egyptian Ballroom at the Fox Theatre (see video of her acceptance speech here).
As one of the original architects of rock n roll, rockabilly, a 60’s queen of the pop charts and one of Nashville’s first-generation of long-playing country stars, Brenda Lee has sold more than 100 million records throughout her 60-year recording career, placing her right up there next to her peers and pals Elvis Presley and the Beatles.
As the only woman in a trifecta of musical hall of fames — the Georgia Music Hall of Fame (1982), the Country Music Hall of Fame (1997) and the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame (2002), Lee has charted more than 46 hits on the Billboard charts, including her 1960 standard “I’m Sorry” and the perennial yuletide favorite “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” recorded in 1958.
But locating Brenda Lee albums in a record shop can become a bit of a scavenger hunt. No two stores have her in precisely the same place. She can be found in Rock, Country, Pop, Rockabilly, Oldies, Christmas and even Gospel.
“Isn’t that great they’re everywhere?” says Lee. “It’s crazy that I’m in so many categories but I just loved all types of music.”
As a fellow vinyl collector (sadly, many of Lee’s recordings are so far unavailable on music streaming platforms), the singer is game to thumb through her six-decade discography together to discuss some of her best albums.
Says Lee, laughing: Oh lord help me, I can’t even remember all of them. Which ones did you choose?”
“Brenda Lee 10 Golden Years,” Decca Records, 1966
Eldredge: I love this one because from “Jambalaya” to “Sweet Nothins’ and “Fool #1” and “I’m Sorry,” all of the pivotal records from your first decade are represented, along with liner notes written by your longtime manager Dub Albritten.
Lee: Call it what you will, fame, success, making it, whatever people want to call it, it never mattered to me. It wasn’t my goal, not my thing. I’ve got an album called “Let Me Sing” [Decca, 1963]. That’s all I ever wanted to do. I don’t care what it is, I don’t care if I get paid, just let me sing. My manager Dub wrote the liners for that one so that was special. It was nice that Decca put all those songs together on one record for folks. It was my first gold record album too.
“Merry Christmas From Brenda Lee,” Decca Records, 1964
Eldredge: I’m not sure it’s even possible to celebrate Christmas without spinning this. But what most folks don’t realize was “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” wasn’t a hit when it was originally issued, was it?
Lee: That’s exactly right. I don’t know how that happened but it eventually caught on, didn’t it? For years, I thought “I’m Sorry” would be the song I was remembered for but I now realize it’s going to be ‘Rockin’.’ The best thing is walking through a department store before Christmas and hearing it. It’s still surprising and thrilling for me. And it just keeps going. This year alone, it’s already had three hundred million streams. It’s a magical song and a magical record.
“Reflections in Blue,” Decca Records, 1967
Eldredge: This might be my all-time favorite Brenda Lee record.
Lee: Me too! Oh, thank you for bringing this one up.
Eldredge: Owen Bradley’s production is wonderful, you’ve got a full orchestra behind you, it opens with that lush recording of Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Huesen’s “Here’s That Rainy Day” and you may have been the first recording artist to treat Elvis Presley’s “Can’t Help Falling In Love” as a standard.
Lee: They brought in [jazz saxophonist and arranger] Oliver Nelson to be a part of it. Glen Campbell played gorgeous guitar on it. [Big band jazz drummer] Jack Sperling came in to play drums. Oh lord, I love that album. That was all Owen. Whenever I was choosing songs for the next record, Owen and I would sit down at the piano and all he would play was standards. And I’d sit next to him and sing ‘em. He immersed me in great songs. “Reflections in Blue” was really those piano sessions put on a record, but with the Hollywood Strings sitting in!
Eldredge: There are moments on “Reflections in Blue” when your voice reminds me of Dinah Washington.
Lee: I love Dinah Washington. Oh, god, what a compliment.
“Brenda,” MCA Records, 1973
This album represents not only your creative reunion with your old Decca Records producer Owen Bradley but a former Nashville CBS Studios janitor wrote you “Nobody Wins,” a big hit song for it.
Lee: Kris Kristofferson. Yes, who knew!! Back in the 60’s, Kris was working as a janitor at the recording studio when I had a session and he wouldn’t let me in the building! He told me Brenda Lee’s recording sessions were always closed and he didn’t believe I was her! (laughs). Fast forward to 1972 and I’m recording one of his songs and having a big hit with it too! What a world.
Eldredge: Be honest — was he about the best-looking janitor you ever saw?
Lee: Drop dead gorgeous!
“Even Better,” MCA Records, 1980
Eldredge: This was your first record produced by Ron Chancey and as a bonus, you received a glamorous make-over from MCA and a Grammy-nominated hit, “Tell Me What It’s Like.”
Lee: I love that album too. After Owen retired, I really thought about retiring. I didn’t know if I could record with anybody else. Owen was more than a producer to me. He was a father and a friend. It was like losing someone to death when I couldn’t record with him anymore. But I got to where I loved working with Ron Chancey. I loved all the records we cut together. He was a lot like Owen. We’d listen to songs and then in the end it would be my decision. I loved him. We still talk today.
Dolly Parton, Brenda Lee, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, “The Winning Hand,” Monument Records, 1982
Eldredge: For country music fans, this double album is a must-have. It’s got you, Dolly, Willie and Kris singing duets together in every possible combination.
Lee: Wasn’t that great? Wow, what a pleasure getting to work with Dolly, Kris and Willie. I had so much fun working on that. Johnny Cash wrote us the liner notes for that one. It ended up winning the Edison Award [the Dutch equivalent to the Grammys] for that album. I mean, I got to sing with Willie, Dolly and Kris, come on now. You can’t get much better than that.
Eldredge: I don’t let that record out of my possession because Monument Records, the label that issued it, went out of business shortly after it came out.
Lee: That’s right. Don’t loan that one out. You won’t get it back! I don’t know about you but I still love playing vinyl. I treasure my vinyl stuff.
K.D. Lang, “Shadowland,” Sire Records, 1988
Eldredge: I selected this, one of my all-time favorites, because without you, it likely would never have been made, so thank you for helping to make these recording sessions happen.
Lee: Isn’t it great? I was doing the Calgary Stampede in Canada [in 1984] and everybody knows I love up and coming female artists. So, after the second show, someone said, “Brenda, there’s a girl playing in this little club. I think you’d like her, why not go see her?” And there up on the stage was K.D. Lang. I had never seen anyone dressed like that. And then when that voice came out of her? I just said, “Oh, my lord, can I meet this girl?” As soon as I met her backstage, the first thing that came out of her mouth was, “Can you get me a meeting with Owen Bradley?” (laughs). I said to her, “I probably can!” I asked for her number and I promised her the first thing I’d do when I got back to Nashville was tell Owen about her. And I did. K.D. Lang was so good, Owen Bradley came out of retirement to produce her! Not only did “Shadowland” come about as a result, Owen called up me and Kitty [Wells] and Loretta [Lynn] and asked if we’d sing on “Honky Tonk Angels Medley” with K.D., the last song on the record. Owen’s girls were back together.
Read my Atlanta magazine interview with Brenda Lee where she reflects on her interactions with Elvis Presley, The Beatles and Owen Bradley here.
Brenda Lee is one of the key interviewees in the new 16-hour Ken Burns PBS documentary “Country Music, premiering Sunday night at 8 p.m. For more info, go to gpb.org.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.