Peak Month: November 1956
7 weeks on Vancouver’s CJOR chart/Red Robinson’s Teen Canteen Survey
Peak Position #3
Peak Position on Billboard Hot 100 ~ did not chart
YouTube.com: “Bigelow 6-200”
Lyrics: “Bigelow 6-200”
Brenda Mae Tarpley was born in 1944 in Atlanta, Georgia. Her parents were poor. During her childhood, young Brenda shared a sagging iron bed with her brother and sister in a series of three-room houses. They had no running water. Here parents went from job to job. After the stock market crash in 1929, Brenda’s mother would recall “you could hardly buy a job.” The region was devastated by an infestation of the boll weevil. Brenda started singing solos each Sunday at the Baptist church where her family attended. In her 2002 autobiography, she wrote “I grew up so poor, and it saddens me to see the poverty that is still there. A lot of my family have never done any better. Some of them are just exactly where they were when I was a kid. And in a way, there is still something inside of me that is a part of that, the part that doesn’t expect much. Little things make them happy, and that’s the same with me.”
Her family moved to a tenant farm in Conyers, Georgia, about 25 miles southeast of Atlanta. Brenda’s father, Ruben Tarpley, had to quit carpentry after he broke his arm. And so, in 1951, he worked as a picker on a cotton farm. Brenda’s younger sister, Linda, learned about a talent contest between elementary schools in the district. Linda let Brenda know about the contest and Brenda decided to enter it, even though she was still six years old in the fall of ’51. In the school auditorium Linda Tarpley later wrote, “I’ll never forget that night of the show. It was the fall of the year and the school’s auditorium was packed with people – adults and kids. There was a microphone and stage lights and lots of little performers. But after Brenda sang the place just went nuts. They were really cheering.” Brenda Mae Tarpley sang “Too Young” by Nat King Cole and “Slow Poke” by Pee Wee King. The reward was a live appearance on an Atlanta radio show, Starmakers Revue, where she performed for the next year.
The family moved to a house with weathered clapboards, in Lithonia, about 6 miles west of Conyers. Brenda recalls “there wasn’t any paint on the house and the yard was mostly dirt. It had three rooms with an outhouse. You drew water out of the well, and the ice man would come by in a truck once a week with the ice.” She remembers making friends in town who had refrigerators. Her father died in 1953, in a construction accident. So that year Brenda got a gig singing at an event in Swainsboro, Georgia, for $35. This was more than a weeks wage.
A bus driver, who learned a little about the Tarpley family’s circumstances, suggested to Brenda’s mother, Grayce, that she meet WRDW-TV personality J.T. “Pee Wee” Devore, star of the Peach Blossom Special. Grayce Tarpley told Pee Wee about Brenda, and after listening to her, they were introduced to the program director Sammy Barton. He liked what he heard and suggested Brenda Mae Tarpley change her name to Brenda Lee when performing. The nine-year-old and her both mother agreed. Brenda Lee made her debut on the Peach Blossom Special in Augusta on August 27, 1954. She also began to appear on the TV Ranch show in Atlanta. By the time she turned ten, Brenda Lee was the primary breadwinner of her family through singing at events and on local radio and television shows.
Her mother remarried in 1955 and her new stepfather, Jay Rainwater, helped open the Brenda Lee Record Store on Broad Street in Augusta, Georgia. The family also briefly moved to Cincinnati, and Brenda appeared on a local radio station with the call letters WNOP.
In February 1955, Brenda Lee was introduced to country music singer, Red Foley, when he was in Augusta for a a touring show of his Ozark Jubilee on ABC-TV. After hearing her, Foley agreed to let her sing “Jambalaya” on stage during the show, unrehearsed. He recalls “I still get cold chills thinking about the first time I heard that voice. One foot started patting rhythm as though she was stomping out a prairie fire but not another muscle in that little body even as much as twitched. And when she did that trick of breaking her voice, it jarred me out of my trance enough to realize I’d forgotten to get off the stage. There I stood, after 26 years of supposedly learning how to conduct myself in front of an audience, with my mouth open two miles wide and a glassy stare in my eyes.” On March 31, 1955, the 10-year-old made her network debut on Ozark Jubilee in Springfield, Missouri.
In July 1956 Brenda Lee got a record deal with Decca Records. She recorded “Jambalaya” and “Bigelow 6-200”.
“Bigelow 6-200” was cowritten by rockabilly artists Don Woody and Paul Simmons. Woody was born in Tuscumbia, Missouri, in 1937. While in junior high school he became a DJ at a local radio station. In college he became a DJ for the campus radio station at Southwest Missouri State University in Springfield. Woody and Simmons were roommates at college. They wrote some songs and made demos. Woody did a comedy routine for the Ozark Jubilee. Through his exposure he got connected with Decca Records, and Brenda Lee agreed to record “Bigelow 6-200” in September 1956. In 1961, Woody retired from the music industry, taking a job in retail management to financially support his wife and child. In 2007 Woody returned to the stage for the first time in 45 years as a headliner at the “Viva Las Vegas” rockabilly festival in Las Vegas. He has since then performed on several other occasions at that venue and at rockabilly festivals in Europe.
