Like so many women before her, Brenda Lee has enjoyed an impressive and storied career in the music business. But it’s her unique career highlights that set her apart from the pack, making her arguably one of the most famous women in the industry.
She’s performed all over the world, recorded hits in six languages, sold millions of albums, been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame, and received the Lifetime Achievement Grammy from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, in addition to her four Grammy nominations. And even with all of these achievements, she credits her meager beginnings for molding her into who she is today.
From her early childhood in rural Georgia to her current home in Nashville, Brenda’s story plucks at your heartstrings. It is with great pleasure that we introduce Brenda Lee, this month’s FACE of the South.
Can you describe your early childhood growing up in rural Georgia?
I grew up outside of Atlanta in a small town named Lithonia. It wasn’t very far from Conyers. In fact, we went back and forth, since it was about seven miles between the two towns. Where we lived was dependent on our money situation at the time, and which relative would take us in. My mother didn’t have much education, so she had jobs that didn’t pay much. She spent 14 hours a day in the cotton mills to feed my brother and sister. When I was 7, my father died, so we were on our own. Having a tough childhood made me strong and grateful. At an early age, I saw that life was not going to be kind to us unless I used my gift to help us.
You have so many accomplishments, most notably that you have sold more than 100 million records. In fact, you have sold more records than any woman in the history of recorded music. What advice do you have for young women pursuing a career?
I get a lot of calls from the moms of young performers, and I always tell them the same thing: “Get an education.” Do whatever you have to do to get it. Go to a public school, get tutoring, but get your education. So many young people become famous overnight, and education is way down the list. I went to a public school and was a cheerleader and member of the debate team. When I traveled overseas, my principal got me enrolled in the American School in France.
Is there another female musician in Nashville you admire? And why?
Lord, there is not just one. I always loved Mahalia Jackson, because I was raised in the church and on gospel music. After that, the following women come to mind: Edith Piaf, Ella Fitzgerald, Dinah Washington, Ruth Etting, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday and Sophie Tucker. These are women you don’t hear about anymore, but they are so talented.
Is there an event coming up that you are looking forward to attending?
Well, of course, Christmas. It has always been my favorite holiday. This year, I have a personal tree at Opryland to benefit Music City Cares, and it will knock everyone’s socks off.
Is there a recent meal at a Nashville restaurant that has wowed you?
Tell us one thing that people might be surprised to learn about you.
I am such an open book with my fans and friends that I don’t have much to hide. Probably that I am such a homemaker and doting grandmother. I have a granddaughter at Johns Hopkins University, another at St. Cecilia Academy, and Charley, who is a seventh grader at Currey Ingram.
Where in town do you go when you’re looking for an inspirational boost?
Oh gosh! That’s a hard one. I am inspired when I get up every morning. The older you get, you learn to savor every day, especially after losing my mom and my sister. Life is short!
What books are on your bedside table?
Do you have any irrational fears?
Yes! I have been to 84 foreign countries, and I am terrified of flying. Mom used to say, “Honey, you can’t live your life in fear,” but that goes out the window when I board a plane.
Do you have a favorite vacation spot?
I don’t have a favorite. Anywhere that there is water and anywhere with my family. I don’t get in the water, but I like to sit and watch.
A very special thank you to Brenda Lee for taking the time to talk with us, especially during her very rockin’ December!
And thank you to Ashley Hylbert of Ashley Hylbert Photography for the fantastic photographs of the fabulous Brenda Lee. See more of Hylbert’s work at ashleyhylbert.com.