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So What About That Voice of Experience?

TIMES STAFF WRITER

How does a young teen sing convincingly about the kind of mature emotions and deep romantic heartache she couldn’t possibly yet know? Further, how does she do it so well that she knocks the veterans of the music world right on their collective ear?

These days, in the wake of her Grammy-winning album, “Blue,” that question is frequently put to LeAnn Rimes. Nearly four decades ago, it was being asked of Brenda Lee.

Lee was just 15 when her throaty, sassy rendering of “Sweet Nothin’s” (think Donna Lewis with an attitude) peaked at No. 4 on the pop chart. A few months later, she had a No. 1 hit with the apologetic ballad “I’m Sorry.” And before she turned 16, the former Brenda Mae Tarpley of Georgia added two more top-10 records to the list--the jumpy “That’s All You Gotta Do” (No. 6) and another aching ballad, “I Want to Be Wanted” (No. 1).

Those songs plus 25 more in the top 40 ultimately made Lee the most successful solo female singer of the 1960s.

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But at age 52, “Little Miss Dynamite” still doesn’t quite know how she did it.

“That was a question that I was asked a lot,” Lee tells a reporter in a recent phone interview from her office in Nashville, before heading west to do two shows this weekend at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. “How did I sing those songs that I did, with all those feelings that I didn’t really have the experience to know?”

Perhaps what you hear on those early vinyl pressings, she muses, is simply a passion for singing. A passion that, to hear legendary record producer Owen Bradley tell it, she was genetically predisposed to express.

“Too bad we weren’t around the minute Brenda was born,” Bradley says, “because she must have been squawkin’ and squealin’. That girl was just born singin'--or born to sing, anyway.”

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As for Rimes, whom she met a while back in Yakima, Wash., when the 14-year-old country sensation opened a show Lee was headlining, Lee says:

“I was very impressed. She had powerful vocal ability and stage presence. . . . I think she’ll be around awhile.”

*

Given the talented circles Lee has traveled in, such words are high praise indeed. Patsy Cline was a mentor and close friend, the two having first met in 1956 while performing together in Texas.

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“She was starring and it was a big show--I don’t know how I got on it--I was just a little girl about 11 years old,” Lee recalls. “She kind of adopted me. . . . We became wonderful friends even though I was so much younger [Cline was about 24 at the time]. We were buddies.”

Lee and Cline shared another important thing: a record label--Decca--that begat their separate but mutually close associations with Bradley, who engineered many of Lee’s most popular recordings.

When Lee recently returned to the studio to re-record 26 of her hits (MCA-Decca retains the original masters), the singer asked Bradley, now 81, to supervise. Among the musicians brought in to accompany the singer were some who had played on the originals, including Hal Bradley, Floyd Cramer, Buddy Harmon and Boots Randolph.

“We had a great time,” Lee says of the sessions, which took about a year and a half to complete. “It was done live--no overdubbing or none of that, that’s not the way I like to record. We’re real proud of it.”

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Bradley largely concurs (though he says there was “very little” overdubbing as opposed to none) and adds, “We were able to maybe, hopefully get [the songs] right this time.” Not that there was much wrong with the originals, he is quick to point out, it’s just that “this time, we didn’t wonder what we were going to do; we knew what we were going to do.”

The bad news: Don’t look for the album at stores any time soon. At the moment, there’s no record deal and no real promise of one. This was, as they say, a labor of love.

“What I did it for mainly is that I wanted to have it for myself, and later on for my children and my grandchildren,” Lee says, no wistfulness apparent in her voice.

For the spry and ever-sharp Bradley, who long ago “retired” from producing full time, similarly subjective reasoning is what made this one of those projects “there’s just no way I would say no to.

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“I don’t like to get involved with things where people expect miracles,” Bradley explains. “But a project like this really was a cup of tea. It was tailor-made for me.”

No doubt tailor-made for Lee’s fans as well, but while that album languishes, the only place they can hear her revisit her oldies is on the concert stage.

Friday and Saturday’s performances in Cerritos--where she shares the bill with singer Bobby Vinton, who toured with Lee in the ‘60s as part of a Dick Clark caravan that featured Vinton as bandleader--are warm-ups for the 11 shows a week she’ll be doing in Branson, Mo., come mid-March.

Her one-hour show here, backed by a six-piece band, will feature several of her hits, which run from rockabilly to pop to country. She’ll also do covers of some country classics, gospel selections and the crowd-pleasing Songs-I-Turned-Down-but-Shouldn’t-Have segment (examples: “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden” and “Bye Bye Love”).

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Among the hits that she did not turn down is one you might think would have her wincing at shopping malls each Christmas, given the frequency with which it is played. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” comes in second to “I’m Sorry” in overall sales, but it is undoubtedly the single that has captured the widest age demographic for Lee. That this holiday standard is one of her favorites reflects a certain childlike quality that the grown-up “Little Miss Dynamite” still openly embraces.

As evidence, she has filled her home with well more than a dozen dollhouses, most of which are off-limits to her two “grandbabies.”

“It’s been a passion of mine for a long time,” she says of her collection. “When you start to think that everything big they can make little, it’s a lot of fun.”

Speaking of little, the 4-foot-9 singer’s other great passion is shoes. Unfortunately, her size-1 1/2 foot has effectively thwarted her bid to become the Imelda Marcos of Nashville. But she has managed to buy hundreds anyway, and her trip to Southern California carries the added bonus of bringing her within striking distance of a Nordstrom, where, she says (her goose bumps nearly palpable over the phone), small sizes have been spotted.

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Though her feet haven’t grown since the ‘50s, and the rest of her petite frame remains much the same as in her musical heyday, longtime followers will notice one cosmetic change: The fiery red hair of her youth has given way to a softer blond with red highlights.

Still done up in her trademark bouffant style?

“Of course!” she answers. “You don’t think I’m going to get rid of that, do you? That’s about 4 inches of my height!”

* Brenda Lee and Bobby Vinton perform tonight and Saturday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, 12700 Center Court Drive. 8 p.m. $30-$45. (562) 916-8500.

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