Best Brenda Lee Songs: 20 Essentials From A Distinctive Voice

For decades, she’s approached different styles and sounds with a considerable dose of flair.

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Photo: Taylor Hill/WireImage

Brenda Lee’s prodigious vocal talents are familiar to many, mostly through the enduring Christmas classic she recorded well before she got her driver’s license. But beyond the nostalgic pull of “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” Lee’s output spans as wide a range as any pop artist of her time: her songs appeared not just on pop charts, but on country and R&B tallies as well. She has been consistent and prolific as a recording artist, approaching different styles and sounds with easy mastery and a considerable dose of flair – marrying rock and R&B sounds most associated with Elvis and Ray Charles with a vintage polish and pop fluidity that recalls Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney.

Listen to the best Brenda Lee songs now.

Born to a poor family in Atlanta, Lee was supporting her family with her vocal gifts before she hit double-digits; her recording career started when she was in middle school. Her deft imitation of Elvis put her on a rockabilly track early, but genre quickly became irrelevant to her career since she was adept at nearly all of them, recording just about every pop tune that came along with ease. Rowdy rock tunes evolved into melancholy waltzes, which morphed into looser rock as the 1960s wore on and then progressive-tinged country music; Lee’s jaw-dropping vocal might was the constant, and kept her afloat as musical trends ebbed and flowed beneath her.

Here are just a few of Lee’s best songs, including a few often-overlooked gems, spanning her decades-long career and vast artistic reach.

I Want To Be Wanted (1960)

Lee’s second No. 1 song of 1960 cemented her status as a teen idol to beat – both because her songs gave voice to the torrid emotions of the growing teen music audience and because she was still just 15 herself. The English translation of an Italian song, “I Want To Be Wanted” was another ideal showcase for Lee’s larger-than-life voice and versatile pop stylings of producer Owen Bradley. The breathless track anticipated generations of yearning anthems to come.

I Want To Be Wanted (Per Tutta La Vita)

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All Alone Am I (1962)

Lee once again found herself being the English-language voice of a European melody with this hit, one of the final entries in her most dominant chart period. The song, rooted in the soundtracks of two internationally successful Greek films, shows Lee far from her rockabilly and R&B roots, instead singing the transatlantic melody with a controlled polish. Her versatility makes the song instantly appealing, and less teen-specific than some of her other hits from the same era.

Too Many Rivers (1965)

As her pop dominance waned, Lee slowly began to pivot back toward where she began: country music. Her efforts weren’t immediately embraced by the format, but this single – written by Harlan Howard and featuring a loping country shuffle below acoustic guitar licks – certainly gestured towards twangier sounds. The singer’s dexterity with ballads had long since been proven; with this one, she showed that she could pack just as much of an emotional wallop without vocal fireworks.

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(If I’m Dreaming) Just Let Me Dream (1960)

The background sha-be-da-be-dos can only do so much to undercut Lee’s sultry approach to this doo-wop-rock song, complete with wailing sax and breathy interludes. It’s an album cut from Lee’s first major album, which saw her taking trendy rockabilly to its pop brink and titillating her teen audience in the process: “Your red hot kisses warm me like steam,” she intones, leveraging her innocent image into something a little more scandalous and of a piece with the torrid lyrics sang by her male contemporaries.

Is It True (1964)

Lee went from rockabilly grooves to swinging Mod rock in the space of a few short years, as evidenced by this decidedly British invasion-inflected single. The fact that her voice sounded just as natural even as the style du jour was shifting beneath her feet is a testament to the then-19-year-old’s impressive vocal control and ear for modulating her voice to different kinds of pop music.

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You Left Me A Long, Long Time Ago (1982)

The all-star album The Winning Hand put Lee in conversation with three other icons whose country bona fides are unimpeachable: Kris Kristofferson, Dolly Parton and, here, Willie Nelson. It’s refreshing to hear the star singing in such a stripped-down setting, with Nelson and his guitar Trigger as much in the spotlight as Lee’s endless voice. Lee matches Nelson’s tone and style perfectly, singing with an understated, conversational vibrato that puts his heartbreaking lyric front and center.

Broken Trust (1980)

If anyone could match the sonorous voices of the Oak Ridge Boys, it was Brenda Lee, who invited the ascendant quartet to join her on (what else) a classic-sounding heartbreak song. At just 35, Lee was basically an elder stateswoman of country music. On this track, she sounds like it, riding their gentle harmonies and accompanying fiddle on a recording that might have been released at any point in the past half-decade.

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One Step At A Time (1957)

Brenda Lee’s first charting single is also a perfect showcase of how skillful a rock vocalist she is – a skill she would show off too rarely once she proved to be a straight-ahead pop hitmaker. Here, at 12 years old, she is a quite able female foil to Elvis: “Every ol’ hound dog once was a pup,” she stutters in a pitch-perfect imitation. The youth is still audible in her voice at this stage, but so is her prodigious ability as a vocalist and musician.

Heart In Hand (1962)

Lee takes more risks on this particular moody heartbroken waltz (of which there are so many in her early ’60s catalog, because almost all of them became wildly popular), letting her voice stretch and tremble and even nearly crack to vulnerable effect. The arrangement is also distinctive, stuttering and stopping just as Lee does in her vocal performance. Written by Jackie DeShannon and Sharon Sheeley, it was the rare early ’60s hit written and performed by women.

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If You Love Me (Really Love Me) (1963)

Lee gave Edith Piaf’s “Hymne à l’amour” a decidedly ’60s update in this forceful yet tender rendition. Originally sung in English by Kay Starr almost a decade prior, the song sounds starkly different in Lee’s hands – with her voice verging on raw as she easily tackles the soaring melody, which stands out all the more over the lush bed of strings, piano and tremolo-laden guitar (a dose of coastal rock flair that keeps the song safely out of shlock territory).

