One of the biggest pop stars of the early '60s, Brenda Lee hasn't attracted as much critical respect as she deserves. She is sometimes inaccurately characterized as one of the few female teen idols. More crucially, the credit for achieving success with pop-country crossovers usually goes to Patsy Cline, although Lee's efforts in this era were arguably of equal importance. While she made few recordings of note after the mid-'60s, the best of her first decade is fine indeed, encompassing not just the pop ballads that were her biggest hits, but straight country and some surprisingly fierce rockabilly.
Lee was a child prodigy, appearing on national television by the age of ten, and making her first recordings for Decca the following year (1956). Her first few Decca singles, in fact, make a pretty fair bid for the best preteen rock & roll performances this side of Michael Jackson. 'Bigelow 6-200,' 'Dynamite,' and 'Little Jonah' are all exceptionally powerful rockabilly performances, with robust vocals and white-hot backing from the cream of Nashville's session musicians (including Owen Bradley, Grady Martin, Hank Garland, and Floyd Cramer). Lee would not have her first big hits until 1960, when she tempered the rockabilly with teen idol pop on 'Sweet Nothin's,' which went to the Top Five.
The comparison between Lee and Cline is to be expected, given that both singers were produced by Owen Bradley in the early '60s. Naturally, many of the same session musicians and backup vocalists were employed. Brenda, however, had a bigger in with the pop audience, not just because she was still a teenager, but because her material was more pop than Cline's, and not as country. Between 1960 and 1962, she had a stunning series of huge hits: "I'm Sorry," 'I Want to Be Wanted,' 'Emotions,' 'You Can Depend on Me,' 'Dum Dum,' 'Fool #1,' 'Break It to Me Gently,' and 'All Alone Am I' all made the Top Ten. Their crossover appeal is no mystery. While these were ballads, they were delivered with enough lovesick yearning to appeal to adolescents, and enough maturity for the adults. The first-class melodic songwriting and professional orchestral production guaranteed that they would not be ghettoized in the country market.
Lee's last Top Ten pop hit was in 1963, with 'Losing You.' While she still had hits through the mid-'60s, these became smaller and less frequent with the rise of the British Invasion (although she remained very popular overseas). The best of her later hits, 'Is It True?,' was a surprisingly hard-rocking performance, recorded in 1964 in London with Jimmy Page on guitar. 1966's 'Coming on Strong,' however, would prove to be her last Top 20 entry.
In the early '70s, Lee reunited with Owen Bradley and, like so many early white rock & roll stars, returned to country music. For a time she was fairly successful in this field, making the country Top Ten half-a-dozen times in 1973-1974. Although she remained active as a recording and touring artist, for the last couple of decades she's been little more than a living legend, directing her intermittent artistic efforts to the country audience. By Richie Unterberger
This Is... Brenda 1960
Brenda Lee's third album was significantly above the average for a pop/rock LP of the era. The orchestrated Nashville production was lush but tasteful, Lee's singing unfailingly committed, and the material pretty strong, even if there was nothing else on the album as strong as its big hit, "I Want to Be Wanted." The record did lean more toward pop than rock, but it was clearly not either Nashville country or straight adult pop, even if by this time in her career she was taking her shots at (and doing quite well with) standards like "Teach Me Tonight." The rock & roll side of her sound was represented by "Love and Learn" and covers of Ray Charles' "Hallelujah, I Love Her So" and Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" and "Walking to New Orleans," though she really did better with the ballads. And some of the ballads here are among her stronger material that you won't find on typical Lee greatest-hits collections, à la "If I Didn't Care," "Pretend," and "We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me)." It was certainly among the most commercially successful of her albums, reaching number four in the LP charts.
Brenda Lee's fourth album, Emotions, stayed with the approach she'd used on her previous LP, This Is...Brenda, mixing gorgeously produced Nashville orchestration with a bit of rock & roll and lush pop ballads. While it was the kind of record that could appeal to both kids and adults, it wasn't watered down, as the production on its own was pretty delightful to listen to, matched by the excellence of Lee's incredibly (for a teenager) mature vocals. "Emotions" was the big hit on the record, which also contained its B-side, "I'm Learning About Love," which made the Top 40 under its own steam. Nothing else on the album is too well known to listeners other than serious Lee fans. But there are some good ballads here, particularly "If You Love Me (Really Love Me)," which is nearly on par with her big hits in that style. While the rock covers (the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and Ray Charles' "Georgia On My Mind" and "Swanee River Rock") were more on the filler side, Lee still brought commitment to each and every one of her vocals. Also leaning toward the rock & roll side of things was a decent frisky number, "Crazy Talk," co-penned by Mel Tillis, who had a few of his tunes cut by rock & roll artists in his early years.