We talked with Brenda Lee at the CMA Music Festival in Nashville about the blessings of the season.
Cowboys & Indians: Some entertainers joke about being mistaken for other people with similar names — or getting compliments for other people’s work. Does this ever happen to you?
Brenda Lee: Well, yes. I’ve heard people say, “Oh, hey! Peggy Lee!” Because it’s Brenda Lee, Peggy Lee — they just get the Lees all mixed up. [Laughs.] But usually nobody’s going to mistake me for anybody else because I’m a midget with big blonde hair, and I’m pretty much in my own little realm of what I look like.
C&I: You’ve appeared at several venues during this year’s CMA Music Festival. What do you think makes this event so unique?
Brenda: I think it just emboldens the belief of the fans that we are accessible and that they can come here to this music festival and get a bird’s-eye view of the ones that they truly love and want to see. That it’s not an event where they’ll be just looking from a distance and saying, “Oh, I wish I could meet them.” Because most times, I think, the entertainers want to meet them as badly as they want to meet us. The fans are why we are able to do what we do, and we like to say thank you. I’ve been blessed to be in the rock field, in the country field, in the rockabilly field, and the pop field, and I think we all feel the same way. I just think that the accessibility is much greater in country music.
C&I: That’s true. You don’t see Mick Jagger sitting down to sign autographs or posing for pictures with fans at rock festivals.
Brenda: [Laughs.] No, you don’t. And that’s a shame, because I think he’d dig it if he did.
C&I: Are you ever surprised during concerts when fans call out for songs that are relatively obscure — or songs you’ve almost forgotten?
Brenda: Yeah. Of course you have the signature songs that you know they expect you to do and that you have to do. But then sometimes they’ll call out one that was maybe a B-side, and you’re like, Whoa! Where’d that come from? Thank God I remember just about all of mine. If I don’t, I remember enough lines to where they think I remember. But I love doing them all. And if they ask me, I will. I’ll do requests. I love that.
C&I: How many concerts do you perform each year?
Brenda: I like to do at least one a month to keep my group together, even though they work for other artists and do producing and writing and all that. They’ve been with me a long time now, and I don’t like change a lot. So I like to keep my boys and girls together. And I love to work.
C&I: You were the top-charting female vocalist of the 1960s. Looking back at that time, what do you think was the secret to your success?
Brenda: I had the great [record producer] Owen Bradley help me choose the songs for my albums, and I think they’ve truly withstood the test of time. He got me to sing standards, so on most of my albums — well, six of them on there would be standards, and six would be either hits I had or some new material. So I had the best of both worlds.
C&I: Do certain songs bring back especially happy memories?
Brenda: Oh, yes. I’ll hear some songs and I’ll remember the circumstances of how we recorded it and what time of year we recorded it. Like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” we did in the heat of July. Owen had decorated the studio with a Christmas tree and Christmas lights to get us in the mood. I was only 14, I think, when I did that. Well, the first time I did it I was 12. But it wasn’t a hit until I was 14.
C&I: And it continues to be a holiday season standard.
Brenda: It is. My kids are still going to be proud of that when I’m not here any longer. That’s a blessing. All my songs have been blessings, I suppose. But that one has really been a blessing, because it’s one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time.
From the November/December 2015 issue.