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Country Music Changed My Life
Tales of Tough Times and Triumph from Country's Legends
By Ken Burke
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2004 Ken Burke
All rights reserved.
RAGS TO RICHES
You can go to college and learn all about marketing the way Garth Brooks did, you can take lessons, or you can hire consultants, but if you want to be a country music star, no one can teach you the two things you need most: talent and desire. Sure, a great song, a creative producer, an involved label, and a hard-nosed PR firm can work wonders. But when audiences sense the innate human need behind a performer's talent, they tend to regard that performer as their champion — and spend their cash more readily.
A good example is Shania Twain. As a child she was so poor that she sang on barstools for tips, and her schoolmates felt compelled to give her parts of their lunches. From the depths of poverty, the former Eileen Edwards became a major music phenomenon who now resides in a genuine castle. While people still argue over whether she is truly country or not (in the southwest we say she is country "by Canadian standards"), few who know of Twain's poverty-stricken background begrudge her the fruits of stardom.
So while the immense scale of Twain's success may represent a relatively recent trend, her rags-to-riches story has had parallels throughout country music history.
Dubbed "Little Miss Dynamite," Brenda Lee became a star because audiences thought she might actually be a midget.
"That's true," Lee tells me. "They had heard me sing in France, but they had never seen me. So, because my voice was so big and all, they thought I was older. My manager thought it would just be a great publicity stunt to say that I was a thirty-two-year-old midget instead of the twelve- or thirteen-year-old girl that I was. It was great press. It really worked."
Parisian crowds flocked to her performances to see if they could tell if she was an adult or a child. While they were there, they found themselves thoroughly entertained by a major talent. She was held over for five weeks, then went on to perform for standing-room-only crowds in Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom. By the time she returned to the United States, she was a big name, drawing wild ovations everywhere she went. Lee loved the applause, but she wasn't on stage for anything as petty as acceptance. The seemingly tireless performer with the desperate, hungry look in her eyes was her family's sole support and she knew it.
Born Brenda Mae Tarpley in Atlanta, Georgia, Lee was the country crossover child prodigy long before Tanya Tucker or LeAnn Rimes dazzled the world with their own youthful talents. One of four children of a binge-drinking, itinerant day laborer, she knew hunger and she knew shame.
The Tarpley family was always short on money. They ate grease sandwiches for lunch, didn't see oranges until Christmas, and had electricity but no refrigerator. When Brenda Mae wore out the few articles of clothing she possessed or required medical attention for a nasty fall, she felt plenty guilty. One of her earliest memories is of the profound disappointment she felt after being awarded candy instead of a cash prize at a talent show. "Well, it was tough," Lee told me. "We didn't have a lot of money, and we were poor! I was very conscious of it as a child." Circumstances worsened when her father was fatally injured on a construction job. Her mother's meager salary often couldn't cover their expenses; theirs was a family in crisis. But young Brenda had already started making the rounds at talent shows. At age five she won a trophy for singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" and Pee Wee King's "Slow Poke."
When she opened her mouth to sing, out came an unusual hybrid of gospel, country, and R&B. The only other performer around with a similar style was Elvis Presley, and he'd had years to absorb those genres and refine his sound. By contrast, Lee can't pin down her musical influences. "I don't know that I had any early influences, because we didn't have a record player or any way to play music. About the only music I heard growing up was through the church — the gospel music — and my mom used to sing me Hank Williams songs. But that was about it."
Like many poor southerners, she gloried in the sounds of the Saturday night Grand Ole Opry broadcasts, courtesy of an old-fashioned battery-operated radio. Later, she developed a deep appreciation for gospel legend Mahalia Jackson. "I loved her. She was absolutely one of my very favorite singers," she asserts. "I think I just accepted it as music that I loved. I wasn't looking at the color or anything. I was just hearing a sound that I loved."
Besides her stunning and powerful singing chops, which were capable of emitting raving rockabilly one moment and quavering country heartache the next, young Brenda Mae possessed another awesome gift: memory. Ever since she was three years old, she has been able to learn a song completely after hearing it only twice. Asked if that type of gift ran in the family, Lee shrugs it off. "No, I've just always had a good memory, and I can memorize things easily and quickly. I've just always been able to do it. It applied to my schoolwork and things like that. I can still pretty much do that."
She changed her stage name to "Brenda Lee" when she became a regular on Atlanta radio's Starmaker's Review. Then Red Foley's manager Dub Albritten saw her on WAGA's TV Ranch, a local country music variety show, and signed her as a client.
Albritten made things happen. Appearances on Foley's Ozark Jubilee led to higher-profile television gigs on prime-time variety shows hosted by Steve Allen, Red Skelton, and Ed Sullivan. She was just eleven years old, but her diminutive stature made her appear even younger. Although she was clearly booked for her curiosity value, Lee says she wasn't treated like some freakish little kid. "They showed great respect for me, and they treated me just like they would any other entertainer on the show, and I respected them for doing that."
