With a preternaturally mature voice that could effortlessly swing between rock n’ roll and country, Brenda Lee was one of the biggest hitmakers of the late ’50s and ’60s. And while smashes like “I’m Sorry” and “Sweet Nothin’s” endure as all-time classics, there’s one Lee song that remains inescapable each year as the air gets colder and the fireplace gets warmer – “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” which the vocal legend put on wax when she was just 13.
The seasonal offering first entered the Billboard Hot 100 on the chart dated Dec. 12, 1960 and enjoyed a huge boost in public interest when it was prominently featured in the 1990 holiday flick Home Alone. This year, “Rockin'” reaches its highest position yet: No. 3 on the Hot 100, completing the longest climb ever — 59 years and nine days — to the region from a song’s chart debut.
Even at 75, Lee says hearing her adolescent voice every December as the soundtrack to the season remains a peculiar experience. “It’s crazy to be shopping in a department store and hearing yourself sing at the same time. It’s pretty surreal,” she says. Not that she’s complaining: “It’s just been a wonderful, wonderful gift,” Lee says of the Johnny Marks composition.
Here, the Christmas music icon talks about how she ended up with the song six decades ago and what she thinks about Mariah Carey’s Christmas dominance.
You recorded “Rockin'” when you were 13 years old. How did that happen?
The song came to me through a publisher, Al Gallico — he was friends with [my producer] Owen Bradley. Apparently, Johnny Marks knew Al and wanted me to have it. The song was magic, and how could it not be with the Anita Kerr Singers and Bradley producing? It’d be pretty hard to mess it up.
What was Johnny Marks like?
We talked every day after [the song came out], just about every day he’d call me. I just loved him to death. I was a teenager then and he would always open his phone calls with, “There’s just not a lot of us old timers left.” [Laughs.] I thought that was so cute. He was a wonderful man. Of course, he was Jewish, but the only thing that would come out of him was Christmas. He wrote “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Rockin.'”
When did you realize you had a hit on your hands?
Somebody called me and said, “Have you seen the movie Home Alone? You ought to, because they’ve got ‘Rockin” really featured in it.” That’s when it really took off with the youngsters. I knew it was special, but you never know what’s going to be a hit — if you did, we’d all have hits every day. It has been a wonderful gift.
What were your holiday traditions growing up?
When I was little and we were very poor, the only time we got fruit was at Christmas. We got what my mom could afford. I remember the first gift I was so excited about was a bike, but Christmastime to us wasn’t about gifts — it was about family. We always used to carol — [now] we carol with “Rockin'” and a bunch of ’em. Sometimes people open the door and listen, sometimes they keep the door closed like “go away” [laughs].
Mariah’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You” is No. 1 on our Holiday 100 chart, with “Rockin'” at No. 2. Have you heard her song, and are you a fan?
She’s knocked me off [the top]. I wanna tell my folks, get out there, we gotta get ‘Rockin” back up there! [Laughs.] But I will say, you go Mariah! I love that song.