Brenda Lee on Hitting No. 1 With ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,’ After Record-Breaking 65-Year Climb: ‘You Can’t Keep a Good Song Down’

It’s hard to quite think of someone who was as big a veritable child star as Brenda Lee was in the late ’50s and early ’60s a “late bloomer.” Nor can “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” really be considered an underdog song, after its accrual of quintuple-platinum sales over the decades. And yet it’s spent the last several years peaking at No. 2 each December, after spending most of its lifetime not annually charting at all. Now it’s finally No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, 65 years after its release.

The previous record-holder for the longest climb to the top? Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You,” which took a mere 25 years to accomplish what took “Rockin'” nearly three times as long. Not coincidentally, Carey’s song also looked to be the tune that would forever keep Lee’s in second place, possibly eternally, until the Christmas tortoise caught up with the Christmas hare this week.

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Variety spent time with Lee at her home in Nashville in November to talk about the song’s extremely long tail. When “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” unexpectedly made a leap to No. 1 with the release of the latest chart news Monday, we quickly got her back on the phone for an update on just how she was feeling. In a word: jolly. The following exchange combines excerpts from both conversations with the 78-year-old legend, who remains one of the few women to have been inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Hall of Fame.

You know, some of us might be more excited about this going No. 1 than you are.

I don’t know how you could be. If I could jump out of my clothes, I would.

Do you have any idea why the leap finally happened this year?

I do have an idea. I have wonderful people at my company that I’ve been with since I was 10 years old, and there’s youth involved, and they have worked so hard for me. And I have wonderful, wonderful fans that have been with me from the first time I opened my mouth to sing, and they’ve stayed with me, and everybody’s been loyal, and I’m more happy for them than I am for me. You can’t keep a good song down.

You’ve been stuck at No. 2 for a lot of recent years. Did you ever think you’d get past Mariah’s “All I Want for Christmas”? Because that seemed like a serious roadblock.

It’s been a serious roadblock. But you know what, if something’s gonna be in front of you, you want it to be good. And it was.

We’ve seen some article written recently suggesting that the masses might finally experiencing “All I Want for Christmas” fatigue. But by the same token, you would think there might be “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” fatigue, too. Because people had 30 years longer to get tired of that.

Well, you know what? [The appeal] is not necessarily me. (Famed producer) Owen Bradley was such a genius, and had the A Team of musicians, with Boots Randolph, who’s got the (sax solo) on that song, and the Anita Kerr Singers… You put those kind of people together and it’s magic, and it happens every time you play it. I don’t normally listen to myself ever once I’ve recorded a song. This one I can listen to, and I don’t know why. But Owen Bradley, I miss him so badly. It’s just a magical thing for me.

You were so young, pretty much a child star, still, when you did that — do you even relate to that as being you on that record?

I got that song when I was 12. I think it was released in, what, ’58? I think so. No, I was 13. A lot of people say they didn’t realize I was that young. … You know, I can still find Brenda Lee in “Rockin’.” A lot of the songs I did from the time I was 10, if I listen to ’em now, I’m like, oh Lord, what happened? But “Rockin’” is fresh to me, always.

The last few years, there was controversy over the trademark on “Queen of Christmas” and things like that, and in the end, it’s been resolved that anyone can use the term. Do you feel you have merited being called “Queen of Christmas”?

I don’t know. And I don’t worry about that. I just want to be a part of the music world. I want to have good songs and want to do well. If somebody else is No. 1, hey, good for you. Just let me be a part of it.

You recently got another platinum certification, right?

It was a few weeks ago that I got the five-times platinum award from my label on “Rockin’.” And my first thought was, “Oh, I’m gonna call Johnny” — Johnny Marks, who wrote it — but he’s gone. He was the sweetest man, and he wrote so many Christmas standards. We got to be real good friends. He’d call me every day, just about. I’d say, “Johnny, you’re Jewish. You don’t even believe in Christmas!” And he’d start laughing and laughing. He said, “Well, I do now.”

When it comes to pre-Mariah Christmas music, if we’re really looking at the true golden era of holiday records, from the ‘30s through the ‘60s, it seems like people have settled in on this being their favorite. That might not have been apparent — that it would shake out this way — even 15 or 20 years ago. Now half the people who make Christmas albums record it… but, historically, it was getting almost no covers in the ‘70s and ‘80s.

I got a call one day (in 1990) from one of my friends, and they said, “Brenda, have you seen the movie ‘Home Alone’? Your song is all over the place in that.” And I said, “…Which song?” I think that’s when it really got the boost that started it.

You’ve said that, for many years going forward, you didn’t expect “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” to be your signature song.

I did not.

You had so many songs that were year-round hits… It really took decades for it to become the Christmas song that people associated with you first.

