During 1957, already a seasoned professional, Brenda Lee charted nationally and
internationally for the first time with “One Step at a Time” (#43 on the Billboard
pop music charts and # 15 on country music charts)—a tune with lyrics that
seemed, even then, like her self-fulfilling pathway to superstar success:
Just one step at a time
The one true way to get all you need is
To start out slow and then pick up speed
One step at a time, boy
Just one step at a time
Just one way a boy can be a man
A start out young and go as fast you can
And if you wanna grow up to be a ripe old age
Stick to the book and live it page by page
One step at a time, boy
Just one step at a time
Day by day and take it year by year*
Brenda’s prodigious steps led quickly to dizzying showbiz heights, including her
first Grand Old Opry appearance during December 1957, where she first
appeared onstage at the Ryman Auditorium the show with Elvis Presley.
In 1958 “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” (written by Johnny Marks, the same
man who wrote “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”) was released for the first
time, then was re-released in 1960 to lasting acclaim. It continues to be one of the
most popular holiday recordings year after year.
Then in 1960, she struck gold for the first time with “Sweet Nothin’s” (peaked at
#4 on charts in the U.S. and England), followed by two # 1 singles, “I’m Sorry”
(stayed in the Top 100 for over six months!) and “I Want to Be Wanted.”
Gold record after gold record followed, including
“Fool #1,” “Break It to Me Gently,” and “All Alone
Am I.” As an international star, she recorded
numerous soon-to-be-classics in different
languages, including “One Rainy Night in Tokyo,”
which continues to be a standard in Japan.
Between 1957 and 1973, Brenda Lee’s songs hit
the pop music charts an unbelievable 52 times. As
the music biz changed, she began hitting the
country music charts again and again with top ten
tunes such as “Nobody Wins,” “Sunday Sunrise,”
“Big Four Poster Bed,” “The Cowgirl and the
Dandy” and “Broken Trust”—35 songs on the
charts, so far.
She ranks # 9 among all artists in the most consecutive Top Ten hits (the only
other females ahead of Brenda are Madonna and Whitney Houston—not bad
She has charted in more categories (including Pop, Rock, Easy Listening and
Country) and sold more records (over 100 million—unbelievable!) than any other
woman in the history of recorded music!
Brenda and her songs have appeared on virtually every major television show in
the world. Her songs have been featured again and again in motion pictures,
including the now-classic Home Alone, as well as The Fisher King, Cheaper By the
Dozen and This Boy’s Life.
In addition, she made her big screen acting debut in 1961’s Two Little Bears, co-
starring with Eddie Albert and Jane Wyatt. Other roles followed, including Smokey
and the Bandit 2 with Burt Reynolds, Jackie Gleason, Sally Field, Jerry Reed and
Among a glistening mountain of awards, in 1997 Brenda Lee was inducted into the
Country Music Hall of Fame. During 2002, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame followed
Perhaps no one has summarized Brenda Lee’s legendary career than John
Lennon. He often said of Brenda, “She has the greatest rock and roll voice of
Married to Ronnie since 1963 (they have two daughters—Julie and Jolie—and
two granddaughters), Brenda Lee today continues sharing her incredible voice,
warmth and excitement with audiences all over the world.
Between concerts at her home near Nashville, she took a few moments to share
the extraordinary “One Step at a Time” story with MyBestYears.com.
STILL THE SAME PASSION FOR SINGING
MBY: When did you know, personally, that singing and performing was what you wanted to
do, or was there a specific moment?
BL: I don’t know that there was a specific moment. I just knew, for as long back as I can
remember, that I wanted to sing. As I got older, it just became more and more of a love for
doing that. I’ve been blessed to do what I always wanted to do, and I hope to continue as
long as I possibly can. It’s definitely a big part of my life.
MBY: Do you still have the same passion for singing after all the years?
MBY: There are people in all walks of life who reach the
point when they just go through the motions. It’s obvious to
anyone who sees you sing today that you aren’t just
“phoning it in.”
BL: I think if that day ever comes I’ll know it, and that’s
when I’ll hang up the cleats, as they say. I can’t see it
happening, though, because I dearly love to sing. It’s a
new experience for me every time I stand in front of a
crowd and open my mouth.
MBY: No matter how many times you’ve sang a tune?
BL: No matter how many times, no matter what.
MBY: If the singing is always new and fresh to you, what is the worst part of performing as
you have done through the years?
BL: The traveling gets tiring. No matter what you do or how you try to prepare for it, it takes
a toll on you. I don’t think the human body was designed to jump on planes or busses and
go all over the world, but you learn to deal with it. I’m sure there will come a time that I can’t
travel as much as I have in the past or as much as I still do.
MBY: You’re still out there on the roads quite a bit…
BL: A lot, and I still love it. I hope to be able to continue until the good Lord says it’s time to
MBY: There are a lot of Brenda Lee fans out in MyBestYears.com Land that are praying
that that day won’t come anytime soon.
BL: Me too!
