Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Writers (especially those who write about rock history) love to pigeonhole. Since the history of rock is such a MASSIVE subject, sometimes I can't blame the scribes for trying to get a handle on it by categorizing everything. That's one reason I write this blog; I'm doing my own history of rock - ONE ARTIST AT A TIME. I figure by the year 3115 I should be finished.

In the "conventional" history of rock and roll, Brenda Lee gets short shrift. Generally the books will say that Brenda Lee was one of the top pop singing stars of the early 60s, having a bunch of hits until the Beatles came along and wiped out her career. Well, yeah, from a pure "Billboard charts" point of view, that's true. But the charts don't even begin to tell the whole story.

For me, Brenda Lee is one of those early rock and roll artists, like Dion and The Everly Brothers, who made more interesting records AFTER the hits dried up in America. Brenda (born Brenda Mae Tarpley on December 11, 1944 in Lithonia, GA) also has the ONE rock and roll story that I'm just WAITING to read in an autobiography (not written yet, unfortunately) - signed to a major label at 11, working with the certifiably loony Ronnie Self at 14, a star at 15, traveled the world by 17, losing most of her possessions in a fire at 18, MARRIED at 18, recording in the UK with Jimmy Page and Mickie Most at 19 - Brenda's got one hell of a story to tell. By age 21, Brenda Lee had seen more of life than most people do in a lifetime.

That's why anytime Brenda gets into a blues/soul groove, I put on my listening ears. Brenda Lee could sing the blues like nobody's business, but she sang them her way - she wasn't trying to sound like Ma Rainey. For me, Brenda and Charlie Rich are the king and queen of the great white blues singers (sorry to break it to you hippies who dig Janis Joplin and Johnny Winter). I mean, listen, really listen to the job Brenda does on "Break It To Me Gently" - this was a first-rate soul singer at work. What's even more amazing is how old she sounds on that record - at seventeen, she put out a knowing vocal that most forty-year-olds couldn't muster.

Unfortunately, this side of Brenda Lee didn't come up for air too often, mainly because manager Dub Albritten pushed her toward country-pop ballads in order to repeat the success of her first million-seller "I'm Sorry" (the formula worked surprisingly well; between 1960 and early 1964, when the Beatles hit town, Brenda had a staggering thirty-one hit songs, and about 25 of 'em were slow ballads). Even though the formula was well in place, the records hold up surprisingly well. However, once the hits stopped coming, Dub stopped sticking his nose in Brenda's song choices (and main songwriter Ronnie Self flew over the cuckoo's nest), and that's when some VERY interesting 45s began appearing under Brenda's name, like the rocking "Is It True" (recorded in the UK with Jimmy Page playing lead guitar), her 1969 version of Arthur Alexander's "You Better Move On" (as much a soul record as almost any other) and "Take Me", from early 1967.

First time I saw this 45, I looked at the George Jones - Leon Payne writing credit and said to myself, "Ah, it's probably one of Brenda's straight country singles." I picked it up anyway, more because it was a Brenda Lee 45 I didn't have than anything else. I let it sit on my shelf for weeks before I decided to give it a spin. I was blown away when I finally did.

Brenda comes on like a cross between a hillbilly Dinah Washington and Muscle Shoals-era Lulu on this track, recorded at the end of 1966 when she had just turned 22. "Take me", she sings over a solitary bass guitar, "take me to your darkest room / close every window, and bolt every door", and you KNOW she means business. Then the Hammond B-3 and the horns come in, and it's really grown-up time: "the very moment I heard your voice / I'd be in darkness, darkness no more". The female backup comes chiming in and what you have here is a deep soul record, the kind that most women singers wish they could pull off. No longer was Brenda the "little girl with the big voice", this was a record sung by a woman - a woman who'd seen a lot, and was gonna tell it like she saw it.

Until Brenda's book comes out, though, this is as "tell-all" as it gets.

Brenda Lee - Take Me (Decca 32119) - 1967

No comments:

Post a Comment