Among the great unheard rock serenades of the 1980s was a work penned by New Jersey songsmith Ben Vaughn but recorded with modest pop majesty by the greatly underappreciated Marshall Crenshaw. It was a tune that slipped along with a casual backbeat that buoyed a sense of pop smarts and elegant heartbreak. Its title: “I’m Sorry (But So is Brenda Lee).”
What Vaughn and Crenshaw created — and what next to no one outside of devout fans of either heard — was a clever tribute. It referred to the vocalist who scored a major pop hit in 1960 with an entirely different tune called “I’m Sorry.” Full of regal teen despondency, the earlier song became a gold-selling hit for Lee before her 16th birthday.
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With the singer, now 71, performing a holiday program entitled “A Rockin’ Christmas with Brenda Lee” on Saturday at the Norton Center for the Arts in Danville, she is signaling to cross-generational audiences of her still-active role as a touring artist. The question that surfaces now, of course, is simple: Who’s sorry now?
The irony is “I’m Sorry” would prove an inspirational pop hit for generations to come by prefacing the Vaughn composition/Crenshaw recording by 25 years. It was, however, not exclusively the career-defining hit that many pop historians claimed it to be. In 1958, Lee cut the Johnny Marks song “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” a single that would be re-released numerous times through the decades, with cumulative sales reaching the 25 million mark. It remains one of the holiday season’s most recognized pop songs, having been subsequently covered by artists as disparate as Bill Haley, The Partridge Family, Cyndi Lauper, Green Day and Chicago.
The song’s popularity shows no sign of dissipating either. Last week, Billboard magazine ran a list of the 10 most downloaded holiday singles. Complied by Nielsen Music, which began tracking digital sales in 2003, the list is dominated by contemporaries: Mariah Carey, Trans Siberian Orchestra and Justin Bieber. But checking in at No. 5 is Lee’s 58-year-old recording of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
A member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, Lee was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (now known simply as the Recording Academy, the organization behind the Grammy Awards) in 2009.
Therein sits the proof of Lee’s pop durability: a lasting appeal that comes from always having to say she’s sorry.
Marty Raybon at Meadowgreen Park
It’s been such an insanely busy fall that we haven’t had a chance to inform you that the annual series of Saturday night bluegrass concerts at Meadowgreen Park Music Hall, 303 Bluegrass Lane in Clay City, is in full string music swing — or at least it will be until the series goes on holiday break in two weeks.
On Saturday, Marty Raybon will perform. A regular fixture at bluegrass festivals, Raybon returned to his country music roots this year through regional performances with Shenandoah, the band he fronted from 1985 to 1997. Saturday’s show is all bluegrass, though, with backup supplied by Raybon’s current string band Full Circle and tunes from such recent recordings as “Southern Roots and Branches” (2012) and “The Back Forty” (2013).
Jeff Clair and Half Past Lonesome will also perform as part of Saturday’s bill (7 p.m., $15).