Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee

Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee

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Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee by Brenda Lee, Robert Oermann, Julie Clay

In this candid autobiography, Lee recounts her astonishingly dramatic life, filled with early poverty, tragic deaths, a nonexistent childhood, a controlling manager, young elopement, illnesses, barely averted financial disaster, and one of show business's most durable marriages. Brenda's life has touched some of the most legendary names in the annals of entertainment, from Elvis Presley to Elton John. It's a tumultuous life, sprinkled with humour, heartache, and hope. And yet, the real story here is that she is in many ways an everywoman.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780786866441
Publisher: Hyperion
Publication date: 03/06/2002
Edition description: 1 ED
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.14(w) x 9.21(h) x 0.75(d)
Age Range: 13 - 18 Years

About the Author

Brenda Lee is one of the most famous and popular female recording stars of all time. She has co-written more than a dozen songs, has writen a volume of poetry, and is the author of a popular cookbook. Brenda has recently been elected to the Board of Trustees of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee.

Co-author Robert K. Oermann is a journalist, music historian, and television producer. He serves on the board of the Recording Academy and is editor-at-large of Country Music and a weekly columnist for Music Row. He has published more than 2,000 articles in over 100 national publications, including USA Today, Entertainment Weekly, Esquire, Us magazine, TV Guide, and The Washington Post. He has produced and/or annotated more than sixty historical reissue albums. This is his seventh book.

Julie Clay is the author of the short story collection The Stars that Shine and serves as a contributing editor to several national lifestyle magazines. With an extensive background in advertising and public relations, she previously served as Executive Director of the Nashville Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts & Sciences. An accomplished pianist and songwriter, she is Brenda Lee's oldest daughter.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Georgia on My Mind

* * *

All my life, whenever I'd go back to Georgia, I would get this feeling of sadness, like I'd lost something and could never find it again. It's been so long; there have been so many miles. Don't get me wrong—I love Georgia, and I love seeing my people. But for years I had so many conflicting emotions about my background and my family.

    I grew up so poor, and it saddens me to see the poverty that is still there. A lot of my family have never done any better. Some of them are just exactly where they were when I was a kid. And, in a way, there is still something inside me that is part of that, the part that doesn't expect much. Little things make them happy, and that's the same with me.

    I have been around the world, so to me their horizons seem limited. Those trips home always remind me that some people just don't get an even break in life. If you asked my family if they were deprived, they'd tell you that they're not. And now I know, they're right.

    I left Georgia at such an early age. It's something that's hard to explain. Georgia's home, but it's not. My emotions are so complicated, so mixed up, about the world I came from. It almost aches to even talk about it. I crawled out of that red Georgia clay as a baby and never had time to look back, until now. And the emotions that it stirs in me are so confusing and intense that I can hardly express them.

    I never thought of myself as being ashamed of that background, but I did run from it. I escaped and got tofulfill my dreams, and I left my family behind. I always felt guilty about that. Why was I the one who got to live this blessed, fairy-tale life when there are so many who never even get to hear applause?

    I thought I could never go home again. But I finally have.

    So that I could tell my story, I went back to my red-clay roots, back to my family and back to the world that I left so far behind. It was a journey of discovery and healing for me. I have a new understanding of where I came from and who I am.

    Best of all, I've finally come to appreciate, understand and embrace the people who gave me my start in life.

* * *

If you drive far enough east out of Atlanta, the city's vast suburbs finally disappear. The hills drop behind you and the land begins to undulate with softly rolling contours. The earth is colored in that russet shade described as "red clay." Pine forests cover the land that is not under cultivation. As the miles slip by, the road becomes straighter. Nowadays, it is Interstate 20, with its endless march of franchise restaurants, discount stores, gleaming service stations and prefab motels clustered at its exit ramps. But back when I was born, this was U.S. Route 278, the two-lane blacktop that connected Georgia's metropolitan capital with the bustling Savannah River town of Augusta on the state's boundary with South Carolina.

