Brenda Lee’s name might not be as well-known as some of the other music icons from the 1960s, but when you think about Christmas, you’ll recall her song and begin humming its upbeat melody, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
As the most famous female musician of the 1960s, Lee, now 78, achieved “unprecedented international popularity” despite not being old enough to drive when she first entered the stage.
When she was just 12 years old, Lee, whose voice belied her 4-foot-9 frame, became a fan favorite.
Brenda May Tarpley, born in 1944, got her start in the late 1940s, became huge in the 1950s, and over her career–that started before she left elementary school–she topped the charts 55 times, earning the title as the most successful female recording artist of the 1960s.
When Lee was only eight (according to Rolling Stone), her father, a construction worker, was killed at work and little Brenda–who then changed her last name to Lee–became the family’s primary provider.
She wanted to care for her mother, a cotton mill worker, her older sister, and her younger brother rather than doing it out of obligation.She claimed that she was overjoyed to have earned her first $20 to support her family. “Even at that young age, I noticed that helped our livelihood,” Lee remarked, adding “It put some food on the table. I adored it and it was helpful.
The Atlanta-born chanteuse, called a “pioneer of early rock and roll,” by the Georgia Encyclopedia, achieved “unprecedented international popularity in the 1960s.”
But, an incredibly humble human, Lee credits those who helped her achieve her dreams. When Christianity Today asked what she thinks about being a legend, Lee said “I don’t think of myself that way!” She continued, “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.”
In 1956, the young girl joined country star Red Foley for a show at the Bell Auditorium near her home in Augusta, and she belted out “Jambalaya,” by Hank Williams.
The spunky 12-year-old, whose skill was developed much above her age, was subsequently signed to appear on Foley’s Ozark Jubilee, a country music program, where millions of people fell in love with her.
The following year, Lee relocated to Nashville, Tennessee, where she recorded early rockabilly hits including “BIGELOW 6-200,” “Little Jonah,” and “Let’s Jump the Broomstick.” In the same year that she signed with Decca Records, Lee also moved to Nashville.
When asked if she ever felt anxious playing in front of large crowds as a little child, she replied, “No, not really. I’ve never been warned to be anxious. I had been performing in front of people since I was three years old, so the stage had always made me feel at home. As a result, I felt extremely comfortable there.
For her diminutive powerful rendition of the song “Dynamite” in 1957, Lee got the moniker “Little Miss Dynamite,” and when she was just 13 years old in 1958, she produced “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” a genre- and generation-crossing holiday classic.
“I knew it was magical,” she told Rolling Stone.Over the next couple of years, she charted with hits like “Sweet Nuthin’s,” “All Alone Am I,” and “Fool #1.”Most of her songs, however, contradicted her experience as a young girl. Her mother didn’t let her date and she graduated high school not understanding the heartbreak of young love.
In the back-to-back successes “I’m Sorry” and “I Want to Be Wanted,” which she sang while still in school, she made the lyrics “love could be so cruel” and “I want his lips to really kiss me” when she was just 16 years old.She also met Ronnie Shacklett when she was 18, and the two have been happily married for 60 years.
Life on the road for Lee as a youngster had its difficulties. She celebrated her 12th birthday in Las Vegas and speaking with the Las Vegas Journal, Lee explained her loneliness.
“Of course, I wasn’t even allowed to walk through a casino, I was so young. So I really didn’t even know what a casino looked like. They took me in the kitchen, then into the showroom. And then when my show was over, I was brought back out through the kitchen and back up to my room. Children weren’t allowed … in the casino area.” She continued, “There wasn’t anything to do in Vegas for a kid. The most fun I had was on the stage.”
Speaking on what she missed out as a child, the award-winning Lee said, “Many times, I yearned to be with my friends rather than be out there on the road.”
It turns out that she established new friends while traveling, such as with the band that opened for her at a 1962 performance in Germany. She says with ease, “I hung out with John,” referring to John Lennon. He was a nice man who was nevertheless incredibly brilliant and scathing in his humor. I was shocked to learn that they afterwards claimed to be lovers of my music.
Who else is in her group of close friends?When he first saw her perform, Elton John exclaimed, “I was just stunned. I doubt I’ve ever heard anything like it before. She also shared a dance floor with Elvis Presley and has known Little Richard since the 1960s.
At the Governor’s Arts Awards in 2019, the two were recognized, and each artist was given a Distinguished Artist award. Richard made his final public appearance before passing away in May 2020 at age 87.
Honoring her friend, Lee wrote: “I had been dancing to Little Richard’s music at sock hops forever. How to summarize magic? … I didn’t understand the words, or what they meant, I just knew that I loved how that music made me feel.” The Hall of Famer continued, “I’m sure he’s in heaven, he was such a man of God.”
Lee, who places a strong emphasis on her faith, credits her husband—whom she wed in 1962—for much of her success, both personally and professionally.The rest, according to her, is due of God. “He protected me when I picked my husband. I desired a partner who would love me, have moral character, be trustworthy, and take good care of me. I discovered that. And I can only credit God for that.
Lee is also a big part of Sunday Mornin’ Country, a faith-based joint event with CMA Fest, which is going strong after 40 years.
She serves as an inspiration for a lot of new performers, including Taylor Swift, who contributes a “highly personal essay” and a chapter titled “Rare Peer” to the book “Women Walk the Line, How The Women In Country Music Changed Our Lives.”
Even though Lee has stopped singing, he is still adored today, especially around Christmas because of the song “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” which has been a tradition for more than 65 years.
In 2019, the song hit No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, 59 years after it was recorded. Lee told the New York Post, “It’s crazy to be shopping in a department store and hearing yourself sing at the same time. It’s pretty surreal. … It’s just been a wonderful, wonderful gift.”
It’s amazing that Brenda Lee has still given listeners such upbeat songs decades later! Still a favorite, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” makes me long for the season! What are your most treasured Lee memories?