The song title, “Bigelow 6-200”, is the phone number Brenda Lee wants her “baby” to dial to reach her. On I Love Lucy, whenever Lucy or Ricky Ricardo gave out their phone number, they’d say it was “Murray Hill 5-9975.” In 1940 Glenn Miller and His Orchestra had a hit record titled “Pennsylvania 6-5000”. In 1962 the Marvelettes had a hit with “Beechwood 4-5789” written by Marvin Gaye. In the 1940s, Artie Shaw and His Gramercy 5 was a band the named after his home telephone exchange – Gramercy 5 – in Greenwich Village, in Manhattan. And in 1963 a number-one country hit record by Hankshaw Hawkins was titled “Lonesome 7-7203”. While Rupert Holmes, who had a number-one hit with “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” in 1979, wrote “Echo Valley 2-6809” – a track on the Partridge Family’s 1971 Sound Magazine album.
And in the 1948 film noir classic, Sorry Wrong Number, starring Barbara Stanwyck, Mrs. Leona Stevenson, tries repeatedly to reach her husband George Stevenson (Burt Lancaster) at his office number: Murray Hill 4-0098. We learn Leona Stevenson’s phone number is Plaza 3-2099. The phone number for the Henchly Hospital is Butterfield 8-9970. While the telephone operator lets Leona Stevenson know if she wants to confirm what time it is she can phone Meridian 7-1212. As the suspense builds, a Mr. Waldo Evans calls Leona Stevenson with a message for her husband George to reach him at Bowery 2-1000. We find out later that Bowery 2-1000 is the number for the city morgue. Other telephone exchange numbers in New York City in the 1940s into the 70s included President, Triangle, Sterling, Chelsea, Esplanade and Evergreen.
Phone numbers looked like this in the middle of the 20th century because of telephone exchanges. These were the hubs through which an area’s calls would be routed. Phone subscribers were given a unique five-digit number within their service area. These would be preceded by two digits—which were identified by letters—that denoted the telephone exchange you were connected to. (Before the 1950s, some cities used three letters and four numbers, while others had two letters and three numbers. The two letter, five number format—or “2L-5N”—was eventually standardized throughout the country). In the case of “Bigelow 6-200” there is a three letter and four number combination.
Each telephone exchanges could only service about 10,000 subscribers. Consequently, larger cities had quite a few telephone exchange names. On I Love Lucy the Ricardo’s MUrray Hill5-9975 meant their number was 685-9975 (“Hill” and its capital H served as a mnemonic device), with the 68, or “MU,” representing the East Side of Manhattan’s telephone exchange. This is also why phones still have three-letter chunks over numbers 2-8 (and four letters over 9).
Names were used in order to help phone customers remember the telephone exchange name. Having a name made it simple for telephone switchboard operators to understand. In Vancouver (BC) there were telephone exchange names from 1911 into the 70s. From 1962 to 1970, the phone number to reach my family at our Vancouver (BC) address was Amherst 1-0505. Others in Vancouver had telephone exchange names like Alpine, Castle, Cedar, Cherry, Dickens, Elgin, Emerald, Fairfax, Fraser, Hastings, Marine, Mutual, Regent and Trinity. In North Vancouver the telephone exchange numbers were Willow, York and Yukon. West Vancouver had the telephone exchange names Walnut and Waverly 9. During 1970, all the telephone exchange names were discarded and callers spoke out their 7-digit phone numbers, when telling others what number to reach them at. From that time on Vancouver phone books didn’t include telephone exchange numbers.
(Historical anecdote: When U.S. President Warren Harding visited Vancouver in 1923, BC Tel pre-arranged with U.S. phone companies that Harding would be able to reach Washington, DC. BC Tel proudly reported that when a call was placed in Vancouver, it took President Harding only 20 minutes to connect to Washington).
In “Bigelow 6-200” the singer is “broken-hearted” because her “baby” is taking so long to get around to calling her on the phone. It seems the catalyst for his reluctance is, as she explains “Well, I’m sorry baby that we had a fight. And you left me the other night.” She is also waiting for “the dog gone phone to ring.” At the time it was viewed as proper etiquette for the guy to phone the girlfriend, and a bit brazen for a girlfriend to initiate phoning her boyfriend.
“Bigelow 6-200” did not chart nationally in the USA, but it climbed to #3 in Vancouver (BC) in November 1956. Late that year Brenda Lee was in Las Vegas at the Flamingo, opening for the Ink Spots. Her next single release was in the winter of 1956-57 titled “One Step At A Time”.
Brenda Lee was not only referred to as a “young lady” and a “young chick”, but also earned the nickname “Little Miss Dynamite”, after her next single release “Dynamite”. She toured with Jerry Lee Lewis. In early 1958 she had a regional Top 20 hit with “Rock The Bop” in Seattle, Kansas City and Nashville. But this, and several three other single releases in 1958 failed to chart nationally. This included “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree“, which was passed over by most radio stations who preferred to spin “The Chipmunk Song” by David Seville. While a few radio markets also played “Donde Esta Santa Claus?” by Augie Rios.
It was only in December 1960, when Brenda Lee had become a pop sensation that “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” became a hit at #13 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #11 in Vancouver (BC). The single has returned to the pop charts on ten subsequent years since its 1958 release. Eventually, “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” peaked on the Billboard Hot 100 at #2 on December 7, 2019, and November 28, 2020.
On October 17, 1959, WMPS in Memphis, Tennessee, began to chart “Sweet Nothin’s”. It quickly climbed into the Top Ten in Memphis in November. The single got a spin in Milwaukee and Albuquerque and climbed into the Top Ten in those radio markets in December ’59. In Vancouver (BC), “Sweet Nothin’s” climbed to #5 on CFUN in March 1960, and #4 on the Billboard Hot 100.
In June 1960 Brenda Lee had a double-sided hit in the Top Ten across the USA and Canada with “That’s All You Gotta Do”/”I’m Sorry”. Of the two sides, “I’m Sorry climbed to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and #2 in Vancouver (BC). Brenda Lee recorded “I’m Sorry” in early in 1960. However, Decca Records held it from release for several months out of concern that a 15-year-old girl was not mature enough to sing about unrequited love. When “I’m Sorry” was finally released in May 1960, it was as the B-side to the more uptempo “That’s All You Gotta Do”. Although “That’s All You Gotta Do” was a chart success in its own right, reaching #6 on the Hot 100, it was “I’m Sorry” that became the smash hit and is considered her signature song. “I’m Sorry” earned Brenda Lee a Grammy Award nomination for Best Vocal Performance Single Record or Track (Female) in April 1961. The award was won by Ella Fitzgerald for her live recording of “Mack The Knife”.
Then, in October 1960, Brenda Lee was back on the top of the charts in the USA with another ballad titled “I Want To Be Wanted”. While in Vancouver (BC) the song stalled at #6. With four Top Ten singles in 1960, Decca Records re-issued “Rocking Around The Christmas Tree” to end the year with five hits for then 15-year-old Brenda Lee.
Over the next three years Brenda Lee returned to the Top Ten on the Billboard Hot 100, for a total of twelve songs. These included “Emotions”, “Fool #1”, “You Can Depend On Me”, “Break It To Me Gently”, “Losing You” and “All Alone Am I”.
In 1962, Brenda Lee went on a tour of Europe. While in West Germany, she appeared at the famous Star-Club, in Hamburg. Her opening act was the Beatles. After watching the Beatles perform, she approached John Lennon after her performance was over. Lee said to him, “I’ve been meaning to ask you, where do you get those songs?” Lennon replied, “Oh, we write them.” Brenda Lee and John Lennon became friends during their Star Club residency. Lee recalls, “I hung out with John. He was extremely intelligent, very acerbic with his jokes, just a gentle person. When I found out that they later said they were fans of my music, I was just floored.”
Brenda Lee made trips to the UK in 1959, 1962, 1963 and 1964. She appeared at the annual Royal Variety Performance before Queen Elizabeth II at the London Palladium on November 2, 1964. Afterward, she toured Britain in November and December 1964, sharing the stage with Manfred Mann, Johnny Kidd & the Pirates, Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders, Marty Wilde, the Tornados and others. Back in Vancouver (BC) in November 1964, Brenda Lee had a Top Ten hit with “Is It True”, featuring Jimmy Page on guitar.
in the USA Brenda Lee toured with Bobby Rydell, Chubby Checker, The Casuals, Duane Eddy and others. She appeared on American Bandstand numerous times. Brenda Lee also came to Vancouver on several occasions in the mid-60s. Below is a poster from her April 6-17, 1965, visit to The Cave.
Poster courtesy of Brian Tarling
Her record sales began to flounder in the midst of the British Invasion back in the USA. But in 1973 she made her first appearance on the Billboard Country chart Top Ten. Between 1973 and 1980 she charted nine singles into that charts’ Top Ten.
In 1997, she was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and is a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame and the Hit Parade Hall of Fame. In 2008 her recording of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” marked 50 years as a holiday standard. In February 2009 the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences gave Lee a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award.
At present, Brenda Lee’s website shows no upcoming concerts, though she has not officially retired. Meanwhile, her 1958 seasonal Christmas hit, “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” reached its highest chart position, peaking at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100, for the week of December 28, 2019. The single has sold over 25 million records in over sixty years. Throughout her career Lee has sold more than 100 million records. Aside from her uptempo rockabilly numbers, Brenda Lee will be forever remembered for her torch ballads that always ended with a sense of resolve.