The Making Of Brenda Lee's "I'm Sorry"
(Since its inception in 1973, the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame has enshrined nearly 1,000 recordings across all genres. The Making Of … series presents firsthand accounts of the creative process behind some of the essential recordings of the 20th century. You can read more Making Of … accounts, and in-depth insight into the recordings and artists represented in the Hall, in the GRAMMY Hall Of Fame 40th Anniversary Collector’s Edition book.)
(As told to Tammy La Gorce)
["I'm Sorry"] was really the first big ballad we had done. Prior to that we had done "Sweet Nothin's" and I had a hit with that, and we had also done “Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree," and that became a hit, but it really hadn't done anything [on the charts] up to that point.
"I'm Sorry" was one of the first songs to come out of Nashville using strings. It was originally an eight-bar song, and we were trying to figure out how to get it to be a 16-bar song, because that's usually what songs are; at eight bars it would have been too short. In any event, I was a big fan [of the Ink Spots] because of my producer, Owen Bradley. And they used to recite words in their songs. So I said, "Why not do a recitation [to lengthen the song]?" And so that's where the recitation in "I'm Sorry" came from.
So when "I'm Sorry" came out and became such a huge hit, that made "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" start selling. Then that became a huge, huge hit.
I didn't write "I'm Sorry." The [writers were] Ronnie Self, who wrote "Sweet Nothin's," [and Dub Albritton]. We had no formal arrangements or anything. We all met at the studio, and we had the crème de la crème — the Anita Kerr Singers, [saxophonist] Boots Randolph and [pianist] Floyd Cramer. We all sat down and decided, "I think this should go here [and] this would sound pretty there." It was all just us thinking together because back then we didn't have any arrangements.
We did it in two takes. I was going on 16 years old. I look back on that now, and it seems pretty amazing. But you know, I had been singing since I was 3 years old, so my love of singing was always there. But I never expected to have a big old record like that. I didn't really have an agenda for my talent. I just wanted to be able to sing. That I had those hits was the icing on the cake.
I knew the song was great when I first heard it. We all did. We all felt there was something very, very special about the song.
Now, oh my Lord, every show I do I include "I'm Sorry." If I didn't my audience would be upset. Because it's just like with anybody — they come to hear the songs that got them acquainted with the artist in the first place. And that song has withstood the test of time. But you know, with Owen Bradley, who was just a genius with the team, and Anita Kerr and all the rest, all you needed was the song and the singer. Everything else was there for you, ready to go.
(Tammy La Gorce is a freelance writer whose work appears regularly in The New York Times.)