#449: Is It True by Brenda Lee
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 were 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 there 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”. While neither song charted nationally in the USA, “Bigelow 6-200” climbed to #3 in Vancouver (BC). Late that year she 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).
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 Vancouver (BC) she also had a Top Ten hit with “Is It True” in 1964, featuring Jimmy Page on guitar.
“Is It True” is a song about someone who has just given their steady an engagement ring. And then, within 24 hours, has found someone new. And so the person whose received the ring asks their lover “is it true” what people are saying about you? The dramatics of the circumstances are accentuated as the person given the ring finds everyone they meet on the street is “whispering your name, saying that you’ve gone and found another one.”
On a website called APracticalWedding.com, they ran an article titled “What I Learned When My Fiancé Cheated on Me.” The staff writer for the website writes “Three months before our wedding I found out that my then-fiancé had cheated on me. It came as a total and utter shock. I felt like I had been punched in the gut. When I first received the news I started hyperventilating and began pacing from one room in our apartment to the next, as if the next room would hold the calmness and clarity that had suddenly been sucked out of my world. I had no idea that the man I believed was perfect for me, a man who seemed so dedicated to me, the man I was about to marry, had had an affair during the first few months of our relationship.”
For most people, when they get an engagement ring, they expect the ring comes with a promise of sexual fidelity. Having sex with someone else can be a very powerful experience. And so, making a habit of having sex with people outside the primary relationship can be a catalyst for jealously, mistrust, feelings of inadequacy in the bedroom with ones’ partner, concern that your partner is settling for you “until the real thing comes along.” In Brenda Lee’s “Is It True”, it seems likely that if her partner tells her it is true that they’ve found another one, then the relationship will be over. If the person learning about the rumors was into polyamorous relationships, they wouldn’t be really very concerned. Perhaps they’d be longing for a threesome. But the songs lyrics take us in the opposite direction.
Note to guys (and occasionally gals) who give someone an engagement ring, and 24 hours later are being sexually intimate with a third party. If you don’t feel committed to the person you’ve been dating, you are not obligated to buy an engagement ring and give it to them, with your conflicted feelings about them. Leave the ring at the jewelry story for someone else to buy who is certain they want to be true to their betrothed. When reviewing this song I asked a friend who is a clinical therapist about what they might say to someone in their counseling office who had proposed and given an engagement ring to someone, and within a day were going out with someone new? They counsellor told me they’d advise this person to see their doctor and determine if they were suffering from an “impulse mania.” Some of the signs and symptoms to be alert to would include: 1) Excessive involvement in activities with a high likelihood of painful consequences, 2) hyper sexuality, 3) Distractibility, 4) Racing thoughts, 5) Inflated self-esteem or grandiosity and 6) Psychomotor Acceleration (generalized physical and emotional overactivity in response to internal and external stimuli).
While writing about this song, I recalled that a friend of a friend had met someone in a bar and had sex with them that night. Within three days they were engaged to be married. But by day seven the engagement was called off. In this case it was a combination of being inebriated, strong sexual attraction, low self-esteem issues and a pattern of impulsive behavior. While not identical to the situation described in the song, it made me wonder. We don’t know from the lyrics in “Is It True” how long the couple have been going out. I’d assume longer than a few days. But, given real-life stories, we can’t take for granted that the events in the song aren’t arising after a very short courtship.
Back 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 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.
February 26, 2020
Brenda Lee, Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee, (Hyperion, 2002).
“Brenda Lee: The Lady – The Legend,” Rockabilly Hall of Fame.com.
Jonathan Bernstein, “Inside the Life of Brenda Lee, the Pop Heroine Next Door: She Awed a Young Elton John, Influenced Taylor Swift and Had the Beatles Open for Her. So Why doesn’t Brenda Lee Get More Respect?,” Rolling Stone, February 20, 2018.
“Singer Learned Young How to Rock the House,” Las Vegas Review-Journal, August 16, 2009.
“C-FUNTASTIC FIFTY,” CFUN 1410 AM, Vancouver, BC, November 14, 1964.
“What I Learned When My Fiancé Cheated on Me,” A Practical Wedding.com, 2013.
Heather A. Berlin PhD and Eric Hollander MD, “Understanding the Differences Between Impulsivity and Compulsivity,” Psychiatric Times, July 2, 2008.
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