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Little Miss Dynamite strikes again

By Joel Bernstein, March 2002

Page 2...

Lee's career had its ups and downs, and along the way she - and her audience - shifted from pop music to country. "You just have to kind of reinvent yourself. I didn't sit in a corner and cry about it. I just had to reflect 'Do I want to do this? Is there still a place in the business for me?' I made two or three big comebacks."

Considering how many records Brenda Lee has made, it's astonishing that - other than her hit singles - almost none of her recordings have ever been released on CD in the US. It's perhaps even more amazing that, other than a German box set which is complete through 1962, very little else has even been released on CD overseas.

"I don't own my masters. MCA (which bought Decca) has seen fit to (not release them)." Lee and her manager/-husband Ronnie Shacklett have attempted to rectify the situation, but "they won't let me buy them back. They won't even discuss it."

Lee did manage to recently do something her old record company had never let her do. In 1997, she recorded her first gospel album. Presumably her teen idol status is what made Decca refuse to allow her to one in the '60s, since such albums were actually quite common in the country and pop fields. "I never did know the reasoning for it," Lee says. "I just know I wanted to do one, but wasn't allowed to."

However, she was actively involved in choosing her music even in her youth. After a blowup with her original producer Paul Cohen, whom she felt was being condescending, Lee worked exclusively with Owen Bradley for more than 10 years, including all of her biggest hits. "I was involved with the song process. I worked very closely with Owen. I've always been involved in choosing what I do. People would send us songs, and we would weed them out. We listened to thousands and thousands of songs. I never went out aggressively looking for material at that point. I did more as I got older."

Her late '60s hit "Johnny One Time" was one she found herself, hearing Willie Nelson's original version on the radio and deciding it was a perfect song for her. "That was kind of a fluke." Lee says.

Ironically, Lee was the first to record what became one of Nelson's biggest hits some years later. She cut "Always On My Mind" in 1971, and Elvis Presley did it a few months later, but both of those versions achieved only middling success. "We just didn't get it. (Willie) hit on the right formula. Mine was a little more uptempo as was Elvis'."

Lee was approached to do an autobiography a few years ago. "It took about a year to put a proposal together. Then I went to New York to find a publisher." Her co-authors are veteran country music writer Robert K. Oermann and her daughter Julie Clay, who is a writer. There were also others who worked on research.

Lee says she banged away at the typewriter quite a lot herself. "I sat in with them every day. We sat several hours a day for a year and a half."

Given Lee's long career, it's not surprising that one of the hardest parts of writing the book was editing it down to a manageable length. "The book was much longer. We had to take a lot of it out."

The book may disappoint some who look for scandal and sexual escapades in biographies. "That's not my MO. I'm not a mean person. I haven't had terrible experiences with other entertainers. I've always gotten along well with other artists. It's not hard for me to say nice things about people. I have a positive outlook, and I'm a positive person. A lot of people think you have to have sensationalism to be popular and sell books."

Asked what angle her publisher will use to promote the book, Lee says. "I don't know what hook they're using." She adds "The book is not a memoir. It's a mini-musical journey chronicling my almost six decades."

One interesting thing about Lee, which shows repeatedly in the book, is that she wasn't just a performer of popular music in the early '60s. Because she was so young herself, she was also a huge fan of other top performers. In fact, she first encountered her future husband at a Jackie Wilson show. "I've always loved other entertainers and going to their shows. I am a fan first."

She particularly remembers touring in England with The Beatles in 1963. "I saw that whole English movement coming, because I was going over there so much. I knew that was going to be big (here)."

Through all the good times and bad, Lee has come out with her psyche intact. "I've been really blessed. I've had a wonderful career and a good life."

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