Brenda Lee's blast from the past

Thursday, August 6, 2009 at 12:00am
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The Brenda Lee exhibit opening at the Country Music Hall of Fame for a 10-month run will include gowns, crowns and memorabilia from the legendary singer's long career.

Brenda Lee has enjoyed an extraordinary and exceptional career by any yardstick, whether it’s artistic (the only woman performer inducted into both the Country Music and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame) or commercial (millions of records sold in every genre from country and gospel to pop, R&B, rockabilly, even adult contemporary and easy listening).

But despite all the things she’s accomplished and the numerous awards and honors she’s earned, Lee acknowledges being overwhelmed at seeing some of the things in the new exhibit Brenda Lee: Dynamite, which opens Friday at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum for a 10-month run.

“When you’re young and you are immersed in the business, living and breathing it 24 hours a day, the time can kind of get away from you,” Lee said. “But going back through the exhibit, and the care and the meticulous way that the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum has put it together, they’ve really outdone themselves on my behalf… When they first came to me, I told them it was important that the exhibit represent me both professionally and personally, and they couldn’t have done a better job of making sure that both things were accurately presented.”

Lee, who emerged as a child star in the ‘50s and subsequently went on to fame and glory in not only music, but in film and on television, was known for a booming, authoritative and instantly identifiable voice — one that powered the early rockabilly hit “Dynamite,” as well as the huge-selling holiday standard “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and a sweeping, emphatic ballad “I’m Sorry.”

Among the many rare items in the exhibit are the 1962 Dell comic Brenda Lee's Life Story and a 1964 “Brenda Lee: The Paper Doll” set with miniature LPs and turntable. Other exhibit entries include a certificate that Queen Elizabeth II presented Lee in 1964, various gowns and dresses worn on stage during major performances, even a pair of Swarovski crystal-monogrammed sunglasses and a letter of congratulations from Sir Elton John.

Her many awards, the most recent being a 2009 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, also reaffirm her impressive versatility.

“I never wanted to be pigeonholed or confined to just one type of music,” Lee said. “I always enjoyed many types of music and wanted to sing in those styles. I enjoyed country, pop, rock, R&B, rockabilly, even a little jazz and Broadway, and I was fortunate enough to get the opportunity to do all those styles.”

Yet, in addition to her embracing myriad genres, Lee points to the influence of Owen Bradley as a key ingredient in her success.

“I would have had a career anyway, but there’s no way that so many wonderful things would have happened without him. He loved his artists, and not just for the money they could make for him. He loved them as people. He had so many great women artists, Loretta (Lynn), Patsy (Cline) and many others as well as me, and he was such a great musician, a great music and song man,” Lee said. “He knew what songs worked for the right artists, and he fought to make sure you got the songs you needed and the type of setting and situation you needed to do them the right way.”

Though today she’s not as musically active as she was in her heyday, Lee still juggles many things, from participation on various boards to being an active wife, mother and grandmother (her two grandchildren were visiting her during this interview).

But she still loves the music business and still pays close attention to a lot of things going on today. She watches such shows as American Idol and Nashville Star but says, “sometimes the judges are just a bit harsh. There’s a way to tell people something isn’t good without crushing them.”

She cites Taylor Swift as an example of a young person doing things the right way.

“I remember talking with Judy Garland and her telling me ‘Don’t let them take away your childhood,’” Lee said. “One of the reasons why she and a lot of others who had great success as children burned out was because they didn’t get to enjoy being young.

“Taylor Swift is someone who clearly enjoys being a 19-year-old girl. She’s a songwriter, she plays an instrument, she loves her fans, but she’s not trying to be something she’s not at this point, which is an older woman. That’s very refreshing to see.”

As for herself, Lee said she never wanted to be an actress or a dancer. All she ever wanted to do was sing, and the presence of people who had her best intentions at heart enabled her to do that, she said.

“I’ve been so blessed my entire life to have people around me who always cared about me personally, and not just people trying to make a dollar off me. Whether it was my wonderful mother or my husband or my producers, I’ve had people who cared about me and not just about whatever song I had” Lee said. “That’s the reason I never got burned out and never got tired of the business. I’ve always been an enormous fan of all entertainers and all kinds of music, and that’s still true today.”

What: The opening ceremonies for the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s latest exhibit, Brenda Lee: Dynamite
When: 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Friday with a curator’s exhibit talk at 1 p.m.; interview and special program 1:30 p.m. Saturday; exhibit will run through June 2010
Where: Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, 222 Fifth Ave. S.
Cost: 19.99 for adults, $17.99 for students, senior and military, $11.99 for children ages 6-17, free for children 5 and younger
Info: 416-2001, countrymusichalloffame.com