Since 2019, Mariah Carey’s famous song All I Want for Christmas Is You has topped the Billboard Hot 100 at Christmas. But this week, the song was knocked to second place by Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree, a rockabilly tune recorded by Brenda Lee in 1958 when she was just 13 years old. After four years in the No. 2 spot, Lee has finally dethroned Carey. The success comes after Lee released a music video on YouTube to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the song. This, combined with Lee’s endearing presence on TikTok, appear to have turned the tables. Just days before turning 79, Lee is now the oldest artist to have a No.1 song.
Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree was written by Jewish composer Johnny Marks — who specialized in Christmas classics such as Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer despite not celebrating Christmas — and produced by Owen Bradley. It was released on November 24, 1958, but went completely unnoticed for years. In 1960, Lee scored her first No.1 hit with I’m Sorry, while Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree only reached No. 14 on the charts. It received little attention for decades, but that changed in 1990, when it was included in Home Alone, the second highest-grossing film of that year.
“Somebody called me and said, ‘Have you seen the movie Home Alone? You ought to, because they’ve got Rockin’ really featured in it.’ That’s when it really took off with the youngsters. I knew it was special, but you never know what’s going to be a hit — if you did, we’d all have hits every day. It has been a wonderful gift,” she told Billboard in 2019.
“I always thought I’m Sorry would be my signature song. And it’s one of them. But it’s Rockin’. Whenever anybody thinks of Brenda Lee now, it’s Rockin’,” she told the newspaper The Tennessean in 2021.
From poverty to stardom
Born on December 11, 1944, Lee was aware of her wonderful vocal cords from a young age. At the age of five, she won a local singing competition. And at eight she became her family’s main breadwinner when her father, a carpenter by profession, died after a hammer fell on his head. “When dad died, I know it had to have been hard on my mother, to have three children and to have to go work at a cotton mill 16 hours a day,” she told Rolling Stone. “It was never cemented in stone that we were poor, but we knew.”
Her opportunity to go big nationally came in 1956 when she was barely 11 years old. A few weeks after performing the song Jambalaya (On the Bayou) by country singer Hank Williams on the ABC variety show Ozark Jubilee, she was picked up by the Decca Records label. In those times, it was not common for artists to fly internationally, but her manager, Dub Allbritten, organized a tour for her in France in 1959. In the following years, she frequently visited South America, Australia, Japan (where she performed 30 times) and the rest of Europe. In fact, a then-unknown The Beatles opened for her in 1962 at the Star-Club in Hamburg. As John Lennon himself declared some time later: “She has the greatest rock’n’roll voice of them all.” Her idol Elvis Presley thought the same.
Although she had to work nonstop at a very young age, she says that she still enjoyed her childhood. “I had people that cared about me,” she recently told The New York Times, adding that she still went to her high school in Nashville and that Allbritten allowed her to put her social life before her touring obligations. “For a lot of us rural Southerners, like Little Richard and me, we somehow knew, even at our age, that this was our way out,” she explained to Rolling Stone.
In addition to selling 100 million albums and releasing 46 chart-topping songs in the 1960s (a record only surpassed by The Beatles, Elvis, and Ray Charles), Lee also managed to win over teenage girls at a time when male singers dominated the market. In a 2021 interview with Women of Rock Oral History Project, she said she believed she was able to do this because teenage girls identified with her.
The latest success of Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree is an epilogue to the singer’s legendary career. She retired from the stage in 2020 and has no intention of performing live again. “I think I’m making more now than I did when I was singing,” she told The New York Times. With an extensive repertoire that spans genres such as rock, pop and country, the Dolly Parton and Taylor Swift of her generation no longer has anything to prove.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition