Little Miss Dynamite blasts back: The former child star Brenda Lee has become a hit among fans with a taste for nostalgia. David Lister reports

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The Independent Online
BRENDA LEE is 4ft 9in tall; she turned down an invitation to sing for President Clinton because she was too busy - she is playing Brentwood Leisure Centre in Essex tonight; she possesses several hundred pairs of shoes, all size one and a half; 18 dolls' houses occupy the top storey of her home in Nashville; and she talks of her late friend Elvis Presley as a 'nice, shy, good family man'.

One thing child stars now approaching middle-age have in common is a different perspective on life from the rest of us.

Miss Lee, though, is no Michael Jackson recluse. Now 48, with 100 million record sales behind her, she exuded southern charm and courtesy throughout our interview, changing twice for the photographer, chatting about the 'girls' - her contemporaries Tina Turner, Connie Francis and Lesley Gore - and inquiring politely where Brentwood was.

Her nostalgia tour, which also takes in the London Palladium and large theatres around Britain, is selling well. Little Miss Dynamite, as she was when she burst on the scene as a 13-year- old, could rasp out rock'n'roll better than any of the other 'girls', as Sweet Nothings, Lover Come Back, and Rocking Around the Christmas Tree testify.

Level-headed - helped by a 30-year marriage to a construction company boss, two grown-up children and a 'grandbaby' - she knew from the start that there would be periods in her career when she would go out of fashion, though a crossover to country music kept her thriving in the Seventies and Eighties.

But level-headed or not, was she not, like Michael Jackson, deprived of a normal childhood and compensating for that now? He has his fairground in the back garden; she has her dolls' houses. She shakes her bouffant head politely, but firmly.

'Michael Jackson didn't have a normal childhood. His career came first. I was lucky 'cos I had my mom who loved me and a management who treated me as a person not a product. And I went to school and had friends.'

But there is normal and normal. Miss Lee's father, a building worker, died when a workmate dropped a hammer on him at a building site. She was seven and from then on supported the family, looking after her three siblings while her mother worked in a Georgia cotton mill, and soon supporting them all financially. She and her mother are still close. Lee the elder still sits in on recording sessions, telling Brenda where she went wrong.

'We were poor in those early years,' Miss Lee said. 'We had food but not much else. We didn't buy new clothes. My dad's death had a big effect on me. I was very close to him and he was a good man. I had been singing since I was three years old and he was proud of me. He always said I was going to be somebody. I suppose a lot of things are a throwback. I have an over-abundance of certain things now that I couldn't afford when I was little, shoes for example. I only had one pair then, now I have several hundred.'

They are difficult to find, she adds none too convincingly, because her feet are so tiny. She then discourses on the added difficulty of getting child-size shoes with high heels.

At this point I ventured to ask Miss Lee - patron of numerous children's charities, singer by appointment to at least four presidents, and winner of the coveted governor's award of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences - what she actually does with her 18 dolls' houses. 'What do I do? I play with them. I used to fool with them everyday. I still spend hours and hours taking care of them, decorating them, carpeting and wallpapering. I don't have people in them.'

You mean, no dolls?

'No. They are my houses. I feel that I live there. Some are Victorian, some are French. I do have some babies in them, but no mothers or fathers.'

And so to Brentwood, followed this spring by a private gig for the Kennedys in Cape Cod, the postponed White House visit to fit in, and then back to Nashville to the delight of dolls' furniture manufacturers and makers of little shoes for little people.

(Photograph omitted)