When the pre-teen sensation they called Little Miss Dynamite made her first recording on July 30, 1956, she took inspiration from the late Hank Williams. Brenda Lee was little more than 11 and a half years old when, after signing with Decca Records during a DJ conference, she went into the Bradley Recording Studio in Nashville for her first session, with her reputation as a singing prodigy preceding her.
Legend has it that Brenda Mae Tarpley, as she’d been born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1944, was singing for candy or coins by the time she was three. She was making headlines on local stages by the time she was ten, and indeed on the networked show Ozark Jubilee, out of Springfield, Missouri. After her Decca signing, Billboard wrote: “Word has it that Decca plans to give the young singer the full treatment publicity and promotion-wise.”
One of Lee’s most popular covers being a version of “Jambalaya (On The Bayou),” Williams’ composition that had become one of the last hits of his lifetime in 1952. Little wonder then that she emerged from that Nashville studio with the version of ‘Jambalaya’ that became her first Decca single in September 1956, billed as “Little Brenda Lee, 9 years old,” although she was 11.
The world, it turned out, wasn’t quite ready for her precocious talent just yet, and the cover failed to make the US country charts. Decca followed up with a Christmas single by young Brenda featuring “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus” and “Christy Christmas”; even though Billboard was moved to say that she had “a lot of style and know-how for her age,” it also missed the bestsellers.
But 1957 brought “One Step At A Time,” which stopped just outside the pop top 40 but went to No. 15 country. There were more faltering steps for Lee with her next few singles, but by the late 1950s, the career of Little Miss Dynamite was exploding. Decades of pop and country success, and international stardom, were the result.
Brenda Lee’s debut single “Jambalaya (On The Bayou)” is on Classic Brenda Lee — The Universal Masters Collection, which can be bought here.
Follow the official Brenda Lee Best Of playlist.