Brenda Lee may not be a household name like other music stars from the 1960s, but her song “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” has become synonymous with the holiday season. Even at the young age of 78, Lee’s powerful vocals and undeniable talent propelled her to become the most successful female artist of the 1960s.
A Rising Star from the Start
As a young girl, Lee’s voice captivated audiences and she quickly became a fan favorite by the age of 12. Born in 1944 as Brenda May Tarpley, she embarked on her music career in the late 1940s and found massive success in the 1950s. Her unparalleled talent led to an impressive 55 chart-topping hits, earning her the title of the most successful female recording artist of the 1960s.
Despite facing hardships, such as the untimely death of her father when she was only eight years old, Lee never wavered in her determination to support her family. Taking care of her younger brother, older sister, and mother, who was a hardworking cotton mill worker, became her responsibility. She recalls how her first earned $20 made a significant difference in their lives by putting food on the table and helping the family financially.
A Humble Legend
Often referred to as a “pioneer of early rock and roll,” Lee achieved unprecedented international fame in the 1960s. However, despite her legendary status, she remains incredibly humble and attributes her success to the people who supported her along the way. When asked about being a legend, Lee replied, “I don’t think of myself that way! I’m just a girl who’s been really blessed to be doing what I’m doing, and there’s a lot of people who’ve sweated a lot of tears and put a lot of life’s work into me to be able to have my dream. So, if I’m a legend, then they’re legends too.”
A Musical Journey
Lee’s musical journey began when she joined country star Red Foley for a show at the Bell Auditorium in Augusta, Georgia. Audiences fell in love with the sassy 12-year-old, whose talent surpassed her age. She signed with Decca Records in 1956 and moved to Nashville the following year, where she fused country and rhythm and blues to create early rockabilly classics.
Despite her young age, Lee never felt nervous performing in front of large crowds. The stage always felt like home to her, as she had been singing in front of people since the age of three. Performing came naturally to her, and she found comfort and joy under the spotlight.
A Musical Legacy
In 1957, Lee earned the nickname “Little Miss Dynamite” for her energetic recording of the song “Dynamite.” The following year, she released “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” a timeless holiday classic that has crossed genres and generations. Hits like “Sweet Nuthin’s,” “All Alone Am I,” and “Fool #1” further solidified her presence in the music industry.
It is worth noting that many of Lee’s songs were about experiences she had never personally encountered as a young girl. Her mother’s strict rules prevented her from dating, and she graduated from high school without experiencing the typical heartaches of young love. Yet, her undeniable talent allowed her to convey the emotions behind those songs with authenticity and relatability.
A Life Filled with Love and Friendship
Lee’s journey as a young artist on the road came with its share of challenges. Celebrating her 12th birthday in Las Vegas, she felt a deep sense of loneliness. Restrictions on her age prevented her from exploring the city, with her performances being the highlight of her time there. However, she formed connections and made friends along the way, including legendary musicians like John Lennon, Elton John, Elvis Presley, and Little Richard.
Reflecting on her friendships, Lee fondly recalls dancing to Little Richard’s music at sock hops and experiencing the magic that music brought into her life. She remains deeply grateful for the support and love she received from her husband, whom she married in 1962. Lee believes that her successful marriage and her enduring career are blessings from God.
A Lasting Impact
Lee’s influence extends beyond her own era, inspiring younger artists like Taylor Swift, who penned a personal and highly relatable essay about Lee in the book “Women Walk the Line: How The Women In Country Music Changed Our Lives.” Even in her retirement from performing, Lee’s music continues to resonate with audiences, especially during the holiday season. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” released 65 years ago, remains a beloved Christmas staple, and its enduring popularity is a testament to Lee’s remarkable gift.
It is truly remarkable how Brenda Lee’s music has brought joy to fans for decades. As we listen to her timeless hits, particularly during the holiday season, we cannot help but feel the spirit of celebration. What are your favorite memories of Brenda Lee’s music?