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Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree
Winning her first talent show at the age of five in 1949, Brenda Mae Tarpley of Atlanta, Georgia seemed destined for stardom. By the time she was seven, she was performing on a local radio show and a regular on a Saturday afternoon TV show. She turned professional at eight years old when her father died in a construction accident in May of 1953.
By the time Brenda was 10, she was the family’s primary breadwinner with performances on various radio and TV shows and record shops. Her big break happened when she opened a show on February 23, 1956 featuring country music star, Red Foley. At the time, Foley was in Augusta, Georgia promoting his country music show “The Ozark Jubilee.” Foley recalled the moment in Lee’s 2002 biography, Little Miss Dynamite, “I still get cold chills thinking about the first time I heard that voice. One foot started patting rhythm as though she was stomping out a prairie fire but not another muscle in that little body even as much as twitched. And when she did that trick of breaking her voice, it jarred me out of my trance enough to realize I’d forgotten to get off the stage.” (1)
An early appearance by Brenda on The Ozark Jubilee. Red Foley stands in the background.
Photo courtesy of Brenda Lee
Though she was supposed to just sing Jambalaya, the crowd called for an encore that led to three more songs. That night, Foley signed the eleven-year old Brenda to a five-year deal to appear on The Ozark Jubilee. By May of 1956, Brenda (and her mother) signed a recording contract with Decca Records.
Decca wasted no time getting Brenda to Nashville. On July 30th, Brenda met Owen Bradley at Bradley’s Quonset Hut recording studio for her first recording session. Jambalaya and Bigelow 6-200 were the two songs resulted from that day. A single was released but nothing happened with it.
Two releases hit the Billboard Pop and Country charts in 1957. One Step At A Time, entered the charts in the spring reaching #43 and #15 respectively while Dynamite checked in at #57 on the Pop chart during the summer. (2) (3) One more single in 1957 and two releases in 1958 did nothing on the charts. Enter songwriter Johnny Marks.
New York born and bred, Marks was a songwriting anomaly. Although he was Jewish, he specialized in Christmas songs. Among his credits were Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Holly Jolly Christmas, a hit for Burl Ives, and Run Rudolph Run, a holiday staple for Chuck Berry. Noting the success of Jingle Bell Rock by Bobby Helms and the emergence of rock and roll, Marks set out to create a new Christmas song for the teen market.
While visiting a New England beach in the summer of 1958, he observed teenagers dancing to an Elvis Presley song. Later, in his office, he wrote a melody with the beat of Jingle Bell Rock but with lyrics that mentioned as many holiday elements of a traditional Christmas as he could fit into it.
Satisfied with his effort, he mailed the sheet music of Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree to Owen Bradley, fully expecting Bobby Helms to record it. Bradley had other ideas. Another Christmas song would pigeonhole Helms so Bradley decided to record it with an artist in need of a hit.
Photo courtesy of the Album Art Exchange by Mediocrates
On October 19, 1958, Bradley spared no expense on a session for Lee. In order to secure Nashville’s best musicians who worked day jobs, he produced a late night session that included A-Team members Hank Garland and Grady Martin on guitars, Boots Randolph on sax, Buddy Harman on drums all backed vocally by the Anita Kerr Singers.
“I loved the song when I first heard it,” Brenda recalled. “Owen and all the musicians loved it! Owen had, much to my surprise, decorated the studio with a Christmas tree and Christmas lights, all kinds of Christmas-y stuff. It was great!” (4)
Using a method common in Nashville at the time, Bradley played the demo for Lee and the rest of the group. Once they were familiar with Rockin’, the musicians worked out their riffs, Kerr decided on the harmonies and Lee looked over the lyrics. In less than thirty minutes, the group came together to play through and coordinate their take on the song. With just two microphones in place, Bradley counted down and the session began. In less than an hour, Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree was finished. (5)
Decca, thinking they scored a holiday hit for the second consecutive year, promoted the song aggressively. But without Lee having any footing on the Pop and Country charts and no radio play, the song was ignored. Selling fewer than five thousand copies, the release was a major disappointment to the label, the artists and the writer. Marks even promoted the song to other artists but no one was interested.
Owen Bradley still believed in Brenda Lee and his faith was rewarded. By early 1960, a song titled Sweet Nothin’s hit the Pop Top Ten in 1960. In May, she struck gold with I’m Sorry, hitting #1 on the Pop chart. Her next release in the fall, I Want To Be Wanted, also reached #1. Approaching the holiday season, Brenda was the hottest female act in the country.
Brenda posing with Owen Bradley around 1960.
Photo courtesy of Getty Images.
Bradley called Decca and suggested they give Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree another spin. With her recent success, TV appearances and sellout concerts, DJ’s played the song—this time, the song hit #14 on the Pop Chart and was on its way to a successful run that finds the song on holiday radio playlists around the world today. In 2016, the song entered the Billboard chart on December 24 eventually reaching #27 two weeks later. (6) As of November 25, 2016, Nielsen SoundScan estimated total sales of the digital track at 1,000,000 downloads, placing it fifth on the list of all-time best-selling Christmas/holiday digital singles in SoundScan history. (7)
From 1957-1973, Brenda Lee entered the Pop Chart with fifty-five songs, hitting the top ten a dozen times and claiming the #1 song twice. (2) She placed thirty-five songs on the Billboard Country Chart, mainly from 1973-1985. Her last entry in 1997 was Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree. (3) At 73, she still performs around a dozen concerts a year. She includes Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree as an encore.
Here's Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree in stereo.
1) Lee, Brenda; Oermann, Robert K.; Clay, Julie (2002), Little Miss Dynamite: the Life and Times of Brenda Lee, Hyperion.
2) Whitburn, Joel, Top Pop Singles 1955-2002, Pages 402-403.
3) Whitburn, Joel, Top Country Singles 1944-2001, Pages 192-193.
4) Singerhouse, Gina Kay, Strictly Country Magazine, Celebrating nearly 60 years of this iconic song, November/December issue, Link.
5) Collins, Ace, Stories Behind The Greatest Hits Of Christmas, 2010.
6) Billboard Hot 100. 2016.
7) Staff, Billboard (November 25, 2016). What Are the Top-Selling Holiday Songs? Billboard Magazine.
Photo courtesy of Brenda Lee.
© 2017 Jerry Reuss