On the day Brenda Lee visited CMT, she pulled up the chair right next to mine and started right in chatting. After brief and informal introductions, she showed me a large pendant necklace that was a special Mother’s Day gift this year.
“I thought since they were interviewing me about Kanye, I needed to wear some bling,” she quips.
The only female member of both the Country Music Hall of Fame and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Brenda Lee is back on top — in a rather unexpected way. Her cooing “uh-huh honey” from 1959’s “Sweet Nothin’s” is sampled on Kanye West’s “Bound 2,” the final track of his new album, Yeezus. The project bowed at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in June.
Of course, Lee is no stranger to the pop charts. Thanks to an explosive career in the 1960s, the former child star has sold more than 100 million albums. Yet at 68 years old, she carries herself as a likable firecracker. You know, there’s a reason she is beloved as Little Miss Dynamite.
CMT: You had a few hits prior to “Sweet Nothin’s,” but how did that song change the direction of your career?
Lee: Well, I actually hadn’t had any hits of renown. You know, I’d had a little chart action, not very much. That was my first Top 10 record and it kind of put me on the map, as it were, in the industry, to let people know who I was on a wider level. That was good for me.
When you first heard that song, what made you want to record it?
I liked the song, first of all, and I don’t know how we came up with the whispering in the intro: “Uh huh, honey, all right … ” If I’m not mistaken, Louis Nunley of the Anita Kerr Singers, it was his idea and it just made the record. It was written by Ronnie Self, who I had met in Springfield, Mo. He also wrote “I’m Sorry” and several other of my hits and pretty much was my star writer. He pretty much wrote for me. I loved “Sweet Nothin’s” the first time I heard it.
How quickly did the sessions go when you recorded with Owen Bradley?
Back then, you did four songs in three hours. Mine and Owen’s philosophy was always “Don’t beat it to death.” We’d try to get it done in one or two or three takes. Not only the singer, but the musicians lose the spontaneity. People would say, “But sometimes the spontaneity can have mistakes.” Owen didn’t care because he said, “Mistakes just make it better.” It makes it believable, puts a little soul in it. For most of my songs, we did no more than three takes. “I’m Sorry” was two takes. We have done ’em in one take, but most of ’em were two takes.
What were you listening for when you were choosing songs?
Owen and I always listened for beautiful melodies and great lyrics. I guess we all do, but [Owen and I] were rabid on that point. I love great lyrics and Owen loved great melodies, and he was an astute musician himself. You couldn’t get a whole lot past him.
Did you grow up with a love of reading and words?
I always loved reading. I always was the spelling bee champion. I always loved words. I always wanted to know what they meant, why you used them, who first said them. I was always interested in that.
That’s what drew me to country music — how it could get the message of the song across in just a few words.
The word matters in country music and it always has. And everybody had lived those words in country songs.
Well, everyone around you — but early on, maybe not you in particular.
No, I was too young to have lived it. But in my mind, I could relate, as we all could. People always say, “How did you sing ‘All Alone Am I,’ ‘I’m Sorry’ and ‘I Want to Be Wanted’ when you had never even dated?” And I said it was because I wanted to date, and I saw my friends dating and breaking up and crying and sad. So I incorporated that into my interpretation.
When you heard your voice on the Kanye West track, what was going through your mind?
Well, when they told me about it, I had not heard the recording — and I still have not heard the recording all the way through. Kanye, of course, is from a different era than I’m from. My time of music, in the 60s, was a kinder, gentler, music-driven society. Entertainers didn’t get mixed up in politics or what was happening in the world. Some did, as I’ve said — Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul & Mary. But they still did it in a nice way.
As I’ve said, it’s always nice to be recognized. It says a wonderful thing about Ronnie Self, who wrote the song. That 50 years after it was written, somebody in Kanye’s camp knew the song and said, ‘Let’s use it.’ That’s a compliment to Ronnie.
I understand that [West’s] album debuted at No. 1. He certainly has a following and maybe some of his followers will Google “Brenda Lee” and see who I am and buy some of my records. Who knows?
Do you plan to listen to the song?
I do. I want to hear the song. I’ve heard a little bit of it and I’m familiar with what he does. Like I said, it’s not something that I would do, but my stuff is probably not something that he would do. So, it all evens out.
You’ve always been curious about everything that’s out there.
I am! I’ve always gone to see all kinds of shows and stole what I could, as we all do. We see an artist and hear a song and think, “I bet I could sing that song. I’ll put that in my show.” Or we look at a comedian and say, “Well, that joke is not too raunchy. Maybe I could change that around and it would be funny in my show.” We all do that.