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Monday, August 5, 2013

Brenda Lee: Grandma, What Great Songs You Sang!


1) Some Of These Days; 2) Pennies From Heaven; 3) Baby Face; 4) A Good Man Is Hard To Find; 5) Just Because; 6) Toot Toot Tootsie Goodbye; 7) Ballin' The Jack; 8) Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With A Dixie Melody; 9) Pretty Baby; 10) Side By Side; 11) Back In Your Own Back Yard; 12) St. Louis Blues.

When Brenda Lee set out to record her first LP in early 1959, she had already been a big star for three years, ever since stunning the nation with her red-hot ʽJambalayaʼ back in 1956 at the tender age of 11 (of course, Decca Records couldn't resist the temptation to label her as «Little Brenda Lee (9 Years Old)» — the old adagio of «where there's publicity, there's cheating» strikes again). More than that, she was already known as «Little Miss Dynamite», having recorded her deadliest rock'n'roll explosion in 1957 — and thus, choosing a selection of pre-war (pre-Depression, in fact, which is accurately reflected in the album title) ditties for her first LP must have been somewhat anti-climactic for the fans.

Of course, by 1959 the initial wave of rock'n'roll enthusiasm was already breaking, with well-combed «teen idols» gradually replacing the rebels for a while, and it may have been judged a prudent career move for the girl to switch from the «aggressiveness» of ʽDynamiteʼ and ʽRockin' Around The Christmas Treeʼ to something more tame and traditional. Ironically — perhaps by some sort of subconscious inertia — it is Grandma... that turned out to be one of the rockiest and brawniest albums in Brenda's huge catalog.

Recorded in two sessions at a Nashville studio, the album has no «ballads» as such — it is com­prised of old popular dance, vaudeville, and white blues songs, not surprisingly, some of which had previously already entered the rock'n'roll repertoire (for instance, Little Richard did ʽBaby Faceʼ, and Elvis, of course, covered ʽJust Becauseʼ, with both of Brenda's interpretations rather doing homage to their versions than the originals). The arrangements, despite a plethora of studio musicians, are generally sparse and homely, with at least as much emphasis on rockabilly guitar as there is on brass — and then, of course, there are the vocals.

There is not much subtlety, thoughtfulness, depth, or flexibility in these vocals — and neither could one rigorously demand all of that from a 14-year old who had the nerve to take on Sophie Tucker and Bessie Smith at the same time (kicking off the album with the former and closing with the latter). But there is power, intensity, and plenty of swagger — rustic, unrefined swagger of the rock'n'roll era, that is, not the subtle emancipated swagger of the days of old. Other than one (not particularly tragic) misstep — she does a rather wooden take on ʽPennies From Heavenʼ, especially compared with the Billie Holiday version — it all works.

Brenda's trademark «roar» that she already flashed with gusto on her earliest records is only briefly heard here on ʽJust Becauseʼ (which might, vocally, be even more impressive than the Elvis version) — but even without roaring, she is pretty good at overpowering the listener on all those songs where the listener (a hopeless male) has to be overpowered (by a strong female). It does help to remember that the girl was 14: for a fully grown-up performer, these takes on the «classics» can seem a little strained, or a little shaky, or, on the contrary, a little over-the-top, as if the performer really felt herself in need of «proving» something — which she, of course, was, as would be every 14-year old taking on the burden of recording ʽSt. Louis Bluesʼ for commercial release.

Me certainly not being a big fan of the pre-war popular song, I do recognize that it is not the sheetnotes that matter in most such cases — it is the attitude; and there is a tiny bit of punkish arrogance in the attitude that Brenda adopts for these performances, meaning that, crazy as it might seem to some, I'd rather listen to this than to, say, Bing Crosby singing the same songs. Yet even Bing Crosby fans will probably find the album to their liking. Also, just for the record, early guitar hero Hank Garland (whom most people will probably recognize from Presley's ʽLittle Sisterʼ) is responsible for most of the lead playing on the album — one more reason for a merry little thumbs up.


  1. If you haven't the faintest idea who Brenda Lee was, she is immortalized in a song you surely will know:

    The radio's playing some forgotten song
    Brenda Lee's "Coming On Strong"

    Vocalist Barry Hay had a knack for this - on the next single he honoured Vince Taylor.

    1. Doesn't help much concerning her and/or her work, MNb, that's more like a little 'Sweet Nothing' ^^.
      You learn a bit more about her here:

    2. For all I know, Brenda Lee may well have had some sort of career in Europe in the 70's. Here in the States, she was long forgotten.

    3. I thought everybody knew her as the singer of Rocking Around The Christmas Tree. If you mentioned her name to me before that's all I would have been able to come up with.

    4. While Rocking Around The Christmas Tree is certainly a still a staple, I can imagine that there are at least some people who are familiar with that song, but couldn't tell you who sang it. Public memory is funny that way. Regardless, whether you know that she say it or not, it's the only song of her's that still well known by the general public in the US.

    5. Perhaps Brenda Lee had a sort of a career in the rest of Europe in the 70's, but not in The Netherlands. Her only song I know (and knew in the second half of the 70's) is I'm Sorry. That one never inspired me to check the rest of her output. Dynamite and Rocking around the Christmas Tree (just checked) were new to me.

    6. Must be a regional thing then. Her version of Rocking Around The Christmas Tree is unavoidable in North America.