It must be pretty rare to find anyone who hasn’t had an uninhibited living-room dance to Brenda Lee’s “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree.” Lee’s memorably catchy song has sold more than 25 million copies and been downloaded more than one million times since it was issued in 1958.
A phenomenal song
Her rollicking Christmas hit has also been interpreted by artists as diverse as Miley Cyrus, Bill Haley, and Kim Wilde, but Lee’s remains the ultimate version. While Bob Moore’s bassline makes “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” irresistible from a dancing point of view, the song also features the marvelous saxophone playing of Boots Randolph and some scintillating drumming from veteran session man Buddy Harman, who played with everyone from Elvis Presley to Willie Nelson.
However, Lee’s voice is the making of this record. Phenomenally, her gravelly vocals were recorded when she was just 13, when the Decca single was cut in 1958.
The song was written by the late Johnny Marks, one of the most successful songwriters of festive hits in the history of music. As well as “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” the New Yorker – who studied music in Paris – wrote “Run, Rudolph, Run” (Chuck Berry). “A Holly Jolly Christmas” (Burl Ives), “I Heard The Bells On Christmas Day” (Bing Crosby), and “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” which was a massive hit for Gene Autry, despite Marks dismissing the song as “one of the worst ever written.” Marks, who won a Bronze Star for his courage as a captain in the 26th Special Service Company in the Second World War, was truly a special songwriter.
Atlanta-born Lee recalled the background to her involvement in 2019. “Johnny was lying on a beach, where there were lots of pine trees, when he started writing the song,” said Lee in a television interview. “He finished it back at a motel and rang his music publisher and said, ‘I want Brenda Lee to sing this song.’ I don’t know how that happened. It must have been a God-given thing, because I was only 12 at the time and had not had a lot of success. For some reason he had heard me and wanted me to do it. It has been a blessing because it is a phenomenal song.”
By the time the record was cut, in the summer of 1958, Lee had become a teenager. She enjoyed working with Nashville producer Owen Bradley. “Owen had the studio all freezing cold with the air conditioning, and he had a Christmas tree all set up to kind of get in the mood just a little bit. We had a lot of fun,” Lee told the Chicago Tribune in 2006.
“Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” remains perennially popular. In 2017, a reissue reached No. 9 on the UK Singles Chart, its highest chart position in nearly 50 years.
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