I thought “I’m Sorry” would be the one. And then all of a sudden it was “Rockin’.” I just think that I had a magical team with me, with Owen and the Anita Kerr Singers and all the guys that played —  (guitarist) Grady Martin, (bassist) Bobby Moore, (pianist) Floyd Cramer, and then Owen and his brother Charlie Bradley and Selby Coffeen in the engineering room. I mean, how can you miss? I started with them when I was 12, so I was like their little sister. That’s how I felt — very protected and very comfortable. And they treated me like I knew what I was doing and I respected that. So I tried very hard not to disappoint them, because they sure didn’t disappoint me.

I also want to ask about a couple of my other holiday favorites of yours that I pull out every December. “Papa Noel” and “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus” came before this one, right?

You are too funny. [Sings] “I’m gonna lasso Santa Claus, and I know just why, because / I’m going to pull, pull, pull on his ear / Pull, pull and see if it’s real / I’m going to tick-tick-tickle him on his tummy because he laughs /He’s so funny and so fine / When he comes around Christmas time.” I haven’t sung that song, seriously, in so long, I’m surprised I still remember it! I love that little song. I’m proud you mentioned that, because a lot of people think “Rockin’” was the only Christmas song I ever did. What was the other one…?

“Papa Noel.”

Look at him! He knows my catalog better than I do.

When you did “Papa Noel” and “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus,” you were so young, even younger than when you did “Rockin’.” You probably don’t remember recording those…

No, I remember each one of ’em. I was 12 years old. Let’s see, which one was first? I think “Papa Noel” was, and that was kind of a French kind of feel. And then, “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus.” Oh my Lord, when I heard that, I thought I sounded like a chipmunk! I thought, oh God, why did they do that? But those two little songs were good, and they were the entrée, as it were, to “Rockin.’”

Who are some of your favorite entertainers?

It’s funny you should ask that, because… well, the Beatles, for starters. And you knew the Beatles. You’re in the news now from finally making a music video for “Rockin’,” and the Beatles are in the news now with a video for the new song they completed. So you and the Beatles are kind of conjoined, again, in a sense, both making headlines right now, unlikely as that would have been in 2023.

I love that. Come here, I’ll show you something. [We move to her souvenirs and trophies room.] I worked with them in England, and I’m such an idiot about autographs. [She shows off a large autographed photo of the group from the early days.] Isn’t that sweet? That’s how they looked when I worked with them in the ‘60s. You’ll know this place, the Star Club in Germany, and we worked it together and they would be up there singing songs that I never heard. And man, I thought I was pretty smart on what was out and what was doing well {on the charts). John was my favorite, and John came off the stage and I said, “John, where do you all get those songs?” [Assuming they were covers.] He said, “Oh, we write them.” And I almost fell down.

So I said, “Would you give me a tape of some kind to take to my record company?” Because they didn’t have a deal. He said, OK. I wish I had the tape! I took the tape and a picture of them and I went to my company up in New York and I said, “I’ve got a great group. This is a raw-sounding thing, but trust me. They’re great.” So they listened and they said, “You know what? This look will never happen, and this sound won’t either.” And next year they were the biggest thing in the world. I wanted to go up and say, “I told you,” but they didn’t listen. You know, you can’t get somebody to like somebody if they don’t like them.

How long ago has it been that you retired from performing?

Let’s see, I think I retired at about 2000. Maybe it was a little bit later. I didn’t retire because I didn’t love the business, because I do. I love the people in it. I love the musicians, I love the songwriters. But when I retired, the business was a little crazy and I didn’t feel like there was a place for what I was doing. Call it cowardice, call it whatever you want. … I just said, “You know what? I’ve had a great run. I’ve won every award you can win. The people have been so great to me. I’m going out,” and I did, and I haven’t regretted it. Now, if I’m called to do a benefit or if the Hall of Fame wants me to do something, I’ll be there. I’ll go and do that. But I won’t fly, and the getting on the bus and leaving the family for lord knows how long … The singing never got old, but the getting there and the getting back was wearing my body out. And it does everybody.

I was one of the lucky ones that had a great husband that saved the money. He had his own business and what he told me was, one day he said, “Honey, I know you love to sing and you could do it as long as you want to, but if there’s ever a point you don’t, don’t worry about it.” So that gave me the foundation to stand on and say, you know what? I’m going to retire. But if I’m asked to do a special show to raise money, and I’ve done it a lot, I’ll do it. I just won’t go back on the road and do that part of it, and if you don’t do that, you’re not in the industry.

What was it like doing the video for “Rockin’,” where you’re singing along with your 13-year-old voice?

I’m still up in the clouds about them doing it. It was not fancy, but it was real. And Tanya (Tucker) came, and Trisha Yearwood came, and we had little kids and mamas, and it was just fun.

You’re performing on the Opry Christmas special that airs this week. Safe to say you must be doing “Rockin’”?

Would you think? [Laughs.] Yeah, I’ll be doing it for sure.

I’m always rooting for you to do a surprise move and sing “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus.” We have got to find a way to get that to No. 1 for you, someday, too.

Listen, I’m gonna call you and check and see if you’re working on that.

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