Little Miss Dynamite is having a blast. And she's not sorry, either.
Brenda Lee, hair still radiantly red, is still 4 feet 9 inches of primal energy. She can still belt a song in the blues-edged, kinda-hurtin' manner that made her so distinctive during the '60s and helped her sell 90 million records, too--a figure no solo female singer has ever touched. She rocked and rolled at the dawn of that era, rockabillied with Wanda Jackson and Elvis Presley, traipsed down several pop-oriented paths and finally found a home in country music.
The fans in country music make things easier, of course. Like jazz fans, they're loyal. And the fans have followed Brenda Lee from Nashville all the way back to Nashville.
"I'm accepted as what they know me as: first as rockabilly, because that's what I was termed as first," she says in her luxury hotel suite. She is here for tonight's black-tie bash of the Country Music Association--she's on its board of directors.
"Then I was rock. Elvis and I, when we started, were young and unorthodox. We didn't know that you weren't supposed to do this or that. We were earthy, just sang like we did and had young guys that played. It all came together and it wasn't hillbilly or rock 'n' roll, so they termed it rockabilly. Then it was rock 'n' roll. Then, because of 'I'm Sorry,' I became pop, and now I'm back to country."
Brenda Lee was 14 years old when "I'm Sorry" replaced "The Twist" at the top of the charts and sold 8 million copies. She was 15 when Time magazine described her voice as "part whiskey, part Negroid and all woman," a description that still makes her wince in embarrassment.
Suddenly it's 1983 and Brenda Lee is 38. Married for 20 years, she has two daughters, 18 and 14, and it's funny how time slipped away.
"People think, 'My Lord, she must be 50,' " she laughs easily. "But they forget that I was only 14 years old when 'I'm Sorry' was a big, big record."
In fact, she's younger than Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn, barely older than Linda Ronstadt. A quarter of a century after the fact, Brenda Lee is still cutting hits.
She started as Brenda Mae Tarpley, from Lithonia, Ga. Georgia is still on her tongue, if not her mind, which now belongs to Tennessee--Nashville in particular, where she moved at age 8.
At 8, she was already the family's breadwinner. Her first record, Hank Williams' "Jambalaya," came out in June 1956. "I had three or four songs and they all charted. Not anything really big, but I guess for a 10- or 11-year-old it was pretty good. And I started traveling with some pretty big country packages: Patsy Cline, George Jones, a lot of people like that. Then I went to Europe and actually made my big splash there before I did in the States. In Europe, I'm still known as completely rock."
So much so that "I'm Sorry" had no trouble reaching No. 1 in the French charts in 1978--18 years after it was released in America. "The original version," she says proudly. "Of course, I don't even sing it in the same key now," a concession to time.
Lee has had an even dozen gold hits in rock, including "Sweet Nothins' ", "I Want to Be Wanted," "All Alone Am I," "Thanks a Lot," "Fool #1" and "Dum Dum" and "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," a perennial as hardy as "White Christmas" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer."
Though she moved to country at the dawn of the '70s, Lee thinks many of her old rock hits (cut in Nashville by Hall of Fame producer Owen Bradley) would be marketed as country if they came out today.
She's well aware of the pop-goes-country controversy, and just as aware that country music is booming. While the rest of the record industry is struggling, sales figures for country music have jumped, last year by 9 percent, so that country now accounts for 35 percent of all music sales.
"My roots, my first influences were country," Lee says. "But because I had such huge success in pop in the '60s, it was very cut and dried. But I would always play country even though I was 'pop.' I've worked a lot and gained a lot of ground, had threeTop 10 country records in the last two and a half years."
Lee's rock past lives more strongly overseas. "I have an album out called 'Miss Dynamite' in England. A year and a half ago it was in the Top 10 and it was all the old, I mean real old, songs, like 'Let's Jump the Broomstick,' which people in the United States have never heard of but it was a number one record in England. So they still accept me there that way."
She adds, proudly, that "I do have an album now, 'The Winning Hand,' that's No. 4 in the country charts . I made it with Willie Nelson , Dolly Parton and Kris Kristofferson . My new single will be with Willie off that album."
So Brenda Lee still takes it according to the title of her first charted single, "One Step at a Time." This year, she'll do her first studio production work; she'll put together a bio-novel based on her 30 years in the music business; and there's talk of a Broadway show drawing on the same rich source of music and pop history.
And there are records. Concerts. Lobbying for the CMA. And waiting for the gold watch from MCA Records, where she's been since 1956.
"I don't have my watch yet," she says, mock-incredulous. "I keep asking them, where's my watch? It's been a long time!"