MBY: Of all the statistics that stand out about your career, one is truly remarkable: Of all
the female singers who had Top Ten hits, the only two people ahead of you are Madonna
and Whitney Houston. Is it hard to put that in perspective, that it has actually happened to
BL: It is. It’s always hard for me to believe
any accomplishment like that. Of course,
records are made to be broken, so I’m sure
all of the things I’ve done will be surpassed,
but it’s an honor. It’s something I never
really kept up with. I guess it’s good to
have PR and media people who put those
things together. When they say, “Did you
know…?” I just thank the good Lord and go
on. It’s such an honor to me that I’ve been
able to do anything at all because I know
that it’s the fans that make it possible, the
DJs that play the records and, of course,
people like you who continue to put these
things out there for fans to know and remember. It’s not just the talent of the artist. I know
that, and it makes me even more grateful for everyone out there who has played such an
important part in helping me do what I’ve been doing all these years.
MBY: Speaking of all the years that you’ve been a recording artist, of all the songs that
you have recorded, what is your favorite?
BL: That’s so hard. It’s sort of like your children. It’s hard to pick a favorite because each
one is so special.
MBY: It would seem especially difficult to pick just one because so many of your songs
have stood the test of time.
BL: I was blessed to work with such great writers and producers who helped me pick those
kind of songs.
MBY: You’ve worked with so many great people in the business. Of all the people with
whom you’ve worked, which ones have been the most influential.
BL: I’ve learned from some of the greatest entertainers in the world—people like Sophie
Tucker, Jimmy Durante, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis, Jr., Tony Bennett and people like
that were very special to get to know and sit at their feet in the business, so to speak. I
always tried to look at what they were doing and learn from the best. Because of the way
my career has gone, I’ve been able to perform with the greatest people in so many
MBY: How about the people from the country music world?
BL: Hank Williams, George Jones, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash—
there have been so many great ones that when you got to see
them up close, you just hoped that whatever they had would rub
MBY: From rock and roll?
BL: Elvis, Little Richard, Bill Haley and the Comets, Chuck Berry,
the Beatles—there have been so many that I got to be with, to
perform on the same stage and to get to work with them. They
each brought something unique that helped them get to the top, and I tried to learn from
MBY: The Blues and Gospel fields?
BL: Mahalia Jackson was so precious. B. B. King,
Clara Ward, Miles Davis—I hate to leave so many
out. Starting so young, I was able to get to work with
a lot of these people in different areas of the music
industry before they passed away.
MBY: What an amazing experience it must have
been to be onstage with these people you have
mentioned, especially back when you were barely a
teenager! While other kids were stammering through
freshman speech class, you were sharing stages
with Hank Williams, Judy Garland, Mahalia Jackson
and Elvis—belting out number one hits in front of
SRO crowds. That must be mind-boggling, even as
you think about it fifty years later.
BL: To be able to learn from the best on a one-on-one basis was priceless, it really was.
Each of these legends made such an impact on my life and the way I viewed show
FRESH EVERY PERFORMANCE
MBY: You obviously learned a lot. One of the things that people always seem to take away
from your shows is the fact that you don’t trot out a few hits that you perform, running
through the lyrics like a zillion times before. You always seem to make it fresh for every
audience. That’s impressive!
BL: I always try to include a variety of songs, and I try to make each song and each
performance very special for the people who come to the shows.
MBY: You definitely do that. They get a show! An unforgettable performance! That’s a
heck of a lot more than just having you stand up there and belting out a few hits.
BL: That’s what I’m talking about, in terms of learning from the truly great artists. They were
able to make every performance so personal and fresh.
MBY: You were in an environment, especially during
the late Fifties and early Sixties, when you were on
packaged tours and expected to sing a few hits
exactly like you had recorded them. What made it so
different for you?
BL: It’s true. It would have been easy to do that in a I made a conscious choice, early on, that I wanted to do real shows that people would
packaged, cookie-cutter way. Thankfully, like I said, I
learned from so many of the great entertainers who
refused to settle for the same ole thing every time.
And I was surrounded by people who had such a
bigger vision than the record company people and
the promoters who wanted everything pre-packaged.
remember long after I was gone. Again, I was so blessed to learn this from some of the
legends that I mentioned. Every time they performed was memorable. I wanted to be like
MBY: You definitely succeeded with that. You still make it happen at each concert. That’s
undoubtedly why your career has lasted so long. And speaking of long careers, how have
you and your husband Ronnie survived the showbiz life all these years?
BL: He is incredible, that’s for sure.
MBY: What is so distinctive about Ronnie that he has
been able to keep it going as the husband of a person
with a household name?
BL: He’s a man of so much integrity and great honesty.
