She recorded the perennially popular holiday song Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree when she was just 13 years old.
And Brenda Lee, now 79, looked back on the song’s long-lasting popularity in a new interview with People on Thursday.
Although her song can be heard in constant rotation on the radio and streaming services every year since its 1958 release, 2023 marked a milestone, as it reached the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.
In the process, it toppled Mariah Carey’s massively popular All I Want For Christmas Is You, which has claimed a spot at the top of the chart in recent years.
Lee, who was 78 when her song made history 65 years after recording Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree as the oldest person to rise to number one on the Billboard Hot 100, described the ‘surreal’ feeling she had when her song made its stunning rise in the charts, while also recounting how Mariah Carey responded to being surpassed.
Brenda Lee, 79, reflected on being the oldest Billboard Hot 100 chart topper with her 1958 hit Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree in an interview with People; seen November 8 in Nashville
Lee recorded the song when she was just 13, but it reached number one recently for the first time after toppling Mariah Carey’s All I Want For Christmas Is You; pictured in 1959
When asked to describe the moment she learned that her song had risen to number one, Lee replied: ‘Oh, good lord. It was so surreal!
‘I still don’t believe it,’ she continued. ‘Even though I know the song is great and written by a great man, after all these years it’s just surreal.’
The tune was penned by Johnny Marks, best known for a bevy of popular Christmas songs, including Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Holly Jolly Christmas and Silver And Gold, among other classics.
When the interviewer noted that her song had reached number two on the charts several times, but had also been stymied by Carey’s song, Lee sounded as if she wasn’t concerned about the competition.
‘You know, I don’t think in those terms. I’m one of those weird artists that wants everybody to do good, because when everybody does good, we all do good!’ she said. ‘But “Rockin’” is really close to my heart, and I was hoping that it would do well, like it always has. There’s room enough for all of us.’
She also noted that Carey hadn’t shared any congratulations with her for reaching number one, though it turned out that the hitmaker was already planning something, as Lee received a bouquet and a card from Carey shortly after the interview.
She sent some lovely white chrysanthemums and lilies and wrote, ‘Dearest Ms. Brenda, Congratulations on your historic #1. Have a merry Christmas. Love, Mariah.’
As for why Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree finally hit number one in 2023, Lee opined that it was because her record company gave it an extra push this year.
Carey hadn’t congratulated her at the time of the interview, but just afterward she went flowers to Lee
‘It’s been a concerted effort with all of us and it’s just been a lot of fun,’ she shared. ‘Kinda like the music days of yore.’
A new music video also helped get the song in the public consciousness again.
The clip featured Lee in her late seventies lip syncing to herself at age 13, while she was joined by Trisha Yearwood and Tanya Tucker in the video.
‘They’re two of my best friends,’ she said of the country music veterans. ‘We asked them to do that and said, “Okay, we’re turning the cameras on. Y’all do what you wanna do!” There was no script and no direction, but I guess it turned out okay.’
Lee, who is based in Nashville, also added that several musicians living in the city had sent her congratulations.
‘Nashville’s the kind of town where we feel like if one artist does well, we all do good. So we’re all rooting for each other,’ she explained. ‘It’s like, “They like me! They really like me!” [Laughs] My record company is filled with lots of hip, on-the-go young people. They worked really hard and it’s just been a lot of fun.’
She also revealed that her good friend Dolly Parton had congratulated her recently too.
‘Dolly and I, we talk a lot. I tell you what — she’s great. I’ve known Dolly since we were both 17 or 18 years old,’ she recalled. ‘We go back a long, long way. Her husband and my husband went to school together. It’s a good relationship.’
Lee also admitted that she never expected Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree to be such a major part of her legacy when she recorded it.
‘I knew it was a great song and I was happy to get it, but I never thought that it would be my signature song. Never,’ she said.
Although she’s best known for the Christmas song now, Lee had a string of hits in the ’60s and was considered an influential early rock and roll singer
Lee recalled being friends with the Beatles and performing with them in England and Germany in the ’60s. She added that she recently caught up with Ringo star; seen in 2015 in Nashville
Asked why that song became a yearly hit while her other Christmas songs weren’t as beloved, she suggested it was because Rockin’ is so ‘contagious.’
‘You know, it’s easy to learn, it’s easy to sing, and it’s just a contagious thing,’ she said.
While looking back at the past, she recounted how she had to record the original song in the sweltering summer heat, though her producer turned up the air conditioning to cool things down appropriately.
She also revealed that her family wasn’t ‘financially stable’ when she was growing up, so Christmas was never an opulent affair for her, but instead was about family gathering to make a feast together.
Although she’s best known for her Christmas song, Lee had plenty of hits in the burgeoning rock and roll genre in her heyday, and a string of hits in the 1960s helped her rub elbows with artists like The Beatles and Elvis.
‘I go back a long way with the Beatles,’ she recalled. ‘I worked with them in their early years when I used to tour England all the time.
She added that she ‘just went to Ringo’s show.’
‘He did a concert here at the Musicians Hall of Fame and we reminisced a little while about stuff. It was a lot of fun,’ she said. ‘But we were all learning back in those days. It was by the seat of our pants a lot of times, but we were having fun. We played in Germany too, at the Star Club.’
She added that it was ‘sweet’ to hear that John Lennon once said her voice defined the sound of rock and roll.
Lee also called Elvis Presley a good friend. ‘I wish he was still here,’ she said, adding that she thought other artists at the time weren’t jealous of his success. ‘We all loved him’; seen in 1959
Lee said she considered herself ‘good friends’ with fellow rocker Elvis.
‘I loved Elvis. He was a good guy. I wish he was still here,’ she said. ‘He certainly changed our industry, and I think we all miss him. One thing I can say about Elvis, I don’t think there was an entertainer that knew him that was jealous of him. We all loved him. We all appreciated him, and we all miss him.’
She expressed similar sentiments about the Nashville musicians she surrounded herself with, and she said it was a ‘shame’ that contemporary musicians were more competitive than artists of her generation.
‘Because you know what? We all have something different to offer,’ she added. ‘We all love what we do, and we should all love each other.’