Brenda Lee – Rock The Bop

13th July 2023 · 1950s, Music, Rock'n'Roll, Rockabilly

I have to confess that growing up I only knew the name Brenda Lee from the Golden Earring song Radar Love. I’m not sure I even knew she was a real person. But she was.

She was one of the biggest pop stars of the early Sixties, with a career encompassing pop, country – and in the early days, some surprisingly fierce rockabilly.

A child prodigy, Brenda Mae Tarpley made her first TV appearance at the age of ten, the year after her daddy died in a construction accident and she became the family’s main provider. She was signed to Decca the following year, earning the nickname Little Miss Dynamite.

Her early rockabilly numbers, released as “Little Brenda Lee” when she was only 10 and 11, are very different from the country-tinged pop ballads that would later bring her biggest success.

The first of them, in 1956, was a cover of Hank Williams’s Jambalaya backed by the hardcore rockabilly of Bigelow 6-200, showcasing the big voice that came from her tiny four-foot-nine frame. This one, Rock The Bop, comes from the following year, as did her performance of Little Richard’s Tutti Frutti

Brenda Lee, who is still alive and living in Atlanta aged 78, has been rather forgotten by pop history despite her run of 47 US chart hits in the Sixties – only Elvis, The Beatles and Ray Charles had more – including two number ones in 1960, the big ballads I’m Sorry and I Want To Be Wanted.

It’s odd because her contemporary, Patsy Cline, is still revered as a legend of pop-country, even though Brenda’s contribution was equally important – and more successful.

Like so many child stars her chart career was effectively over by the end of her teens. One of her last hits was a hard-rocking number called Is It True? recorded in England in 1964 when she was 19… with a session guitarist called Jimmy Page.