He’s his own man. I never tried to change him, and he
has always let me be who I am. Sometimes that’s hard to
do in a show business relationship, especially since he
was never in this business, other than being married to
me. And it is very hard for a spouse of a performer
because you could easily lose your identity. But he has always been a success at his own
business, which brings respect from people inside and outside my world. Best of all, he’s a
really good man in every sense of the word—as a husband, a father, and a grandfather. I
know I sound prejudiced as his wife, but those who know him will tell you the same thing. He
has a goodness about him that has made all the difference in the world for us as a couple
MBY: You mentioned your children. Your daughters, Julie and Jolie, grew up with you in the
business, as have your grandchildren. How has your career affected them?
BL: Once I got married to Ronnie and we started our family, my career was always
secondary to them. To my daughters, I was always just Mother at home. Their things were
always the most important, and I tried to keep life as normal as possible when I was home.
The girls knew what I did for a living and they were proud of it, but it was never the most
important thing in our lives, even though it consumed a great part of our lives, of course.
MORE EXCITED THAN EVER
MBY: Listening to you talk about your life and watching you entertain, you seem more
excited about life than ever. What keeps you going? What excites you today?
BL: I guess it sounds like a cliché, but I truly love what I do. I love it even more today than
yesterday. Getting onstage charges me up every single time, it really does.
MBY: The audiences don’t become faceless and the places all look the same after so
many years on the road?
BL: Not at all. There are no two audiences alike.
Every one is a new challenge. You would think that
the crowds would be pretty much the same, since
they know who you are, they pay their money, and
they hopefully like what you do and want to see what
you do. But every one really is different. Some
crowds are more of a challenge than others. Things
that are going on in the world can make a real
difference. And you never know what is happening in
the lives of the people who are in the audience. It
could be the best day of their lives, or something
tragic could have just happened to them. For me,
that challenge of reaching every new audience
keeps things exciting for me.
MBY: That is surprising to hear from someone who has sung to every possible audience.
People who haven’t performed probably can’t imagine how different each place can be.
BL: It’s certainly not written in stone that it’s going to go over well every time you go
onstage. Just because something has gone well many times before doesn’t mean it will go
over the next time. There are always surprises out there. It’s always a challenge to make
sure the people are entertained every single time.
MBY: Again, it is probably hard for many to understand what it is like for an entertainer who
has sung the same songs a zillion times.
BL: All I know is that I never take my talent for granted. One of the things that has kept me
going so long, I believe, is that I’ve always been pretty disciplined with my singing voice. I
just never take things for granted. I take care of myself and try to stay healthy. I always say
a prayer before I go on stage. I definitely don’t take the gift I’ve been given for granted.
MBY: Do you still get butterflies when you go in front of an audience?
BL: Yep. They just fly in formation! (laughs as only Brenda Lee can!)
FAITH THAT OVERCOMES
MBY: You mentioned prayer. What role has your faith played in your career?
BL: It’s why I’ve survived. I grew up in the church. I have a very personal relationship with
my Savior. I think that’s definitely helped me, not only professionally, but also personally
during hard times and tragedies.
MBY: Frustrating times…?
BL: Definitely. My faith has been my foundation all
MBY: Let’s look forward a bit. Since MyBestYears.com
is geared to Boomers and Beyond—men and women
over fifty—what advice would you give our audience,
not just as an entertainer that people know and love,
but also about the choices that everyone is required
to make about getting older?
BL: Like any other stage of life, it all comes down to
choices. At each phase throughout my life, I’ve always
felt that it was the best time of my life right then. I still
feel that way now.
MBY: So you aren’t one of those people who say, “Oh, I’d like to go back to being a
teenager.” Or “I’d like to be forty again.”
BL: I like being right where I am now. I feel like I know myself better than ever. I feel like I
know what I want to do and am supposed to do more than ever before. I feel confident in
my decisions. That’s a very comfortable place in life.
Comfortable! It seems like the perfect word for Brenda Lee. It not only describes
where she is in life, but it is an apt description of how people feel in her
audiences—absolutely comfortable! That’s not a bad place to be after all these
years, especially for a singer still known as “Little Miss Dynamite.”
Her “One Step at a Time” lyrics seem more timeless than ever:
Just one step at a time
Day by day and take it year by year
Just one step at a time
It may take a little bit longer
But the way to be even be stronger
One step at a time, boy
Just one step at a time*
MyBestYears.com joins fans from around the world in congratulating Brenda Lee
over fifty years of chart hits, and we wish her many, many more years of making
all of us happy, entertained, special and comfortable with “the greatest rock and
roll voice of them all!”
*Copyright ©1956 by H. Ashley. Used by permission.
Everybody loves Brenda Lee!
Called “Little Miss Dynamite” because
of her auditorium-filling voice, small
stature (4’ 9”) and explosive stage
presence, she caused audiences to be
absolutely awestruck, even as a
By eleven, the Atlanta-born Brenda
Lee Tarpley began her recording
career. Her first network television
appearance came on Red Foley’s
Ozark Jubilee, which led to the Perry
Como Show and numerous national
TV's Hullabaloo with
|Two talented Hall of Famers,
the late Marijohn Wilkin
with Brenda Lee
|DJ icon Jimmy Jay with Brenda Lee
|"...the best time of my life..."
and feature for
by bestselling author