Brenda Lee’s name may not be as recognizable as some of the other music stars from the 1960s but when you think of Christmas, you’ll know her song, and start humming her catchy tune, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”
When Lee, now 78, first hit the stage, she wasn’t old enough to drive but her powerful vocals steered her “unprecedented international popularity” as the most successful female artist of the 1960s.
Lee, whose voice defied her diminutive stature at only 4 foot 9, became a fan favorite when she was only 12.
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.
Photo of Brenda LEE (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)
Taking care of her younger brother, big sister and mother–a cotton mill worker–was not a duty, but something she wanted to do. She said that she was thrilled when she made her first $20, so she could help her family: “Even at that young age, I saw that helped our life,” Lee said, adding “It put some food on the table. It helped, and I loved it.”
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.
She was then signed to appear on Foley’s Ozark Jubilee, a country music show, where millions of viewers fell in love with the sassy 12-year-old whose talent was developed well beyond her age.
In the same year, Lee signed with Decca Records and the next year, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and fusing country with rhythm and blues–highlighted by her hiccupping vocals–she recorded early rockabilly classics like “BIGELOW 6-200,” “Little Jonah,” and “Let’s Jump the Broomstick.”
When asked if–when as a young girl–she was nervous performing in front of large crowds, she answered: “No, not really. Nobody ever told me to be nervous. The stage always felt like hometown to me because I had been in front of people ever since I was 3 years old, singing to people. So it was a very comfortable spot for me.”
In 1957, Lee earned the nickname “Little Miss Dynamite” for her pint-sized powerhouse recording of the song “Dynamite,” and in 1958, fans heard “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree,” a genre and generation-crossing holiday standard, released when she was only 13.
“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.
Brenda Lee, kissed by Fabian Forte, 1961 / Public Domain
She was only 16 when she said “love could be so cruel” in the song “I’m Sorry” and only 16 when she said “I want his lips to really kiss me” in the song “I Want to be Wanted,” both back-to-back hits when she was still in school.
And when she turned 18, she met Ronnie Shacklett, whom she’s now been happily married to 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.”
Turns out she made new friends on the road, like with the music group that opened for her at a 1962 show in Germany. “I hung out with John,” she says effortlessly, speaking of John Lennon. “He was extremely intelligent, very acerbic with his jokes, just a gentle person. When I found out that they later said they were fans of my music, I was just floored.”
Publicity photo of singer Brenda Lee in 1977.
Who else can be found in her circle of friends?
Elton John, who said after first hearing her perform: “I was just stunned. I don’t think I had ever heard anything like it.”
Also, she’s danced with Elvis Presley and was friends with Little Richard whom she’s known since the 1960s.
In 2019, the two were honored at the Governor’s Arts Awards, both artists receiving a Distinguished Artist award. It was Richard’s last public appearance, he died at 87 in May 2020.
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 leans on her faith, owes a lot of her success–personally and professionally–to her husband, whom she married in 1962.
The rest, she says is because of God. “He was looking out for me when I chose my husband. I wanted somebody with integrity, honesty, and somebody that loved me … and that would protect me and take care of me. I have found that. And I can only attribute that to God.”
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’s also a role model to many young stars, like Taylor Swift, who adds to the book “Women Walk the Line, How The Women In Country Music Changed Our Lives,” a “highly personal essay” and her assessment “of the 1950s pop hitmaker turned country matriarch Brenda Lee, titled Rare Peer.”
Today, Lee, who’s retired from performing, will always be adored, especially at Christmastime for “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” a song that’s been a Christmas staple for 65 years and counting.
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.”
Elaine Stritch, Barbara Cook, Brenda Lee, Margaret Whiting, and Maureen McGovern (Photo by Ron Galella/Ron Galella Collection via Getty Images)
It’s incredible that decades later, Brenda Lee has provided fans with such happy music! “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is still a favorite and makes me wish for the holidays! What are your favorite memories of Lee?