Brenda Lee was a star by the time she was 10. More than that, she was her family's principal breadwinner.
Born Brenda Mae Tarpley in an Atlanta hospital charity ward, little Brenda - although she's now 65, Lee never stood taller than 4-foot-9 - enjoyed such international stature that on an early-'60s tour of England, her opening act was The Beatles. John Lennon said of Lee, known as Little Dynamite after her hit song "Dynamite": "She has the greatest rock-and-roll voice of them all."
Lee, who performs only about dozen concerts a year these days, comes to Long Island for one show tonight at the Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts.
In an era when record labels called the shots, Lee was promoted as a pop star ("The Female Elvis") when she signed with Decca in 1956. From 1958 to 1965, she was the Britney Spears of her time.
She laughs at the comparison, but not in any mean-spirited way. She spoke by phone from her Nashville home shared with her husband, Ronnie, with frequent visits by grown kids and grandkids.
"Britney Spears!" Lee exclaims. "Thank you - I think. I've had a wonderful career in pop, rock, rockabilly, country, gospel. I'm not sure how I would've handled it if the glare was as bright then as it is now. No one is lily white. Every little thing you do goes viral these days. Your life is not your life anymore." Poor Britney, she almost says but doesn't.
Although "I'm Sorry" was her biggest-selling single at the time of its release - with that song Lee rivaled the other top-rated female star of the time, Connie Francis - the hit that keeps paying the rent year after year is "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." Lee was 13 when it was first released. It flopped. And flopped again the next Christmas. But after "I'm Sorry" topped the charts in 1960, the third time proved a charm. "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" is No. 4 in all-time sales among holiday songs. It received a major boost when featured in the 1991 hit movie "Home Alone." "Rockin's" popularity is one reason Brenda Lee now tours only in the weeks leading up to the holiday season. "But no matter what time of year it is," she says, "it's in my show."
WHAT: Brenda Lee in concert
WHEN | WHERE: Friday night at 8, Patchogue Theatre for the Performing Arts, 71 E. Main St.
INFO: $39 to $75, 631-207-1313, patchoguetheatre.com