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Brenda Lee Was Her Family’s Breadwinner at 11 Years Old

It’s safe to say that Brenda Lee was one of the significant forces in the music industry throughout the ’60s. Her career, which is best known for “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” has lasted for more than half a century. Yet, at a young age, she not only realized her potential but also put it to use in surprising ways to help her family financially. Join FactsVerse as we discover how Brenda Lee was her family’s breadwinner at 11 years old.


On December 11, 1944, Brenda Mae Tarpley was born in Atlanta, Georgia. Brenda Mae Tarpley, who later became Brenda Lee, was born with a natural ability for singing, and she noticed her talents when she was a little child. Early on, her family also noticed her skill, and soon Atlanta, her city, did as well. When Lee was three years old, her sister entered her in a talent competition, and Lee won.                              According to the Country Music Hall of Fame, by the time she was three years old, she could identify and sing the melody of any song after hearing it only twice. Her talents began to draw attention all over her city. She even won a talent competition when she was five.

Brenda Lee had more than just a beautiful voice; she also had a loving family, which was priceless. She recalled her siblings, a younger brother and an older sister, as well as her mother, who worked extremely long hours to support them, as she talked about her upbringing to the Women of Rock Oral History Project. Because of their closeness, Lee and her family were able to cope with the tragic loss of her father when she was six years old.

 According to Biography, Ruben Tarpley was a devoted and caring father who battled alcoholism. When Brenda’s father was killed in a construction accident, he left the family impoverished. So her mother was forced to work long, physically taxing hours at a cotton mill to attempt to make ends meet. Brenda began singing at neighbourhood gatherings and baseball games, after which she was given a small amount as appreciation. Even at a young age, she noticed how her singing helped her family, so she became very passionate about it.

 As a result of the strain caused by the frequent 16-hour shifts, Lee’s singing enabled the family to supplement their income.

Later on, her mother married Jay Rainwater, the owner of a record shop. Lee used to perform at his shop on the weekends, at the same time that a local DJ named Peanuts Fairclough was helping her get notoriety and air time. He suggested that Brenda change her last name from Tarpley to Lee so that it would be easier for people to remember if she became famous.

When she was only ten years old in 1955, she got her big break. She declined a performing assignment so she could meet Red Foley, a celebrity in the country and western genre. He was astounded by the young girl’s voice, which was extraordinarily melodious. Lee became a sensation when she performed songs like “Jambalya” and the explosive “Dynamite” on Foley’s well-known country music television program, Ozark Jubilee, “The Junior Jamboree” edition. Lee was given the moniker Little Miss Dynamite starting that day.

Eventually, in 1957, Lee and his family relocated to Nashville, where she was discovered by manager Dub Allbritten and famed producer Owen Bradley. Both of these men played the role of devoted father figures to her. Along with artists like Patsy Cline, Mel Tillis, and George Jones, Young Lee went on a national tour. She had already become a household name by the time she was 12 because of her performances at the Grand Ole Opry and in Las Vegas. By September of 1959, Lee’s “Sweet Nothings” had ascended to the top of the Rock & Roll charts. Despite Lee’s success, the Jackie Coogan Law required that the majority of her earnings be placed in trust until she turned 21.

Misfortunate struck when Brenda’s stepfather abandoned the family in 1959, leaving them penniless. In spite of her success as a singer and performer at age 15, Lee, her mother, and her two younger brothers and sisters were all forced to live in a trailer park for just $72 a month. She filed a petition asking the court for money so she could move her family out of a trailer park. She triumphed and purchased her mother a home, which regretfully burned down. Lee’s “I’m Sorry” topped the charts in 1960. She received a gold record and a Grammy nomination for it, which was her biggest hit to date.

By the middle of the ’60s, the Beatles had become the most popular band in North America. Dub Allbritten, her longtime manager and a father figure, passed away. Lee grew discouraged because she felt she had no future in the music business, something she had previously cherished. Her manager was her most trusted person in her career, and now that he was no longer available, she felt lost.