The demands of live television created a high-pressure environment. Vintage footage shows her looking scared and joyless, but Lee claims she never got nervous. "No, I don't think I've ever been nervous, and I think when you're a kid you're not because you don't realize the enormity of what's happening at the time. All I knew was that I loved to sing and this was just another place to sing — on TV. I wasn't nervous at all. I don't think I even thought about the importance of it, what it might do for me, or what the outcome might be."
The outcome in this particular case was a recording contract with Decca Records. The company played up her girlish appearance, dressing her in baby doll clothes and pressing promo records proclaiming "Brenda Lee, Age 9." Her first minor hits, "Bigelow 6-2000," "One Step at a Time," and "Dynamite," made a little noise with American teens in 1956 and '57 but didn't suggest that she was anything more than a novelty attraction. She needed a gimmick to jump-start her career as a big-time performer. That's when her manager spread the rumor that she was, in reality, a thirty-two-year-old midget, and the focus shifted from Lee's age and size to her talent.
She began to assault the pop charts in earnest with such major sellers as "Sweet Nothin's," "I'm Sorry," "All You Gotta Do," "Fool #1," "Dum Dum," "Emotions," and the ever-popular seasonal smash "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." Lee's records scaled the pop Top 40 an amazing twenty-nine times. Many of these hits featured B sides that charted strongly on their own merits. That rare display of consistent, dual-sided power put the young songstress in the same league as Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, and the Beatles.
Lee gives most of the credit to her producer, the late Owen Bradley. "He was just a genius at choosing songs, he was a fine musician, and working with him was a joy. It wasn't work like it is with some producers. He knew exactly what he could get from you and how far he could push you to get it. He was just a genius at what he did and whatever 'sound' Brenda Lee has, I owe to Owen Bradley."
The legendary producer, who also worked with the likes of Patsy Cline, Conway Twitty, and Loretta Lynn, earned Lee's trust by seeking her opinion on songs and production. As a result, when he assured her she could tackle more sophisticated, torchy material, she suppressed her doubts and gave him her best efforts.
"Well, he was always big on doing foreign songs and then having them translated into English, like 'All Alone Am I' or 'I Want to Be Wanted,'" explains Lee. "So those kinds of things, where the melodies were so beautiful, especially on 'I Want to Be Wanted,' I didn't think I could sing it. He said, 'No, I think you could do a really good job on that.' And it was my second #1 record. So he was right."
Bradley capitalized on Lee's European popularity by having her rerecord many of her hits in phonetically sung French, German, and Japanese. All of her success led to nonstop personal appearance tours, which are punishing for performers of any age. "They were very, very hard. One-nighters, five- and six-hundred-mile jumps [via car] every night, dealing with the elements, dealing with a state fair one day — out in the dust on a horse track — then dealing with an auditorium the next day. Then when I got old enough to do clubs I had to deal with that atmosphere and all the smoke. So it was just tough. Of course I was always very disciplined about my voice and I still am."
Lee's appeal bridged the generation gap of the early to mid-sixties. Adults marveled at her womanly vibrato and emotional command, while teens dug her as a talented version of their angst-ridden selves. "Well, yeah, because you know I could relate to that because I was always an overweight teenager. Oh, I was! I went through the acne stage and all that stuff, and I could really identify with girls that were having problems, and I was always the girl next door. Boys would come and talk to me about girls that they wanted to date but never wanting to date me. So, I could relate to 'All Alone Am I,' 'I Want to Be Wanted,' and all those songs I was singing."
When the British Invasion groups began to dominate American airwaves, Lee remained something of a force on Top 40 radio long after many of her contemporaries had been relegated to obscurity. Although Decca had consciously tried to steer her towards adult contemporary audiences, her best records were always as much country as pop. But after the 1969 single "Johnny One Time" received more airplay on country than pop stations, Lee took the hint and switched to that genre exclusively.
After years of being promoted by Decca/MCA as a chanteuse, Lee says, "I've been blessed to have a great country career." In the studio, little changed. Owen Bradley was still twisting the dials, and Nashville's "A-Team" — Floyd Cramer, Buddy Harmon, Bobby Moore, Ray Eddington, and Grady Martin — was still playing right beside her as she recorded the Top 10 smashes "Nobody Wins," "Big Four Poster Bed," and "He's My Rock."
Because of Lee's efforts, her family was completely lifted out of poverty and her brother and two sisters were able to get college educations. On the downside, she has suffered several exhaustion-related illnesses throughout the years, not the least of which includes a cyst on her vocal chords that kept her out of commission during part of the nineties.