    Exactly midway between the two cities is Greene County in the heart of the state's old cotton belt. Greensboro, the county seat, was historically a key trading center for the old plantations. But the days of antebellum homes, blooming magnolias and moss-draped trees are long gone. After the Civil War, the plantations were chopped up into sharecropper farms. Erosion and the nutrient-leaching cotton fields eventually turned the soil parched and barren. My relatives remember that the boll weevil arrived like a plague in swarms during the 1920s and 1930s, doing the rest to decimate the land and its people.

    During the Great Depression, survival became a day-to-day crisis in this desperate region. Out of this seemingly unblessed, unforgiving earth came two Georgia clans who were my ancestors: the Tarpleys and the Yarbroughs. The fact that I rose from this suffocating landscape of despair to achieve my dream of singing is nothing short of miraculous.

    Both sides of my family tree came from the Greene County area. My paternal grandparents, Richard Andrew Tarpley and his second wife, Nannie Lee Almond, raised seven children. He was a struggling farmer who later found work as a guard in the Greene County Jail. Nannie Lee was said to be a strikingly handsome woman who tended to their old farmhouse in Maxeys, Georgia, and minded her brood of children. I never knew my grandmother and grandfather Tarpley. They both died before I was born.

    My father, Ruben Lindsey Tarpley, was their sixth son, born in 1908. Like his older brothers, he quit school at a young age to help the family work their small farm. Daddy grew to become a slim, athletic boy with almond-shaped brown eyes, long eyelashes and wavy black hair. He and his brothers all excelled at sandlot baseball when they were growing up.

    It was also a tradition in the Tarpley family for the sons to have careers in the military. Daddy's older brother Charlie, for instance, was gassed in World War I and spent the rest of his life on military disability. His brothers John and Ivan both enlisted in the then-new Army Air Corps as teenagers. Daddy followed their lead when he enlisted in the Army Infantry at age twenty.

    During his eleven years in the service, Daddy made his mark, not surprisingly, as a company baseball player. The Schofield Barracks in Honolulu still have the trophies to prove his prowess. Although only five foot seven, he excelled as a left-handed pitcher and fantasized about a professional career with his dream team, the New York Yankees, when his tour of duty ended. He rose to the rank of sergeant but decided not to reenlist when his superiors couldn't guarantee that he'd remain in Hawaii. So Daddy returned to Greene County in 1939.

    That's where he met my mother. Her name was Annie Grayce Yarbrough. She was a petite, gray-eyed brunette, thirteen years his junior. Mother was born in 1921, just a few years before the Depression.

    Mother told me that her father, Randall Isaac Yarbrough, tried anything and everything he could to make a living. He cut stone in the quarries; he farmed. Times were hard when she was small. After the stock market crashed in 1929, Mother said, "You couldn't hardly buy a job."

    Because Mother's father had no brothers and sisters, there was no family to fall back on. He and my grandmother, the former Lucy Emma Wilson, had ten children to raise. Granny was a strong country woman, one quarter Cherokee, with a deep, sustaining faith, Mother and her siblings were raised with a powerful work ethic, a will to survive and an abiding, bedrock Baptist religious foundation. They grew up singing in church, and other members of the Yarbrough clan played guitar and piano.

    Like the Tarpleys, most of the Yarbroughs had little formal education.

    "I went as far as the eighth grade in school," says Grayce Tarpley, "but that was further than any of my brothers and sisters. Back then you had to buy your books. And as the grades got higher, the books got more expensive and you needed more of them. And my parents couldn't afford it.

    "We all had to go to work as kids. I went to work right away after I left school. I clerked in the five-and-dime store in downtown Greensboro; I babysat; I did gobs of things. Then I'd give all the money to Mama so she could buy material—she was a wonderful seamstress, and she made all our clothes.

