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Brenda Lee

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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.

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