Willie Nelson once lamented that “sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year.” That sentiment certainly rang true when he sang the song in 1973, and it’s actually true of most other years, as well. But don’t tell that to Brenda Lee — she built her career on selling those songs, year after year, tear after tear.
Under contract and in the studio at the ripe old age of 11, she started out as Little Brenda Lee, singing cutesy novelty songs with a rock ‘n’ roll flair. (That’s a 13-year-old exhorting you every December to let your ornaments loose and commence “rockin’ around the Christmas tree.”) With her powerful voice, her tiny frame, and her penchant for stomping the living daylights out of a concert stage, she soon became known as Little Miss Dynamite.
Everything changed in 1960 when Lee recorded her first #1 song–a slow pop ballad with the cymbals playing triplets–called “I’m Sorry.” Whether by her own design, or her producer’s desire for formula success, Lee’s followup ballads all contained a waltz element, and the public responded, overlooking her uptempo material while buying millions of her slow songs. In 1961, she recorded her saddest, heartachin’est song yet, and the single became one of her biggest hits.
“Break It To Me Gently” reached the Top 5 in early 1962. The music was written by Joe Seneca. Never heard of him, you say? Well, here’s a fun fact for you: you may know him better as a bit part actor in movies and TV during the 70s, 80s, and 90s, or from his most prominent role, as blues man Willie Brown in the 1986 Karate Kid-meets-Robert Johnson classic, Crossroads. Seneca wrote another moderate hit, and Lee had multiple #1’s, but it’s “Break It To Me Gently” that resonates across the decades on perfectly plucked heartstrings.
Brenda Lee spent equal time on the pop and country charts in the 60s, but moved entirely onto country radio in the 70s where she continued to have a string of hits throughout the decade. Here’s another fun fact for you: during the 1960s, only Elvis, The Beatles, and Ray Charles had more charting pop hits than Brenda Lee. Say what? Considering the other talent around at the time, that’s a staggering achievement. And it still might be only the second-most mind-blowing thing about Brenda Lee.
Anyway, here’s Little Miss Dynamite. Be gentle.
Done the math yet? That’s a 16-year-old Lee breaking your heart. Remember your mind? Now it is like unto a molten globe of glass fresh from the furnace, on the tip of the pipe, still warm and learning its newly formed shape.