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Country

Brenda Lee Talks ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’ Finally Topping Hot 100 & ‘Home Alone’ Pushing It ‘Over That Hill’

"It turned out to be magic. It really did."

Brenda Lee

Brenda Lee

Alexa King Stone

On Monday (Dec. 4), Brenda Lee made history when her classic holiday chestnut, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time — 65 years after the song’s release.

Lee, whose indomitable spirit and powerful voice, even as a child, earned her the nickname “Little Miss Dynamite,” recorded “Rockin’” when she was just 13. Now, at age 78, she’s watching as the song, promoted by major label UMG Nashville, has reached the pinnacle of Billboard’s all-genre chart. In the process, the song has become only the third holiday song to reach No. 1 ever on the Hot 100.


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“I like that God has given me that favor that I can stand aside and look and know that it wasn’t just me; that it’s a conglomerate of a lot of people that made the song what it is,” Lee tells Billboard, seated in the downtown offices of label UMG Nashville, just after UMG Nashville chair/CEO Cindy Mabe revealed the news of the song’s new peak.

“I’m happy for everybody here that’s worked so hard to make this happen because in today’s world, everything moves so fast and furious. But I’m telling you this: My label has come to bat,” Lee said.

Produced by Owen Bradley, “Rockin’” was initially released in 1958, though the song’s initial chart impact was modest. Lee earned her first two No. 1 Hot 100 hits in 1960, with “I’m Sorry” and “I Want to Be Wanted.” Bolstered by those successes, “Rockin’” reached an original peak of No. 14 in December 1960. Between December 2019 and last year, the song would spend nine weeks at No. 2 on the Hot 100, behind only Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

Lee recorded “Rockin’” in the heart of Nashville’s Music Row, at Bradley’s Quonset Hut, her mature-beyond-her-years voice paired with the song’s rockabilly holiday feel, creating what would become her signature song.

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“The producer cut the air way down in the studio,” Lee recalled. “He had a big Christmas tree and everyone was there — the Anita Kerr Singers and the A-team [of revered Nashville studio musicians], as we called them. It was like a little touch of magic kind of sprinkled in, and it turned out to be magic. It really did.”

Johnny Marks, the songwriter behind other holiday classics including “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” also wrote “Rockin’,” with Lee in mind for the song.

“He was such a gentle soul,” Lee recalls of the late songwriter, who died in 1985. “He was Jewish and didn’t even believe in Christmas, and all that would come out of him was Christmas music. He told me he was laying on the beach in New York and I guess he took a nap or something and when he woke up, he saw the pine trees were kind of swaying. I said, ‘You got pine trees on the beach in New York?’ He said, ‘Yeah and I thought the pine trees are rocking and he went home and came up with ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.’

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“I talked to him almost every week, and he was so funny. His first line would be, ‘Brenda, just thought I’d call. There’s not a lot of us old-timers left,’ and I’d think, how old does he think I am?” she said with a giggle. “But he was so precious and so sweet, and just a good guy.”

In 1990, “Rockin’” became a favorite holiday song for a new generation when it was featured in the Macaulay Culkin film Home Alone.

“That’s the catalyst that pushed it over that hill, as we’ll call it. It’s just been a blessing,” says Lee, who noted she watched the holiday mainstay a few nights ago.

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Lee marked the 65th anniversary of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” by filming the song’s first official video, featuring cameos from Tanya Tucker and Trisha Yearwood. The festive clip features Lee lip-synching to her teenage recording of the song, alongside footage of her and Yearwood baking holiday cookies and chatting with Tucker as everyone gathered around a table to enjoy a holiday feast.

“My buds are in there,” Lee says. “We had a ball making it. We filmed it at the producer’s house, and nothing was choreographed, really. We just had fun. They were just precious to do that for me, and I think folks will love it.”

Like Lee, Tucker was herself a star by her teens, and Lee met Yearwood when she was first getting started in the industry in the 1990s.

“They both are just real,” Lee says of Tucker and Yearwood. “They’ve never lost their sense of joy, gratitude and of excitement for what they’re doing. And they help — you call ‘em and they’ll say, ‘Sure, when you want me there?’ Now, there’s probably some moments they’ve got on film that you’ll never see,” she laughs, “but we had a good time. It seemed like it just went like that. We were there for hours filming, but because we’re friends and all, it didn’t seem like a long time.”

As for her own favorite holiday hits — other than her own? “I love to hear ‘White Christmas’ and love to hear Bing Crosby sing. I also love Burl Ives’ ‘A Holly Jolly Christmas,'” Lee says.

This article was first published by Billboard U.S.

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Peso Pluma at the 2023 Billboard Music Awards at The Mayan in Los Angeles, California. The show will air on November 19, 2023 on BBMAs.watch.
Gilbert Flores for Penske Media

Peso Pluma at the 2023 Billboard Music Awards at The Mayan in Los Angeles, California. The show will air on November 19, 2023 on BBMAs.watch.

Latin

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