‘Little Miss Dynamite’ blew up the charts when she was only 12: The story of Brenda Lee


Brenda Lee might not be as famous as some other music stars from the 1960s, but when it’s Christmas time, you’ve probably heard her song “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” Brenda started singing on stage when she was really young, even before she could drive. Even though she was only 4 feet 9 inches tall, her singing voice made her super popular around the world in the 1960s.

Brenda, whose real name is Brenda May Tarpley and was born in 1944, became a big deal in the 1950s. She started singing in the late 1940s, and by the time she was 12, people already loved her. Throughout her career, which began before she finished elementary school, she had 55 songs that reached the top of the charts. That’s why she’s known as the most successful female singer of the 1960s. Now, at 78 years old, Brenda Lee is still remembered for her amazing voice and the Christmas song that many people enjoy every holiday season.

When Brenda Lee was just eight years old, her dad, who worked in construction, passed away while on the job. After this sad event, Brenda, who then changed her last name to Lee, became the main person taking care of her family.

Her family included her younger brother, her big sister, and her mom, who worked in a cotton mill. Brenda didn’t see it as a duty; she wanted to help. Even at a young age, she was happy when she earned her first $20 because it meant she could contribute to her family. She said it made a difference in their lives by putting food on the table, and she loved being able to help.

Brenda, born in Atlanta, became really famous in the 1960s and was called a “pioneer of early rock and roll.” Despite her international success, Brenda stays humble. When asked about being a legend, she doesn’t see herself that way. Instead, she feels blessed to be doing what she loves and gives credit to the many people who worked hard to help her achieve her dreams. In her words, if she’s a legend, then those who supported her are legends too.

In 1956, when Brenda Lee was just a young girl, she joined country star Red Foley for a show at the Bell Auditorium near her home in Augusta. She sang the song “Jambalaya” by Hank Williams. After that, she appeared on Foley’s country music show called Ozark Jubilee. Many people, millions in fact, loved the talented 12-year-old with a sassy attitude.

In that same year, Brenda signed with Decca Records. The next year, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee. There, she mixed country with rhythm and blues, using her unique singing style. She recorded early rockabilly classics like “BIGELOW 6-200,” “Little Jonah,” and “Let’s Jump the Broomstick.”

When asked if she felt nervous performing in front of big crowds when she was a young girl, Brenda said no. She explained that she had been singing in front of people since she was 3 years old, so being on stage felt like being at home.

In 1957, Brenda earned the nickname “Little Miss Dynamite” for her powerful recording of the song “Dynamite.” Then, in 1958, she released the famous holiday song “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree” at just 13 years old. Brenda described the song as magical.

In the following years, she had hits like “Sweet Nuthin’s,” “All Alone Am I,” and “Fool #1.” Interestingly, even though she sang about love and heartbreak, in real life, her mother didn’t let her date, and she graduated high school without experiencing young love.

At the age of 16, she sang about the cruelty of love in the song “I’m Sorry” and expressed a desire for romantic kisses in “I Want to be Wanted,” both becoming hits while she was still in school.

When Brenda Lee turned 18, she met Ronnie Shacklett, and they’ve been happily married for 60 years.

But life on the road when Brenda was young had its challenges. She celebrated her 12th birthday in Las Vegas, and she felt lonely. Even though she couldn’t walk through the casino because she was too young, she didn’t know what it looked like. They took her through the kitchen and into the showroom. After her show, she went back through the kitchen to her room because kids weren’t allowed in the casino area. In Las Vegas, there wasn’t much for a kid to do except perform on stage.

Brenda said she missed out on being with her friends as a child because she was often on the road. Despite that, she made new friends, like the music group that opened for her in a 1962 show in Germany. She casually mentions hanging out with John, referring to John Lennon. She describes him as very smart, funny, and gentle. When she learned that the famous Beatles were fans of her music, she was amazed.

As for her circle of friends, Brenda Lee has connected with influential figures like John Lennon, and there may be more interesting people in her life, but the text doesn’t provide details about them.


Elton John, who heard Brenda Lee perform for the first time, said, “I was just stunned. I don’t think I had ever heard anything like it.”

Brenda Lee has danced with Elvis Presley and was friends with Little Richard since the 1960s. In 2019, both were honored at the Governor’s Arts Awards, receiving a Distinguished Artist award. Sadly, it was Little Richard’s last public appearance before he passed away in May 2020.

Remembering her friend, Brenda wrote, “I had been dancing to Little Richard’s music at sock hops forever. How to summarize magic? … I didn’t understand the words, or what they meant, I just knew that I loved how that music made me feel.” She believes he is in heaven, as he was a man of God.

Brenda gives credit for her success, both personally and professionally, to her husband, whom she married in 1962. She attributes finding the right person to God, saying, “He was looking out for me when I chose my husband. I wanted somebody with integrity, honesty, and somebody that loved me … and that would protect me and take care of me. I have found that. And I can only attribute that to God.”

Brenda is involved in Sunday Mornin’ Country, a faith-based event with CMA Fest, which has been going on for 40 years. She is a role model for young stars like Taylor Swift, who wrote a personal essay about Brenda Lee in the book “Women Walk the Line, How The Women In Country Music Changed Our Lives.”

Although Brenda Lee has retired from performing, her famous song “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is still loved, especially during the holidays. The song, a Christmas staple for 65 years, even reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts in 2019, 59 years after it was recorded. Brenda says it feels surreal to hear her own song while shopping in a department store.

It’s amazing that even after so many decades, Brenda Lee’s music continues to bring joy to fans. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is a timeless favorite that makes people excited for the holidays. What are your favorite memories of Brenda Lee?