At risk of spoiling Ken BurnsCountry Music docu-series, viewers hear a lot from Brenda Lee. That might come as a surprise if you only know her as the big-voiced child star or the singer of the ever-present holiday tune “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree." Yet in the history of 20th century popular music, few witnessed and made as much history as the diminutive singer billed as “Little Miss Dynamite.”

Brenda Mae Tarpley was born in Atlanta, Ga., on Dec. 11, 1944. The future Brenda Lee’s family recognized her singing talents by the time she was three, and talent shows and television appearances prepared her for her big break: a chance in 1955 to open for Red Foley. Foley saw dollar signs as Lee sang “Jambalaya,” so he offered her a spot on his popular, Springfield, Mo.-based television program Ozark Jubilee.

Within a year of her Foley encounter, Lee inked her first record deal with Decca and met Music Row pioneer Owen Bradley. Under Bradley’s guidance, Lee recorded her first signature tune, “Dynamite,” for a 1957 release. After that, the Nashville Sound innovator and the Georgia girl pivoted from country music to the pop-rock charts.

As a rock star, Lee cut her 1960 monster hit “I’m Sorry.” Her 47 U.S. chart hits throughout the decade rank only behind fellow country moonlighter Elvis Presley, Buck Owens fans the Beatles and honorary Nashville crooner Ray Charles.

The rock hits only paint half of the picture, however. Lee returned to the country charts with 1973’s No. 5 single “Nobody Wins” and remained a hitmaker into the 1980s.

Once the hits slowed down, Lee embraced her role as one of country music’s most valuable ambassadors. She became a television host for Willie Nelson's Farm Aid, a recurring guest on TNN’s Nashville Now and a regular at charitable events. In 1997, Lee joined the Country Music Hall of Fame; five years later, she became the first woman in both the Country and Rock and Roll Halls of Fame.

To better grasp Lee's role in country and rock history, check out these five selections from her massive back catalog.

  • 5

    "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"


    Even if you loathe holiday standards, you should applaud Lee for pulling off a rare feat: adding to the rarely changing list of omnipresent Christmas songs. In the digital age, this one is the fourth most-downloaded seasonal classic.

  • 4

    "Big Four Poster Bed"


    This Dolly-esque slice of childhood nostalgia from the pen of Shel Silverstein exemplifies the Nashville Sound successes of Lee's second career. Despite changing times, this 1960s throwback cracked the Top 5.

  • 3

    "Nobody Wins"


    Lush strings and choir-style vocal accompaniment reintroduced Lee to country audiences. The chilling heart-song was written by another invaluable source for Burns and his crew: Kris Kristofferson.

  • 2



    Only Tanya Tucker challenges Lee's claim as country music's all-time greatest child star. Lee's candidacy rests on this early career rockabilly tune that introduced her to a national audience.

  • 1

    "I'm Sorry"


    Few evergreen earworms fit to play on an oldies station or in a classic country countdown claim as wide a cultural footprint as "I'm Sorry." Its only major flaw may be that its sustained fame overshadows Lee's other pop and country hits.

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