Brenda Lee might be the most underrated superstar of her generation.
In the 1960s, she accrued a staggering 47 hits – a tally surpassed only by Elvis Presley, the Beatles and Ray Charles.
She is still, somehow, the only woman to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Her name and songs – beyond the two attached to her for eternity – have peppered pop culture. Whether being namechecked in Golden Earring’s 1973 hit, “Radar Love,” sampled by Kanye West (her “Sweet Nothin’s” appears in his “Bound 2”) or adored by Taylor Swift (who gushed about Lee’s influence in the book, “Woman Walk the Line”), Lee’s influence has stretched far beyond her heyday.
Still, her name is primarily synonymous with her 1960 heartbreaker “I’m Sorry” and the 1958 Christmas bopper penned by Johnny Marks, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
And yet, this is a woman whose legacy began as a child growing up in the Lithonia area, where she sang on Atlanta TV shows and at countless local events; she continued performing until a few months ago, when the 74-year-old diminutive vocalist decided it was time to retire (save for some charity appearances, which she cheerfully accepts).
Lee – whose extended family still lives in Atlanta and her brother in Covington – will be feted by her home state when Georgia Public Broadcasting bestows her with the inaugural Georgia Legend Award at the Fox Theatre’s Egyptian Ballroom this weekend.
At the Saturday ceremony, Lee will engage in conversation with GPB’s Bill Nigut as part of the VIP reception (“Everyone there will sound like me!” she joked) followed by a gala dinner that includes the presentation of the Legend Award.
In a conversation from Nashville last week, Lee lived up to her “Little Miss Dynamite” moniker. She insisted on being called “Brenda,” even though she deserves the respect of “Ms. Lee,” and when asked how she was, said with her notable twang, “It’s a good day. I’m above ground!”
Funny, frank and genuinely emotional when talking about her formative years in Georgia, Lee also happily discussed her legacy, her love for Georgia and what she thinks is her signature song.
Q: You’ve received a lot of accolades in your life, but what was your reaction upon hearing that you’d receive the first-ever Georgia Legends Award?
A: I cried. I’m about to cry now (chokes up). It’s still surreal. I love Georgia. It’s where I learned who I am. I was on WAGA with the “TV Ranch” boys. I used to sing at the sports arena with a gospel group called the Masterworkers Quartet. I have absolutely great memories of my state. The fabric of my being and who I am comes from the red clay of Georgia (chokes up again).
Q: The Atlanta of today is much bigger than when you were here – especially the traffic.
A: Oh. My. Lord. If you told me that I had to drive in Atlanta today, I would just say, I’m just gonna stay on the couch. When I go down to my brother’s (in Covington), I get off at the 285 bypass. I missed it one time and went through downtown. I never prayed so hard to get out of someplace in my life!
Q: I understand you’re doing a sit-down chat at the Fox event, but will you be performing?
A: No, but if somebody would call me and say we’re having a benefit for whatever, I would do it. I’ve always done that. I’m happy to do stuff like that. The good thing about me and retiring is, I don’t want this to sound self-effacing, but I’ve always sang for myself anyway. I can sing mopping the floor and I’m satisfied. You don’t have to change hats. I am what I am. It’s so comfortable. And so wonderful.
Q: You had an incredible string of hits for a woman that held until Madonna in the mid-‘80s (Lee earned nine consecutive Top 10 Billboard hits between 1960-62, a record held until Madonna broke it in 1986). But yet your peers always seem to get more legacy attention. Do you care about that at all?
A: It’s never been about that for me. It’s always been about the people, the song, the performance. The awards were like, oh, really? I appreciate that. But it’s always been about, just let me sing.
Q: Do people bug you to sing ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ during the holidays?
A: (Laughs) This year, I’m doing a little holiday parade in Cowan, Tennessee. My drummer is from there, and he asked if I would, and I said absolutely, and we’ll rock around that tree one more time! But oh, it’s wonderful. “Rockin’” had been out since 1958, and I got a call (in 1990) and they said, “Brenda, there’s a movie out called ‘Home Alone’ and they’re playing your whole song!” It was a resurrection of that song because a whole generation of young people flocked to the movie. I always thought ‘I’m Sorry’ would be my signature song, but no, it’s ‘Rockin’’.”
Q: Do you like any of the hundreds of versions that have been recorded since yours?
A: As with anything, I think people go back to the original. I’m proud. It’s a great song and you can dance the fire out of it. I love the writer, Johnny Marks who wrote ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ and ‘A Holly Jolly Christmas.’ He he was a Jewish man, but he loved writing Christmas songs! What a precious man. And the funniest thing, Johnny had to be 20-30 years older than me and he would always call me and say, ‘Brenda, there’s not a lot of us old-timers left.’
Q: Since your grandson Charley lives with you, does he help keep you current with music?
A: He’s gonna turn 17. He is an absolute music fan. He loves everything. For the last two years he’s been in boarding school, so I’ve had a little relief (laughs). But I’ve learned a lot from him. He just loves music. I introduced him to Little Richard and Fats Domino and my peers and he loved it. When I played him Chuck Berry, it was like a bell went off in his head. When he heard real rock ‘n’ roll, he was, like, mesmerized. He went, ‘Nona, you worked with these people?’ I said, ‘Nona was a part of all of that, son.’ I appreciate all music and have learned from all genres and I think you can. I’ll never forget the day that I go the call that Kanye (West) sampled ‘Sweet Nothin’s’ and I’m looking at the video with Kim (Kardashian) half-naked on the motorcycle. I couldn’t listen to the sample from looking at Kim! But I thought well, my goodness, this is wonderful. It’s very flattering to think that at his age and with his genre of music, that he knew who I was.
Q: You’ve lived in Nashville for more than 60 years, so why does Georgia still have such a grip on your heart?
A: Nashville…it’s not Georgia. My memories of growing up in Georgia and being discovered in Georgia, they’re just precious, and they mean so much to me. And the older I’ve gotten, the more it means to me. When you’re young, everything else takes precedence over the important things. I never did this for a claim. I did it because I absolutely loved to sing, and I would have been singing no matter what. So I am so grateful to Georgia and the “TV Ranch” boys and Masterworkers Quartet for giving me a place to sing. These days, most people don’t want to mess with a child (performer) and to think that happened to me in my home state, it’s still surreal to me, and I’m still so thankful. This (Georgia Legends) recognition, it’s number one on my list now. I’ve met the Queen of England and been to palaces and done it all, but this is it. I can go to bed and say, “OK, my home state has recognized me; thank you Jesus and good night.”
GPB Celebrates Brenda Lee
6 p.m. Saturday. $125 (gala dinner) and $250 (VIP patron party and gala dinner). Egyptian Ballroom at The Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 1-855-285-8499, foxtheatre.org.