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The legendary Brenda Lee—the only woman inducted into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—has accumulated a lifetime of memories, from both her career and her family. Her record sales are in excess of 100 million, powered by such smash hits as “I’m Sorry,” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” “Sweet Nothin’s” and “Break It to Me Gently.” Here are portions of her recent exclusive interview with CW Senior Editor David Scarlett at her Nashville home.
CW: Tell me about the autographed Beatles poster in the hall.
BL: Well, a little-known fact to the vast segment of the public is The Beatles used to open for me when I toured England. They were just a little band that started opening shows for me, and I thought they were fabulous. And every night they would do these different songs and, at that point, the English invasion had not come to America. So I thought, “Whose songs are these? Are they hits here?” No, I thought … “Where did these songs come from? Who did these songs?” So I talked to John and Paul and they said, “Well, we wrote all these songs.” I’m thinkin’, “My Lord.”
So I had them make me a little demo tape, which I wish I still had, and I brought it back to Decca Records, which was my company at the time. And I brought a picture of them looking like they looked, like Teddy Boys, which was unlike our rockers looked. And the company said, “It’ll never happen. They’ll never make it.” And about a year later, they came out with “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” And the rest is history. At that time, they still signed autographs. After they got so huge, they didn’t sign autographs. So I’m very proud of that picture and I wouldn’t part with it for anything. It’s more than a picture … it’s like a poster.
CW: Did you ever work with the Bill Black Combo? [Bill Black played bass in Elvis Presley’s original backup trio.] They opened for The Beatles when they toured the southern U.S., didn’t they?
BL: Yes, many times. They did open for The Beatles. Bill was one of the few American acts that worked with The Beatles, along with myself and a few others. And The Beatles … we would talk … and they were such jokers, such pranksters, and they were so cute. And they were very influenced by Chuck Berry and The Everly Brothers and Little Richard and people like that. And they loved American music, absolutely adored it. But I saw in them a hit artist, you know? And I thought these guys are gonna change the face of music … and they did. I actually saw it in their writing. Although they were great onstage, their writing was so prolific. I thought, my goodness … I’d not heard stuff like this before.
CW: What’s the story behind the Jimmy Durante hat?
BL: I used to do my impersonation … not an imitation … my impersonation of Jimmy Durante, ‘cause I loved Jimmy Durante. Singing “One of Those Songs” … [she sings] “Oh this is one of those songs … ” And I used to do it and I’d go off the stage like he did his hat [waving her hand over her head] … but without a hat … just using my hand. So we were in Vegas and he heard I was doing the impersonation of him … and he called me and said, “I’d like for you to come over to my hotel.”
And I said, “Well, sure.” And I went over there and he presented me with that hat that he had worn on the stage for 50 years. He said, “If you’re gonna do an impersonation, you need to have the real stuff.” And I said, “Well, this is the real stuff … .and I will not be using it onstage. It’s goin’ in my collection!” It’s autographed.
And I was one of those artists that was lucky enough that I started out at such a young age and had enough success that I got to be in the company of those people … the Sophie Tuckers and the Jimmy Durantes and the Judy Garlands and a lot of those folks that are no longer here with us. So it was a great learning lesson for me.
CW: You seem to be as much a fan as anybody … are you a true fan?
BL: I’m more of a fan, I think. I’ve always been a fan. I’ve always collected autographs, as you see. I always went to see as many shows as I could possibly see … and see what other people and entertainers were doing, ‘cause you can learn from everybody. And I’ve always been just a top-notch fan.
CW: How old are your daughters? Did they grow up in this house?
BL: Yes, they did. My oldest daughter is 42. Her name is Julie. And my youngest daughter is 38, her name is Jolie. Three grandchildren—Taylor, my oldest granddaughter, is 18. Jordan, my granddaughter, is 10. Taylor belongs to Julie, Jordan belongs to Jolie. And my grandson belongs to Jolie. His name is Charlie, and he just turned 5.
CW: Do you still get the same joy from being onstage that you always have?
BL: I do. The travelin’ gets harder every year. The older I get, the harder the traveling gets. And even though you do it on a nice coach and you’ve got your bed and all the amenities you can have, it’s still a bus, and you’re still out there on the road. But I love singing and I love the people, I love the audience.
CW: There’s a pretty broad spectrum of vocal sounds … from Vince Gill to Huey Lewis to Charlie Daniels. Do you find that, if the passion is there in the other person, you can sound good singing with anybody, whether their voice really blends with yours or not? They all sound great.
BL: I think you can. And if the passion’s there. Of course, I’m not a harmony singer, so I always love harmony singers. And they not only sang harmony, but they sang lead as well on part of the song. ‘Cause I wanted the duets not just to be me, with a little bit of harmony from one of my buddies, I wanted it to be as much their song as it was mine, and I think I managed to do that.
CW: Were you able to be there in the studio with each duet partner when they did their parts?
BL: I was. I was able to do it with everybody but Brooks & Dunn. And Ronnie and Kix were just so busy on the road that they just had to do it as they came in one day and went out the next. So they did it in their home studios.
CW: Who takes credit for the decorating of your house?
BL: Yeah, it’s a mish-mash … it’s very eclectic. It’s old … new. Ronnie calls me Hector the Collector. I collect everything. I mean, it could cost a dollar, it could cost whatever. If I like it … I get it. I set it out.
And a lot of things have come from my fans, believe it or not. They know my taste, because most of ‘em are my friends and they’ve been in my house. Just like that tea set on the coffee table—that’s from Iraq. My friend, who has two sons in Iraq right now … her son went out and got me that tea set. I appreciate that so much because it’s so dangerous there. And for him to think enough to go out in downtown, which is very dangerous they say, to get that for me—I treasure it.
CW: You said your grandson, Charlie, likes to sing along with Huey Lewis on “Oh Happy Day” on your new duets CD. How would you feel about it if Charlie wanted to go into the music business?
BL: If that’s what he really wants. ‘Cause once you ever want that, nobody’s gonna talk you out of it till you tried it and fail or try and succeed. And if they can talk you out of it, you probably shouldn’t have done it anyway.
To read more from Brenda Lee, check out her story in the Aug. 13 issue of Country Weekly.