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And all those years spent travelling finally caught up with her. Lee was rushed to the hospital in 1974 with potentially fatal blood clots. Her life was spared thanks to the quick action of the surgeons. Lee eventually went back to her Western and country music origins. It wasn’t until late 1974 that she recorded “Nobody Wins,” Kris Kristofferson’s debut single as a songwriter. This song became one of Lee’s many C&W hits, and it landed in the top ten on the country charts. Several music organizations, including the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, honoured her with honours and awards.

Lee kept up her hectic schedule of concerts and tours. Another Grammy nomination came in 1989 for her work on k.d. Lang’s album Shadowland.

Unfortunately, Lee’s life was turned upside down in 1998 when Owen Bradley passed away. She collected every last ounce of her might to deliver a powerful performance of “There Will Be Peace In the Valley” at his burial. It was later discovered that Lee had cysts on her vocal chords in 1999. With the possibility of irreparable damage to her vocal cords if she had surgery, Lee decided to rest instead. Though her condition has not been completely reversed, more damage has been prevented. Despite that, Lee went on performing all over the world with her supportive husband Ronnie and living close to her children.


While growing up, Brenda’s mother forbade her from dating, so she skipped out on the high school experience of heartbreak altogether. After a long period of singleness, she started dating again at the age of eighteen and eventually married the man of her dreams. While her story of marrying her childhood sweetheart and becoming a superstar may be the stuff of enviable envy for many, she nevertheless often wished for a more ordinary existence.

But this came as a complete shock to her loved ones and the company she worked for. The fact that Brenda got married when still young and at the height of her profession was so disheartening to her family that not a single one of Brenda’s immediate kin showed up to the ceremony. However, Ronnie Shacklett and Brenda Lee demonstrated their durability.

Though the singer secretly tied the knot in 1963 at the Radnor Church of Christ, the news made its way into the public eye on April 24.

A newspaper published their story with the headline “Brenda Lee, age 18, of 314 Elberta St., Nashville, married Ronnie Shacklett, age 18, son of a Metropolitan councilman”. Brenda’s wedding outfit was a classic white 2-piece, and the ceremony was attended by close friends and relatives of the groom. Brenda’s day was disappointing because no one from her family was there to help her celebrate. Apparently, the news that she would marry Ronnie Shacklett after only six months of dating did not sit well with her family.

Brenda Lee’s manager, Dub Allbritten, revealed that the wedding was meant to take place following the singer’s May 2 appearance in Copacabana, New York. The couple, however, reportedly could not hold off any longer. After the ceremony, the newlyweds made the short trip to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to celebrate their honeymoon for several days.

It was Ronnie’s ability to shield Brenda from exploitative managers early in their marriage that set the stage for Brenda’s later professional success. After having a cyst removed from her vocal chords in 1999, Brenda had to take some time off to recover before returning to the recording studio. Outside of such instances, however, the couple’s romantic interactions were kept private. Likewise, the same thing happened within their family. Brenda and Ronnie have three grandchildren: Taylor, Jordan, and Charley, and two daughters: Jolie and Julie. The birth of Julie was a terrifying ordeal. It was assumed that she would not make it past birth due to the Hyalin Membrane illness that she was born with.

Dr. Mildred Stalman, who also helped deliver the Kennedy children, saved her life with her ingenuity.

Brenda Lee is currently retired and enjoying life in Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband, Ronnie Shacklett.


Anyone who has experienced the loss of a beloved pet knows perfectly how terrible it can be, and Brenda Lee made it clear to her family that she had no desire to have another one after she lost her dog, Buddy. A small crack appeared in that resolve when her husband returned home with a 4-week-old dog he’d found sitting where she’d been thrown in the middle of the Tennessee freeway.

It was Lee’s intention to make the puppy healthy and then find her a permanent home, as he explained to The Tennessean. Little Girl, as she is now known, was obviously already there, and Lee raves about her as the best puppy she’s ever had. She went on to tell how “Little Girl” had improved their lives immensely and how much the family adores her.

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