Other former child stars speak about the awful pressure of supporting their families at such a tender age. That kind of talk doesn't make sense to Lee. "No, I knew that I was helping, and I knew that I had to help. It never was a chore for me. I was always glad to help my siblings and mom. We were close and had a lot of love. So it never was a job for me. I was just always proud that I was able to do it. I never got to the point where I said, 'Hey, I'm sick of this and you all have deprived me of my childhood.' I never went through that syndrome."
However, at a certain point early in her marriage, she realized that she was letting her ambition get out of hand. "When I had my first baby, I went out on the road when she was three weeks old. When I came back home, she was walking. So, I was gone all the time. Finally, I just had to say, 'Enough is enough! I've got a husband; I've got a family; I've got to be home some.' So I cut my touring schedule back somewhat — not a great deal, but enough to keep things together."
One of the few performers to be inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Brenda Lee still works thirty-five to forty gigs a year — a greatly reduced schedule compared to the old days. Which brings up the question: does all that free time after decades of hard, compulsive work make her uneasy?
"Well, my husband says I'm only unhappy twice in my life — when I'm working and when I'm not working."
And what about the midget thing? As an adult she measures four feet, eleven inches in heels. Is she sensitive about her height today?
"No," laughs Lee. She can afford to be gracious and lighthearted. Against all odds, she became a music industry giant.
"I was hungry."
That's Hank Locklin's comically timed yet completely accurate response to the question of why he decided on a career in country music. Along the way he learned that fame didn't automatically translate into fortune and sometimes people will try and trick you out of what you are due.
Born Lawrence Hankins Locklin, he grew up during the Depression, when hard times were the only times. Like many young men of his era, he helped support his family through backbreaking manual labor, eventually getting a hand up through FDR's Works Progress Administration (WPA).
At age ten, he won his first amateur talent contest and knew he wanted to make his living in country music — an ambition easier to dream than to live. Surviving on scandalously low wages and sometimes none at all, he sang on radio shows based in Panama City and Mobile, Alabama, before finding his first regular employment on WCOA in Pensacola, Florida. Local radio paid so poorly that his military induction actually represented a substantial raise in pay.
When contacted at his Brewton, Alabama, home, Locklin, a Grand Ole Opry member for over four decades, speaks candidly about the hardscrabble road he traveled to country music stardom after World War II. "I used to fool around on the guitar, and I was pretty good at one time. So, right after I got out of the service, I went to work with Jimmy Swan, and we were playing in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. These twin boys I knew had a radio show in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and we became the Four Leaf Clover Boys. We were on around noontime, and we played dates around, y'know, but I really liked to starve to death there."
Initially, Locklin was the band's rhythm guitarist, but that soon changed. "We were at a show in Arkansas somewhere, and I was testing the mic for somebody, and I remember singing a line or two of 'You Only Want Me When You're Lonely,' and I heard myself singing. I thought about it and realized that I could make more money singing than I could pickin' the guitar."
Eventually the Four Leaf Clover Boys sought more lucrative gigs in Shreveport, Louisiana. Working for KWKH's Harmie Williams, they'd stuff five men and a huge bass fiddle into a '41 Ford Coupe and race from barn dances to the Louisiana Hayride.
"There was a guy who wanted to start a big barn dance with me. He told me, 'Hank, I got enough money to fill a two-story building.' He made it during the war selling cars. That was Elmer Laird. We played [the Hayride] and then decided to break up when Clent Holmes got an offer to work with Hank Williams. So, I ended up on KLEE [in Houston], just my guitar and me. It was a five-thousand watt station and it went down all over Texas. I was on at 12:45 every day, five days a week. I really done good there for about ten years."
Pappy Dailey, still a few years away from launching Starday Records, hooked Locklin up with Bill McCall's Four Star label, on which he scored a national Top 10 record with his composition "The Same Sweet Girl" [#8, 1949]. This in turn led to appearances on the radio program Big D Jamboree. However, there were consequences to working for McCall, whose roster once held such luminaries as Patsy Cline, Ned Miller, and the Maddox Brothers and Rose. "I never made no money with him," discloses Locklin. "My understanding was that he liked to go to Vegas. I guess Bill was just a guy who liked to take everything. I did 'Let Me Be the One' [#1, 1953] while I was on the label, but he put his wife's maiden name on the song."
Wary, Locklin prevented McCall from diddling with his most famous tune, "Send Me the Pillow That You Dream On," by publishing it with Acuff-Rose. The Four Star version didn't chart nationally, but Locklin is still amused by the reaction the song got when he sang it on his radio program. "Pillows started rolling in like you'd never seen. Big ones and small ones. After I recorded it, everywhere that thing went it got the same response and people sent pillows! I don't know what I did with 'em all."
Excerpted from Country Music Changed My Life by Ken Burke. Copyright © 2004 Ken Burke. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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