She was several inches short of five feet tall, even in socks and saddle shoes, and she weighed no more than 90 pounds, but her voice was that of a heavyweight. Just 15 years old but already five years into a professional recording career, “Little Miss Dynamite” Brenda Lee earned the first of her many smash pop hits when “I’m Sorry” reached the top of the Billboard charts on July 18, 1960.
Brenda Lee was born Brenda Mae Tarpley in the charity ward of an Atlanta hospital in December 1944, the daughter of an itinerant semipro baseball player/carpenter who was killed in a construction accident when she was only eight years old. A true singing prodigy, Brenda was a veteran of numerous regional talent contests, radio shows and television programs by the time she got her big break at the age of 11, when she met country star Red Foley shortly before a concert in Augusta, Georgia, and was invited onstage by him to perform Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya.” Three encores later, little Brenda Lee was on her way to being a star. “I still get cold chills thinking about the first time I heard that voice,” Foley would later say. “There I stood, after 26 years of supposedly learning how to conduct myself in front of an audience, with my mouth open two miles wide and a glassy stare in my eyes….I felt guilty for not going out to the box office and buying a ticket.”
It would be another four years before she had her big commercial breakthrough with “Sweet Nothin’s” (a #4 hit in early 1960) and “I’m Sorry,” but Brenda Lee made a series of records leading up to those hits that would defy any cynic’s expectations of what a girl of her age was capable of. Though she would be known during her heyday as a singer who leaned toward country music, early records like “Dynamite”—the source of her nickname—and “Bigelow 6-200″ were hard-driving rockabilly of the sort that would gain her entry into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and would make lifelong fans of a certain Liverpool foursome who would open for Lee under the name “The Silver Beetles” during her pre-Beatlemania tour of Great Britain.
Following her breakthrough #1 hit on this day in 1960, Brenda Lee went on to earn 27 more top-40 hits over the course of the 1960s—more than any other solo female performer in that decade.