Country Hall honors Brenda Lee with exhibit
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Country Hall honors Brenda Lee with exhibit

Wednesday, April 8, 2009 – Brenda Lee was the original teen queen with a powerful voice that would dominate rock and country music charts for nearly three decades. The Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum will pay tribute to Lee with the cameo exhibition "Brenda Lee: Dynamite, Presented by Great American Country Television Network," which opens Aug. 7 and will run through June 2010, t he hall announced Wednesday.

"Brenda Lee is one of the most versatile singers ever to record in Nashville, and the only female artist to be enshrined in both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame," said Museum Director Kyle Young. "She possesses a powerful voice that belies her four-feet-nine-inches-tall frame, and her innate interpretive skills have allowed her to tackle many disparate musical genres with equal authority. She has sold millions of records worldwide and charted in multiple categories, including country, pop, R&B and easy listening. In doing so, Brenda Lee has transcended musical boundaries to earn the awards and respect of fans and peers worldwide."

Born Brenda Mae Tarpley on Dec. 11, 1944, the Atlanta native sang from the time she could talk and won her first talent show at the age of 4. She soon sang on local radio stations. In 1951, the youngster made her television debut, performing Hank Williams' Hey, Good Lookin' on Atlanta's TV Ranch program. On weekends, she supplemented her family's income by performing for tips at concerts with the show's house band, John Farmer & the TV Ranch Boys.

Following the untimely death of her father in a construction accident in 1953, Lee landed a much-needed paying gig on the Augusta, Ga. TV show Peach Blossom Special and, at the suggestion of the station's program director, shortened her name to Brenda Lee.

Lee's big break came in February 1956, when she auditioned for Red Foley and was invited to join the cast of ABC's Ozark Jubilee program. Three months later, Lee signed with Decca Records, an association that would last nearly 30 years. Her inaugural recording session took place that July, under the supervision of Owen Bradley, and included a rousing version of Jambalaya (on the Bayou). The two worked together for two decades.

Although 11 at the time, Lee's first two singles were released under the name "Little Brenda Lee (9 Years Old)." Neither record charted, but through appearances on network television - The Perry Como Show and The Steve Allen Show - she became known nationally. Her year ended with a three-week engagement at Las Vegas' Flamingo Hotel, where she became the youngest headliner ever in that entertainment oasis.

In March 1957, Lee's third single, One Step at a Time, cracked the country and pop charts. Red Foley's manager, Dub Allbritten, took control of Lee's career, tirelessly promoting the young star. Allbritten also became a father figure to her, and guided her career for the next 15 years. As Lee's popularity grew, Allbritten booked her on package tours with country stars such as Kitty Wells, Faron Young and Patsy Cline; she also appeared on the Grand Ole Opry in 1957 and 1958.

Lee also was interested in rockabilly music. In 1960, Lee scored her first pop Top Ten hit with Sweet Nothin's and followed it up with her number 1 smash I'm Sorry." Bradley added lush, orchestrated strings to the latter. The follow-up single, I Want to Be Wanted, also hit the top. She topped off the year with the re-release of her classic Christmas standard Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, originally recorded in 1958.

Throughout the 1960s Lee performed regularly in Europe, South America and Japan, at one point touring Germany with The Beatles as her opening act.

As her pop hits began to dwindle in the late 1960s, Lee felt out of place in the contemporary music scene. After brief recording forays in New York and Memphis (at Bradley's urging) failed to yield any hits, Lee returned to Bradley and in 1973 recorded Kris Kristofferson's Nobody Wins at Bradley's studio. While there was no intentional effort to transform her into a country artist, the record rose to number five on the country charts. Feeling at home with the music of her roots, Lee scored 8 more Top 10 country hits, including Big Four Poster Bed (1974) and Broken Trust (1980).

In 1982, Lee collaborated with Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton on the Top Five Billboard country album "The Winning Hand." Three years later, Lee's duet with George Jones, Hallelujah, I Love You So, yielded another chart hit. At decade's end, Lee reunited with Bradley to record the Grammy-nominated Honky Tonk Angels Medley with k.d. lang, Loretta Lynn and Kitty Wells for lang's "Shadowland."

In 1997, Lee was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 2002, she was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and that same year bowed her autobiography, Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee, co-written with Robert K. Oermann and Lee's daughter Julie Clay. In February, Lee received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award for her creative contributions to the field of recording.


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