    "I met Ruben when I was babysitting his little sister. He had just got out of the service. I guess I was eighteen or so; and he began to take me out. My parents would let us date, but we weren't allowed to go to dances or anywhere where alcohol might be served. We'd go to friends' houses or to church functions. He didn't have a car, so we walked everywhere we went. He was about thirteen years older, but that didn't make no difference. It's been a long time ago—I don't remember how, but he just asked me to marry him, you know? My parents didn't say anything, so I guess it was all right. We went to South Carolina—he had some cousins that lived there—and went to a justice of the peace. Nobody but me and him. It was February 15, 1940."

    Like thousands of other rural folks, my parents headed to Atlanta as newlyweds. The city had hosted the gala premiere of Gone With the Wind just two months before their arrival. The thunderclouds of World War II were rumbling now; and that conflict would bring previously unheard-of prosperity to the city. During the next four years, new industries flowed into Atlanta, creating thousands of jobs.

    My parents lived in various small apartments while Daddy worked at Nabisco, doing everything from packing cookies in boxes to working on the loading dock. By the time their first child, my older sister Linda, was born in 1941, they were living in the central business district in a sparsely furnished apartment on Edgewood Avenue, next to the heart of the historically black neighborhood known as "Sweet Auburn." I've since learned that just one block north of Edgewood was the Auburn Avenue home of the Reverend Martin Luther King, whose Ebenezer Baptist Church was just two blocks further on. His son, the future Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., would grow to become that same church's pastor and would eventually help change the face of race relations in America. But in 1941, he was a twelve-year-old boy playing just blocks away when Mother and Daddy were beginning their family there.

    I think it must have been a sobering experience for Daddy when he brought Mother and baby Linda back to the bustling neighborhood from Grady Hospital on that chilly March morning. The medical facility was only six blocks away, but it must have seemed like a million mental miles from the tradewinds, palm trees and Polynesian beauties of Hawaii, where he'd been just twenty-four months earlier. Daddy was thirty-three years old and facing real family responsibility for the first time in his life. His brothers John and Ivan would retire to Georgia from their military careers with steady pension checks to last the rest of their lives. I feel sure he wondered what would have become of him if he had done the same. What if he had stayed in the Army? What if he had never come home? What if he had remained footloose and single? That little Edgewood Avenue apartment had probably never looked so confining to him.

    If he dared to dream of his lost island paradise, Daddy would have had a chilling awakening later that year. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, killing 2,400 servicemen and obliterating many military installations. If he had stayed there, he might have become a statistic instead of a new father. John, his brother, was discharged in 1944 because of arthritis. But his brother Ivan, who'd been stationed in Hawaii at the same time as Daddy, was captured by the Japanese in the Philippines and spent 1942-45 in a prisoner-of-war camp.

    With America aflame in a national emergency and with little more than their clothes as possessions, Mother, Daddy and baby Linda left Atlanta.

    "We kind of felt out of place in Atlanta," Grayce reports. "Life in the city wasn't as bad as it is today, but neither of us was really comfortable there. So we headed back east on Highway 278. Ruben didn't own a car, so one of my brothers came to get us."

    Mother and Daddy went to work in cotton mills, and during the next few years they lived in various small towns around central Georgia. Cotton mill work was long hours, low-paying and monotonous. With wartime prosperity at a peak, Daddy eventually thought another move to Atlanta might be the smart thing to do. So about a year later, Mother, Daddy and Linda returned to the city. This time, they settled in the southwest part of downtown in yet another small, furnished apartment on Windsor Avenue. Jobs were plentiful, and Daddy had learned carpentry from Mother's brother-in-law, Harry England. That meant he could easily land jobs in construction in the booming wartime metropolis.

    Atlanta. World War II. Poverty and promise. Lost dreams and wishful thinking. A cold winter with hopes for a warm tomorrow. This is the backdrop for the start of my story.

* * *

I was born Brenda Mae Tarpley on December 11, 1944, in the charity ward of Atlanta's Emory University Hospital. I was premature by a month and weighed a big, fat four pounds, eleven ounces.

