This month we will cover a real rags to riches story in Rock’n’Roll History. Isn’t it fascinating how so many of our legendary rock’n’roll heroes rose from real poverty to become super stars ? Elvis, Carl Perkins and Charlie Feathers immediately spring to mind. All three were born into poor Southern families in the USA and knew what it was like to be poor and work hard from a very early age. My belief is that this common background was a crucial contribution towards their becoming such great rockin’ icons. I do not believe a privileged upbringing would have resulted in them being such wonderful artists. The same applies to the focus of this month’s article; a tough female who was also to become a world famous mega star.
She was the one they called “Little Miss Dynamite”. She was Brenda Lee, one of the greatest female singing stars of all time. On 13th January I booked the Russian group the Marshmallows to perform for us at the Esse Jazz Café in Moscow. The event was held to celebrate the life and songs of the Great Woman. The Marshmallows could not have been a more appropriate group for the occasion. They are in their Russian way similar to Brenda Lee – talented, charismatic and special. Regular readers of this column will know quite a bit about them already. They put on a superb show that Brenda Lee herself would have been delighted with. Some of the photos you can see were taken at the concert on 13/01/18.
Brenda was born into a dirt poor Southern family in rural Georgia. Here’s a quote from her autobiography, which underlines how difficult things were for her and her family as she was growing up. “Things became really bad in 1951 when Daddy broke his arm at work. Our family hit rock bottom. Unable to do carpentry work, he moved us to a tenant farm in Conyers. One-handed though he was, he was right there with us as we all picked cotton side by side on the Turner Farm. This was grindingly menial work. When you pick, your back aches from constantly bending over and then from lugging the full cotton sack. No matter how careful you are, your hands bleed from being pricked by the thorny cotton bolls. And in Georgia, the sun is merciless during picking season.” And bear in mind, she was six years old at this time !
Despite their poverty, Brenda describes her family as being loving and caring. But in 1953 another tragedy occurred. While working on a construction site, a fellow worker accidentally dropped a hammer on her Dad’s head. He was knocked unconscious and died shortly afterwards. Here’s how she described it, “Mother was pretty much devastated, especially because of the way it happened. I was only a child, but I distinctly remember that none of us had any good clothes to wear to the funeral, and there was no money to buy anything.”
Incredibly this resulted in her becoming the main breadwinner of the family, at the age of 8 ! At the age of 6, she had won a local singing contest and following this appeared regularly on a local radio station. The income she earned was the family’s main source of support in the period immediately following her father’s death. This was supplemented by her subsequent appearances on local TV shows.
Then in 1955, at the age of 10, came her big break. A local Atlanta DJ persuaded the influential music promoter Red Foley to come see her singing at a big show he was organising in Atlanta. Brenda was always short, much less than five feet tall and Foley described the impact the little girl with such a powerful voice had on him and the audience. “I still get cold chills thinking about the first time I heard that voice. There I stood, after 26 years of supposedly learning how to conduct myself in front of an audience, with my mouth open two miles wide and a glassy stare in my eyes.” The audience was similarly entranced and responded accordingly.
After this, she became a nationally known performer, appearing on national TV shows and touring throughout the country. She got her first recording contract in 1956 with Decca. It was from 1958 that the huge mega hits began for her and continued on into the early 1960s. Many of you will be very familiar with most of them; “Sweet Nothin’s”, “I’m Sorry”, “Let’s Jump the Broomstick”, “Speak to me Pretty” and “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree”. That Christmas Tree song was the biggest of her career, selling over 5 million copies. And it was not her only number one in the hit parade. Of all the numbers quoted above, I guess “Jump the Broomstick” is my favourite: It’s a real rocker and shows off her fantastic voice to the full.
She was now a super star and remember she was still only in her early teens. It was a real delight for her to be able to change the lifestyle of her close family and take them out of poverty for ever. But the life she was living wasn’t 100% idyllic. In her biography she described the pressures on her as an entertainer: “Touring acts today have no idea how rigorous the road was back then. There were no interstates, no tour buses, no private jets and few decent accommodations. The pace was grueling and I was pretty much exhausted all the time. But the show had to go on. You weren’t allowed to be tired. There were times when I was so hoarse before I’d go on stage that I couldn’t even talk. I’d wonder, ‘How in the world am I going to do this show ?” [They] would give me a form of codeine to coat my throat. I don’t even think you can get that anymore. It made your voice better. I had to sing. You couldn’t say no.”
In the early 1960s, while still a teenager, pressure was put on her to change her musical style from being less rockin’ and more mainstream. Here’s how she described it: “I was assaulted on all sides to forsake my rock’n’roll past and advance into ‘legitimate’, adult showbiz. My label, my manager, my tutor and my choreographer presented a united front – I was to become a lady”. Little wonder then that her style from this time on became less rock’n’roll. She still continued to be a very popular entertainer throughout her career, but not quite as huge as in her earlier rock’n’roll years.
As time went on she returned to the style of performing that she had started with as a very young child i.e. country music. In the 1970s she had several hit songs which made it into the country music charts. And even today she has not completely retired and is still active on the country music scene, albeit she has inevitably slowed down a bit.
Her private life has generally been a happy one. In 1963 she married Ronnie Shacklett and the marriage is still going strong. She has two daughters. So here’s to “Little Miss Dynamite” (a clear reference to the power of her voice). To paraphrase from the words of one of her biggest hits, “Sweet Nothin’s”, she was really somethin’ !