Brenda Lee: Still ‘Rockin’

Celebrities, People, Seasonal, Traditions
on November 30, 2008
Courtesy of Brenda Lee

No matter what the season, audiences at a Brenda Lee concert can count on a little holiday spirit when she sings "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree."

"I close my show with it year-round," says Lee, 63, of the song that celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. "I didn't used to put it in every show. I'd say, It's not December!, but it didn't seem to matter."

It wasn't difficult for Lee to adjust to singing her signature hit in the summertime, spring and fall. It just so happens that it was July when she went into a Nashville, Tenn., studio with famed producer Owen Bradley to record the tune in 1958 at age 13.

"Owen had the studio temperature all icy cold with a Christmas tree and lights to try to get us in the spirit," she says, laughing as she relaxes on a leather couch in her cozy office in Nashville. "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" didn't attract much attention when it was released during the holiday season later that year. But two years later, after the diminutive singer nicknamed "Little Miss Dynamite" had become a sensation with the hit single "I'm Sorry," the label released the song again and it was a smash.

Lee would go on to have more hit singles than any other woman in the 1960s, with a long list including "Break It to Me Gently," "I Want to Be Wanted" and "Fool #1." But "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" has become her signature song. Of the 20 or so concerts she performs each year, more than half take place between Thanksgiving and Christmas.

And "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" continues to be a favorite year after year. It appeared in the 1990 movie Home Alone, and has been recorded by artists as diverse as Cyndi Lauper and the Vienna Boys Choir. Last year, Lee's recording was the most-played Christmas song in the world, and it remains among the top five best-selling Christmas songs of all time.

"Rockin' came along at a time when the really, truly great era of American Christmas songs was coming to a close," says Ronald Clancy, author of American Christmas Classics. "The lyrics have a warm feeling, and its not a song about personal angstits about feeling for family."

Magic in the making
Lee agrees. "It's just a happy song, and its a simple song," she says. "But I think it was just the meshing of all those minds and all that talent together that created the magic."

The team of musicians that Lee recorded with that day—including saxophonist Boots Randolph, guitarists Hank Garland and Grady Martin, pianist Floyd Cramer and the Anita Kerr Singers—would come to be part of the A-Team who played on many of the so-called Nashville Sound recordings. Their top-notch talent is part of what makes the opening bars of Rockin' instantly recognizable. We just took the demo of the song into the studio, Lee recalls, and then Hank said, "Hey, I'll do this lick here," and then Boots said, "Yeah, and I'll answer you," and Floyd said, "I'll tinkle here."

"It was a magical time and I knew the song was there," she continues. "We just didn't know if it was there for me."

In fact, the songs writer, Johnny Marks, who also penned "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "Holly Jolly Christmas," had written the song specifically with the young singer in mind, Clancy says. He'd been relaxing on a beach in Maine when he spotted some teenagers dancing against a backdrop of fir trees.

Rock 'n roll music at the time was still beginning, Clancy says. And the association of a fir tree and the dancing teenagers was the inspiration for the song.

The story goes that Marks called Lees record label to suggest she listen to the song, and an exasperated executive told him, Johnny, every songwriter in the world is calling me with a song for Brenda.

Rising superstar
That wasn't an exaggeration—at 13, Lee already was a rising international star. The Atlanta native began appearing on local radio and TV shows as early as age 5. Before long, she was touring and getting paid.

"We grew up very poor, and my dad died when I was 7 and I became the breadwinner for my siblings and my mom," Lee says. "So I knew that we had to make some money, but that wasn't why I did what I did. I just loved doing it."

In 1956, Lee, then 11, signed with Decca Records and moved to Nashville with her mother, stepfather, two sisters and brother. She attended high school in between recording and touring, which eventually would take her to more than 76 countries, including Japan, Germany and Brazil.

"I didn't get to go to college, so my education was on the road, and boy did I get one!" she says. "It changes your perspective. You're not as ambivalent as you once were when you see how the rest of the world lives."

"It's been a ride," says Ronnie Shacklett, Lee's husband of 45 years. "I had never been anyplace before I met Brenda, except a family vacation in Florida."

Lee's success both at home and abroad has resulted in countless awards and honors throughout her career. She has the distinction of being the only woman inducted into both the rock 'n roll and country music halls of fame. And this year, the Academy of Country Music (ACM) recognized her contributions to the genre with the Cliffie Stone Pioneer Award.

Paving the way
"She has paved the way for so many country artists," says Michelle Goble, the ACM's director of membership and events. "Women like Brenda, Tammy Wynette and Dolly Parton were out there when it was hard for women to get on the radio, and when it wasn't considered appropriate for them to tour with guys."

Inspired by her travels and the wide range of artists she worked with over the years, Lee has explored a variety of musical styles throughout her five decades of recording and performing.

"There are probably times I rocked out more than I should have, because I'm an old rock 'n roller," she says. "But I'm glad I did."

"I think one thing an artist can learn from Brenda Lee is not to be afraid of boundaries," Goble says. "She had great exposure with American Bandstand and other things beyond the traditional Nashville format. But she did it in such a classy way."

Lee continues to explore other genres. In 2007, she released a gospel album, Gospel Duets With Treasured Friends, and is even entertaining the idea of a jazz CD for her next project.

And though her repertoire includes a dizzying array of musical styles, after 50 years it's clear that Lee's primary legacy is "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"—and that's just fine with her.

"People come up to me and say, 'We can't get through a Christmas unless we play "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and I used to play it for my son and now he plays it for his son," she says.

"It's a wonderful feeling to know that something you've done has touched someone's life in a positive way."