It’s that time of year when nearly everywhere you turn, it’s a safe bet you’ll hear Brenda Lee’s classic “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” The perennial holiday favorite turns 60 this year and Lee still enjoys singing it now as much as ever.
“We cut that, as you do most Christmas songs, in the heat of summer. I remember I walked into the Quonset Hut where I did everything,” Lee says of the legendary Nashville studio. “[Producer] Owen [Bradley] had it all decked out like Christmas. I was only 12 going on 13, so that was a biggie to me. Everybody was dressed Christmassy and the lights were low. He had a Christmas tree. It was wonderful.”
On a crisp winter morning at her Nashville home, Lee is seated near a photo that shows her smiling with Elvis Presley the night they both made their Grand Ole Opry debut, and a sweet picture of her dear friend Elton John’s two young sons, along with other mementos and memorabilia from her incredible career. The Georgia native is the only female artist to be inducted into the Rockabilly, Rock and Roll and Country Music Halls of Fame.
Few artists can say they’ve been singing the same hit for 60 years, but Lee knew immediately “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” would have lasting impact. “The song was magic and how could it not be with the group of musicians and Anita Kerr Singers and Owen Bradley producing? It couldn’t have been anything but,” she smiles, remembering the session with Hank Garland and Harold Bradley on guitar, Floyd Cramer on piano, Boots Randolph on sax, Bob Moore on bass, and Buddy Harman on drums.
“Johnny Marks wrote a classic and I’m glad I got it,” she says, acknowledging the songwriter who famously penned such classics as “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas” and “Run, Run Rudolph.”
Though the song was released by Decca Records in 1958 and again for the holiday season in 1959, it really took off in 1960 when Lee’s career was exploding with the hit “I’m Sorry.” “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” peaked at No. 14 on the Hot 100 in 1960 and has continued to appear on various charts over the next five decades and is one of the top five best-selling Christmas digital singles, according to SoundScan.
It received a boost in 1990 when it was featured prominently in the hit holiday film Home Alone. “Somebody called me and said, ‘Hey, there’s a movie out called Home Alone and they are playing the whole thing of ‘Rockin’’ and we wanted to make sure you got paid for it,’” she recalls. “So of course I went to see the movie and I think that’s the door that opened for the young audience to discover what ‘Rockin’’ was. That’s why it’s been around for years and generations.”
For Lee, the most gratifying thing about the song’s continued success is what it means to her fans. “See that Medal of Honor,” she says, pointing to the medal on her piano. “I was doing a show last year and a man gave me that. He said, ‘This has been on my bucket list since the Vietnam War.’ I said, ‘Oh no, you need to give this to your grandkids or your kids.’ He said, ‘I sat in the jungle in the pouring rain and listened to ‘Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree.’ I want you to have this.’”
Lee looks a little misty-eyed as she glances at the medal. “When you hear stories like that you know you’ve done something right,” she says. “It doesn’t get much better for me than that. Those stories make what I do worth it because it lets you know that there are things so much bigger than you are.”