Brenda Lee has a voice that evolves with time, as evidenced by her expansive catalog. Though her voice is often associated with Christmas via her classic hit, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” it extends far beyond the season with countless songs that show off her versatility.
Videos by American Songwriter
Videos by American Songwriter
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Recording timeless songs since the age of 12, Lee is the first woman to be inducted into both the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 2009, she was the recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Below, we look at 10 of Lee’s best songs.
1. “I Want to Be Wanted”
Listening to “I Want to Be Wanted” feels like you’ve been transported back in time. There’s an aching feeling threaded throughout the song as Lee conveys the deep love she wants to experience. With beautiful lyrics like I want to know he loves me so his eyes are misting while longing to find someone to share my laughter and tears with, it won’t take long for you to fall in love with this classic Lee song. Following in the footsteps of “I’m Sorry,” “Wanted” became her second single to top the Billboard Hot 100.
When I am kissed
I want his lips to really kiss me
When we’re apart
I want his heart to really miss me
I want to know he loves me so his eyes are misting
That’s the way I want to be loved
2. “Truly, Truly, True”
“Truly” is one of Lee’s most emotive vocal performances. She lets each word have its moment, wondering if her partner loves her as deeply as they say they do. My true heaven will come in view/If you show me that you love me, she professes as violins sing just as beautifully. “Truly” is a hidden gem in her collection, one that shimmers as brightly as her chart-topping hits.
Do I love you, truly I do
Do you love me, wish I knew
Do you love me, truly true
Truly, the question’s been vogue
From the start
3. “Sweet Nothin’s”
“Sweet Nothin’s” sounds different than anything else in Lee’s catalog. She brings plenty of personality to this big-band-style number, showing off a side of her not seen in other songs. The perfect blend of sweet and sassy, Lee flawlessly executes this vibrant tune, complete with a saxophone solo and spirited hand claps. Lee’s voice is so convincing that Prince producer David Z adapted her vocals on Prince’s worldwide 1986 hit, “Kiss,” ensuring that the legacy of “Sweet Nothin’s” lives on.
My baby whispers in my ear
Mm, sweet nothin’s (yea)
He knows the things I like to hear
Mm, sweet nothin’s
4. “We Three (My Echo, My Shadow and Me)”
This poignant tune shows off the versatility of her vocal delivery. In this cleverly written song, the singer communicates with the invisible parts of herself. Though “We Three” is only a few lines, that’s all Lee needs to tell an intriguing story of loneliness where she only has her echo and shadow to keep her company now that the love of her life has left her. This deep cut on her 1960 album This Is…Brenda is definitely worth a listen.
We three we’re all alone living in a memory my echo my shadow and me
We three we’re not a crowd we’re not even company my echo my shadow and me
What good is the moonlight the silvery moonlight that shines above
I walk with my shadow I talk with my echo but where is the one I love
We three we’ll wait for you even till eternity my echo my shadow and me
Though merely a teenager at the time, Lee has no trouble conveying adult emotion. She proves this with “Emotions,” her powerful voice pinpointing deep heartbreak and wanting to forget the source of it while pleading with her vast emotions to please set me free. Between the mature lyrics and her sincere vocals, “Emotions” makes Lee sound wise beyond her years.
Emotions, please leave me alone
Your worry my days, yes, you torture my nights
Never a dream, no, those dreams never turn out right
Emotions, aww, give me a break
Let me forget that I made a mistake
Oh, can’t you see what you’re doin’ to me?
6. “I’m Sorry”
One of Lee’s most famous songs is also one of her best. Lee was only 15 when she recorded this now-classic song. It was her first No. 1 song on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100, building career momentum with her enduring vocal performance as she delivers a sincere apology about unrequited love. With “I’m Sorry,” Lee set the stage to be one of the most recognizable voices in music.
I’m sorry, so sorry
That I was such a fool
I didn’t know
Love could be so cruel
7. “Break it to Me Gently”
If you were ever to have your heart broken, there’s no one better to do it than Lee. Here, she begs the person she loves to let her down easily, going so far as to ask him to pretend to be in love if it’s just for one more day. The love we shared for oh so long / Is such a big part of me, she sings tenderly, breaking the listener’s heart as gently as she sings. The orchestra backing her shines just as much as Lee does on one of her best numbers.
Break it to me gently
Let me down the easy way
Make me feel that you still love me
If it’s just, if it’s just for one more day
Break it to me gently
If you look closely at the lyrics, they’re a bit darker than other songs the sweet singer is known for. Here, she strikes down a lover who left her. She says his “penalty” for disowning her will be to feel as much pain as he put her through and promises that her memory will haunt his dreams, among other ramifications. As always, her voice is pure and delicate – even when she’s dealing devastating blows.
This look I’m wearing it’s called a frown
But it was a smile till you turned it upside down
I’d hate to see I’d hate to see you feel like me but this will be
Eventually, my memory will haunt the dreams of you
9. “The Grass is Greener”
Though she often sings of having her heart broken by someone else, Lee turns the tables on herself here where she becomes the person who walks away from the relationship. Through the lyrics, she confesses that she was on a quest to find someone new who turns out to be disloyal, leaving the singer with a broken heart of her own design. By the end of the song, the greener grass she longs for is where she was at the start, Lee telling this story through her compelling voice.
I had the world when you were mine
But I threw it away
I thought the grass was greener there
Where I wandered one day
I left your arms for someone else
But he was never true
10. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”
You know it’s Christmastime when Lee’s voice comes pouring through the speakers with this rockabilly bop. Lee captures the jovial nature of this song which is determined to get you moving and shaking with the holiday spirit. Though the song is 65 years old, “Rockin'” still feels as fresh as ever.
Rockin’ around the Christmas tree
At the Christmas party hop
Mistletoe hung where you can see
Every couple tries to stop
Photo by David Redfern/Redferns