Emotions (1960)

Recorded when Lee’s popularity was at a fever pitch, the swooning “Emotions” featured the 15-year-old Lee in full diva mode, alternating fluidly between her deep, seductive adult register and a high, childish pout for maximum drama. Every so often, her rockish rasp makes an appearance – together, her performance set the standard for pop balladry. It was her fifth top-ten hit on Billboard’s Hot 100, with all five of those songs released within a two-year span. That feat, and the resonance of this song with teen audiences, made Lee one of the most impactful pop acts of the period.

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Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree (1958)

Far better known today than when it was released over a half-century ago, Brenda Lee’s Christmas classic – recorded when the singer was just 13 years old – has become a cornerstone of holiday music. The song’s importance, though, goes far beyond its sweet nostalgia: Alongside a backing band of Nashville A-listers including guitarist Hank Garland and sax player Boots Randolph, Lee created one of the most memorable and timeless documents of the era’s swinging rockabilly sounds. It first entered the charts in 1960, once Lee was a proven hitmaker, and in December 2023, the song topped the US Billboard Hot 100 for the first time.

Dum Dum (1961)

Lee is wearing her R&B influences on her sleeve in this organ-laced track, a somewhat scandalous conversation between lovers while “Mom’s in the kitchen and your Pa’s next door.” She’s convincing as the over-the-top vixen, and keeps up easily with her groovy backing band; here, Lee is a conversational vocalist instead of a powerhouse, and yet is as effective as ever. With the hooky nonsense syllable chorus, it’s no wonder this continued Lee’s impressive string of early ’60s hits.

Big Four Poster Bed (1974)

Many of Lee’s country singles came from Nashville’s less conventional denizens – including Shel Silverstein, who penned this hand-clapping ode to homespun humbleness. It’s a sweet love song with a couple of tawdry lines, well-suited to a singer who was often balancing innocence and innuendo. Vocally, she morphs yet again, letting her Southern accent shine through and abandoning pop polish for a hoedown-ready enthusiasm. It became her highest-charting song on the American country chart, reaching No. 4.

Big Four Poster Bed

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Fool #1 (1961)

Brenda Lee’s prodigious vocal talent meant that she sounded older than she was for much of her career – here, though, on her eighth top ten hit, she sounds positively world-weary, with the song’s tragedy evident in her tear-stained vibrato. Not content just to flaunt her power and range, here Lee shows her ability as a thoughtful interpreter of songs while coining a new country standard.

Sweet Nothin’s (1959)

Lee’s first top ten hit on Billboard’s Hot 100 is a fairly salacious rockabilly tune, showcasing the singer’s rock n’ roll growls and sultry speaking voice. For the first time, America full-throatedly embraced a woman (in this case, a girl) performer who approached songs with Elvis-style swagger – the track was forward-looking enough to inspire artists including Prince and Kanye West (bits of it can be heard in “Kiss” and “Bound 2”) decades after its release, and reached No. 12 on the R&B chart (Lee’s music would appear on the country, R&B and adult contemporary charts before she turned 18). “Sweet Nothin’s” turned her from a virtual unknown into a kind of new-old fashioned pop star, one whose smoky, potent voice could give even the most saccharine songs a welcome dose of edge and flair.

Nobody Wins (1973)

That Brenda Lee’s country chart breakthrough would come through Nashville’s burgeoning outlaw movement is something few people must have seen coming – in retrospect, though, Lee’s genre and gender norm-bending songs did plenty to expand country’s scope and challenge its norms. This Kris Kristofferson tune, plaintive and soulful (his own recording of the song is basically an R&B tune), is transformed into a straightforward but moving country ballad through Lee’s skillful rendition. The resulting recording marked both her final Hot 100 entry and her first top 10 song on Billboard’s country chart.

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Losing You (1963)

Lee’s final top ten hit on the Hot 100 arrived as the smooth pop style that she had mastered was beginning to lose its stranglehold on the charts – still, she delivers another instant classic, rising above the weight of piano, strings, and trumpet to deliver another trembling, vulnerable ballad. Any novelty or teeny-bopper label that might have been applied to Lee early in her career had faded away by this point, leaving only the fact that Lee remained a superlative pop performer.

Break It To Me Gently (1962)

Once again, Lee christened a new pop standard with this heartbreaking ballad – best remembered by contemporary listeners, perhaps, as the soundtrack to a pivotal moment in the AMC series Mad Men. Produced in high Nashville Sound style, the song’s gloss is punctured by Lee’s R&B-inflected singing, with throaty wails and sharp, staccato notes adding to the emotional contour of the lyrics. Her pathos is as tangible as ever, and her interpretation is even looser and more confident than previous outings – a reflection of the fact that she was already an industry veteran at the ripe old age of 17.

I’m Sorry (1960)

Released as a B-side, the earworm track became one of Lee’s signatures and a formative early entry in the development of the Nashville Sound – even though it reached the R&B, not country charts as it topped Billboard’s Hot 100. Her preternatural vocal control is evident from the very start, as Lee escalates from an intimate croon to a forceful, soaring wail and back again in the space of a few seconds; for all its melodrama, the song is convincing thanks exclusively to the singer’s seemingly effortless expressiveness.

Listen to the best Brenda Lee songs now.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Roger

    February 28, 2024 at 8:10 pm

    I have listened to Brenda Lee since 1958. I missed her Concert in Germany while Touring in Military Bases in early 60s. Still my favorite Contry Artist today.

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