    They took my middle name from my mother's oldest sister, my aunt Aeola Mae. She was a fiery, determined kind of lady. I remember her as a big, robust woman who always had a welcoming smile and a bosom you could get lost in when she hugged you. She was constantly cooking something for everybody in the family. Mother says she picked "Brenda" for my first name because she wanted something special and different for me. That wasn't a common name back then. Daddy nicknamed me his "Bootie Mae."

    "Don't Fence Me In" was at the top of the Hit Parade in December 1944, and that might have been our family theme song. During the next nine years, we would move eight more times. The first destination was back to Mother and Daddy's hometown of Greensboro. Although Daddy's parents had died by this time, his brothers still lived there; and besides, he and Mother were both able to get jobs in the local cotton mill. Once settled back in Greensboro, Daddy returned to his love of the national pastime.

    "I remember that time so well," says sister Linda Tarpley. "I recall going to see my father pitch for the cotton mill baseball team. And I have even more vivid memories of little Brenda, because it was amazing that she started to sing. It's hard to say when Brenda first started singing, because she sang from the time she could talk. She liked music even when she was a baby. When she was eight months old, she just loved listening to music on the radio. But it was something really amazing when she started actually singing. When she was about two years old, she could hear a song once on the radio and then whistle the tune perfectly. And sing all the lyrics, too. She did it so easily. Mother was sure it was a God-given talent.

    "There was an old country store down the road from our house in Greensboro. I would take three-year-old Brenda by the hand, and we would skip along to its front steps. Inside, tiny Brenda would be picked up to stand right beside the candy jar on the rustic wooden counter. Shell sing happily while I collected pockets full of change that the amused customers would toss. Afterwards, we would run home excitedly to dump it out on our old kitchen table. Then we'd head back the very next day to play this fun game all over again."

    One of my earliest memories is of going to that hot, dusty ballpark near the Greensboro mill to sing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" for Daddy and his teammates. Daddy always had the biggest smile; he'd scoop me up into his arms and put me on his shoulders while everyone clapped. I couldn't have been more than three or so.

    The other thing I remember about music and entertainment was our old radio. I don't remember what kind it was, but it was a plastic table model that ran on a battery. It would fade in and out with static when you turned it on. It was a big deal at our house when the Yankees and Dodgers used to play. Mother was the Dodgers fan, and Daddy was for the Yankees. They'd get so worked up, the house would be foggy from the chain-smoking of Mother's Pall Malls and Daddy's Lucky Strikes.

    But I also looked forward to Saturday nights. That's when we'd all listen to the Grand Ole Opry. In those days, Eddy Arnold, Bill Monroe, Minnie Pearl, Grandpa Jones, Ernest Tubb and Roy Acuff were the big stars of the show. So was Red Foley, who would later mean so much to me. Ball games, news reports, Amos 'n Andy and the Opry—those were the favorites at our house.

    By 1945, cotton was gradually fading as the South's cash crop, making my parents' mill jobs ever more tenuous. Daddy took us to the stone quarries of Elberton to seek other work. That's where my little brother Randall was born in the summer of 1949.

    I had been the baby of the family now for nearly five years and was wildly jealous of my new baby brother. I didn't like him one little bit. Any time I got the chance, I made his life miserable. I picked on him constantly. My mother remembers one particularly funny story.

    "She didn't care for Randall too much," Grayce recalls. "An insurance agent came around one day. I was standing there on the porch trying to talk to him. The next thing I knew, out of the clear blue sky, Brenda interrupted.

    "'Do you have any goats?' Brenda asked him.

    "'No, I don't have any goats,' the startled agent replied. What do you want to know about goats for?'

    "Brenda answered, 'Oh, I thought if you had a goat, I'd trade you this baby for it.'"


Excerpted from Little Miss Dynamite by Brenda Lee with Robert K. Oermann and Julie Clay. Copyright © 2002 by Brenda Lee. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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