In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
It’s a good thing Brenda Lee was born when she was. If Brenda Mae Tarpley had been a teenager now, rather than in 1960, she probably would’ve become a contestant on America’s Got Talent, and that would’ve been the end of it. There’s a novelty appeal to Lee’s talent. She was an absolutely tiny prodigy; at 4’9″, she was short enough to qualify as a little person. And when she recorded “I’m Sorry,” she was only 15, but she’d already been supporting her desperately poor Georgia family by singing ever since her father had died seven years earlier. Still, there was more to Lee than pure novelty. And thanks in part to when she was born, that novelty appeal and that talent were enough to make her one of the dominant pop stars of her era.
Brenda Lee started out singing on local radio, moving on eventually to early TV variety shows. Two years before “I’m Sorry,” she’d recorded “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” an eventual holiday standard which would end up as the biggest-selling single of her career. But “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” didn’t really hit until “I’m Sorry” had come out, and “I’m Sorry” remains the song probably most associated with Brenda Lee. It is not, however, the best.
“I’m Sorry” is an early example of the Nashville countrypolitan style, with its sugary backing vocals and its sighing strings. The soft drama of that arrangement served the song nicely. But it’s really not that much of a song. It’s a simplistic weeper about playing around with other people’s feelings, and it doesn’t really have anything to say about the subject. If you aren’t in the right mood, the central hook can get irritating. But what really makes the song work is Lee herself.
When she really let loose, Brenda Lee had an absolute hurricane of a voice. On “I’m Sorry” she toggles back and forth between quiet reserve and reckless passion in a way that deftly reflects the mindset of someone trying hard to cope with sadness. It’s a virtuosic and strikingly mature performance, and it really showcases that voice. Later on, Lee would get a chance to use those gifts on truly great songs like “Everybody Loves Me But You” and “The End Of The World.” With “I’m Sorry,” she merely got a pretty good one.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s ’90s underground rap hero Jeru The Damaja rapping over an “I’m Sorry” sample on his post-peak 2007 song “Kick Rocks”: