A Rock-a-Billy Journey
As thoroughly documented, by the time Brenda Lee “broke” onto the pop charts in a big way , she was already a seasoned performer with nearly a decade of performing experience, such as that gained on the Ozark Jubilee. Red Foley was mesmerized by the pint-sized singer from Georgia and secured a Decca recording contract for her.
Before there was a Muscle Shoals Sound Rhythm Section, or a Funk Brothers, or the Memphis Group (MG’s), there was the Nashville “A-Team”. The A-Team was a conglomerate of very gifted musicians who were headed up by legendary Nashville producer Owen Bradley.
Owen was truly a pioneer visionary who led Nashville and country music in a dramatic new direction in the mid 1954 when he opened up the “Quonset Hut” studio on what would one day evolve into “Music Row” when RCA Victor joined in with other labels, building their own impressive studios in the Nashville downtown area.
Brenda Lee would be one of the first performers to record with Owen, remarkable in that she was definitely not country, but instead a new breed – a rock-a-billy chick. There weren’t many around in 1956-57, year in which the 12 year-old released “Bigelow 6-200”, “One Step at a Time”, “Dynamite”, Rock-a-Bye Baby Blues”, and “Rock the Bop” to name a few. Brenda only flirted with the Hot 100 from 1956 upon her signing with Decca Records, charting only twice with “One Step at a Time” (#43) and “Dynamite” (#72) both in 1957.
That would all change suddenly and dramatically, with Owen’s special touch and a lift from the “A-Team”, with a boppin’ little number which was penned by Brenda’s rock-a-billy friend Ronnie Self. Brenda said of the rocker “Ronnie Self seems to have always been a little unstable. One story had him chopping down a tree to block the school bus from getting to his house and another has him attacking a teacher with a baseball bat when he was in high school.”
At any rate, the bopper brought Brenda her first big hit “Sweet Nuthins’ (#4 in 1959) followed closely by her first number 1 – the Self composition “I’m Sorry” (#1 for three weeks). That one had a flip side written by Jerry Reed who approached Brenda in an airport and presented her with “That’s All You Gotta Do” (#6).
The dual sided hit would become a trend for Brenda – double sided hits – something other females and very few artists anywhere could manage – She had 15 of them! Ronnie Self would also contribute several more hits for Brenda including “Anybody But Me” (#31 1961), “Eventually” (#56 – 1961) “Everybody Loves Me But You” (#5 – 1962), “Sweet Impossible You” (#70 – 1963) Ronnie would continue to self-destruct and when he and Brenda’s manager Dub Allbritten died, Ronnie would soon pass on – a broken and dissipated man in 1981.
The “A-Team” musicians who Brenda recalls most vividly on her sessions included piano player Chet Atkins, bassist Bob Moore, guitarist Grady Martin, Owen’s brother Harold Bradley, and sax player Boots Randolph, and with vocal support from The Anita Kerr Singers and the Jordanaires.
It seemed that every aspiring Nashville writer had a song to offer Brenda, as mentioned Ronnie Self, the talented Jackie DeShannon, Jerry Reed, Johnny Cash, Dorsey Burnette, Mel Tillis, David Gates, Dallas Frazier, Bill Anderson and on and on.
When the Hits Quit Coming
At the end of the 1960’s, Brenda’s amazing run of successes came to an abrupt end. But she wasn’t down and out for long. Nashville was calling and Brenda responded. She landed on the country charts 34 times from 1969 up to 1998, and after that – including right up to today, Brenda continues to travel, perform and sell out venues throughout the U.S.
After her manager Dub Allbritten passed away, Brenda was stunned to learn that she had only $40,000 left to her name – this after earning millions. But the good old country crowd changed all that. Her recordings and primarily her performances would net her a fortune and set her and her life-long husband up for life – a life seldom paralleled by any other performer.
POST NOTE: Songs Brenda Lee Passed On
I thought this was an interesting list – showing that Brenda once in a great while made some small indiscretions when selecting her songs – when she passed on these when offered to her:
- “Bye Bye Love” – written by the Bryants – Recorded by the Everly Brothers (#1 Country – #2 Hot 100)
- “Misty Blue” written by Bob Montgomery – Recorded by Dorothy Moore (#2 R&B – #3 Hot 100)
- “One’s on the Way” written by Shel Silverstein – Recorded by Loretta Lynn (#1 Country)
- “Here You Come Again” written by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil – Recorded by Dolly Parton (#1 Country – #3 Hot 100)
- “Rose Garden” written by Joe South – Recorded by Lynn Anderson (#1 Country – #3 Hot 100)
- “Jose Cuervo” Recorded by Shelly West (#1 Country)
- “He/She Believes In Me” Recorded by Kenny Rogers (#1 Country – #5 Hot 100)
Coming out of the 1960’s Brenda was exceeded in record sales by only The Beatles, Elvis and The Supremes – Not bad for rock-a-billy chick.