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Little Miss Dynamite strikes again

By Joel Bernstein, March 2002

After 12-year-old Brenda Lee recorded the rockabilly hit "Dynamite" in 1957, a British writer dubbed the precocious performer "Little Miss Dynamite." The name stuck, as well it should have. Lee proved to be as explosive performing in a swank supper club or on a country music bill as she was on a rockabilly stage. In fact, Lee was so precocious that before her first trip to their country, the French press reported that the 14-year-old girl was actually a 32-year-old midget.

In both recording and in touring, Lee became one of the most successful female singers of all time. Though the hit records dried up a while ago, she has remained in demand as a performer. Lee is still dynamite after all these years, and in March, she blasts her way back into the public consciousness with two sticks blazing.

March 6 is the publication date for her autobiography "Little Miss Dynamite: The Life And Times Of Brenda Lee."

March 18 is the date for Lee's long overdue induction into the Rock 'N' Roll Hall Of Fame, capping her troika. She has already been enshrined in both the Country Music Hall Of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall. She will have TV appearances and book-signing dates around the country.

The order of inductions surprises a few people, including Lee. "I would have thought I'd gotten into the Rock "n' Roll Hall of Fame first." she says in a telephone interview from her Nashville home. "I didn't even realize how much success I'd had in country. I'm really honored to be in both halls. I was overwhelmed by the news of this. My roots were rock and pop, even though I've had a lot of success in the country field."

Obviously Lee and Gene Pitney, another new inductee, were far more successful and more talented than many previous inductees, but the writers who determine the Rock Hall's membership have their own specialized agenda.

Although Lee continues to perform regularly, she covers a much smaller area than she used to. Hugely popular in many other nations - she toured Japan in 20 consecutive years at one point and has appeared in at least 50 countries - Lee no longer travels overseas.

"I haven't been to Europe or Japan since 1993," Lee says. "Even before Sept. 11, I just didn't like to fly anymore. In the last five years, I haven't flown five times. There's not a day that goes by that I don't get an offer from (somewhere overseas), but I just can't make myself get on a plane."

She adds that "I have loved traveling. I loved getting to see places I'd only read about in books and to experience different cultures. A lot of people think it's more glamorous than it is. You're there to work, and if you're lucky you get to see a little bit of the country. We made sure we left enough time to see where we were."

Lee was a child prodigy, winning a local talent contest at age five. She was already an established performer on local Georgia TV at age nine when her construction worker father died in a freak accident. Shortly after that, she sang on a bill headlined by country superstar Red Foley, and he quickly signed her as a regular on his nationally televised Ozark Jubilee show. Foley's influence also helped her get signed to his record label, Decca.

Lee soon appeared on numerous network TV variety shows, made highly successful forays to many foreign countries and even established herself as a solid Las Vegas showroom act. All of this was done before she ever had a major hit record.

When that finally came, with the blistering rocker "Sweet Nothin's" in late 1959 as she turned 15, Lee was instantly one of the world's top female performers. Her next record was "I'm Sorry," a string-laden ballad that was even more successful.

Her amazing versatility is certainly a strength - or at least was when she was a youngster. "I've always tried to be really diversified in my material." she says us. "I like all kinds of music. I don't like to be pigeonholed. But I'm sure there are some things I can't do as well as others."

Lee is aware that such versatility might not be an asset to someone starting out now. "When I first started, all you needed to do was have talent. If you made a good record, it would get played." In those days, Top 40 radio was aimed at everyone, so it didn't matter what a record sounded like as long as it was good. Today, a record has to be targeted to a specific demographic, or it gets lost in the shuffle."

"Today," she adds "It's about the whole package. You've got to look the part, act the part, have the right attitude. It's all about image. It was always somewhat that, but much more so today."

Lee's book recounts the image-making that went into her career, but obviously she was not a totally manufactured star the way some of today's youngsters are. She had already proven her singing and performing ability before any imagemakers got hold of her.

Lee doesn't look back and see a lot of things she would like to have done differently. "I really haven't made any earth-shattering mistakes in my career. There's a lot of youth in the business now. It's always tough for a child. There's a lot of pressure. I don't know that I felt it that much because I loved what I was doing."

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