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Lee still ‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’

She's been "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" for almost 50 years, but Brenda Lee never tires of her holiday classic — though some listeners might by the time Christmas rolls around.
/ Source: The Associated Press

She's been "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" for almost 50 years, but Brenda Lee never tires of her holiday classic — though some listeners might by the time Christmas rolls around.

"I don't think you ever get tired of the well-written, well-crafted songs," Lee said recently. "They're easy to sing, and they stand the test of time."

Lee was only 13 when she recorded "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" in 1958, starting a career that eventually got her into both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

She's now 62, but she still goes by the nickname "Little Miss Dynamite" and she's still quick with a quip: "Do I look tall and thin?" the 4-foot-9 Lee asked a cameraman before an interview at The Associated Press bureau.

Later, on her way out, she graciously posed for a photo beside the office Christmas tree (Shameless, we know).

"Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" was written by Johnny Marks, who also composed "Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and "A Holly, Jolly Christmas." It was cut in Nashville with famed producer Owen Bradley.

No snow was falling that day. As Lee recalls, it was July.

"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," she said. "We had a lot of fun."

And a lot of success. She recorded "Sweet Nothin's" and some of her other early hits in the same session.

"Rockin'" was released as a single in '58 and again in '59 before it finally took off in 1960 in the wake of her No. 1 smash "I'm Sorry" — one of the first songs in Nashville with a string section, ushering in the "Nashville Sound."

Featuring Lee's boisterous voice and Hank Garland's ringing guitar, "Rockin'" is consistently listed among the most popular holiday songs of all time. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, it's as ubiquitous as poinsettias. The American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) lists it as the 14th most performed holiday song over the past five years.

So far this year, it has played 19,586 times on radio through Tuesday, according to ASCAP.

The song's appeal is obvious to Rose Seaton, station manager at KFFA in Helena, Ark., which plays "Rockin'" on both its adult contemporary FM station and country AM station.

"It's one of those songs that people like to sing along to," Seaton said. "It's upbeat, and people like upbeat Christmas music."

Lee, who was born Brenda Mae Tarpley in Atlanta, became an international star in the early 1960s. The Beatles opened for her. Chuck Berry recorded a song about her.

But like other early rock-and-rollers, she shifted to country and found success with "Big Four Poster Bed" and "Nobody Wins." She was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1997.

"When they told me ... I certainly couldn't believe it," she said. "I would have thought the rock maybe I had a chance, but I really didn't think country that much."

Ironically, her rock 'n' roll induction took longer and almost didn't happen. "I was nominated three times for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the first two I didn't get in, so I figured it's pretty much over."

She was finally chosen in 2002 alongside the Ramones, Talking Heads, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Isaac Hayes, Gene Pitney and old pal Chet Atkins.

Today, she performs about 30 shows a year and sings "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" at every one of them.

"I didn't used to. But about 10 years ago I'd be finishing a show and they'd say, 'You didn't sing Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree,' and I'd say, 'Yeah, but it's not Christmas,' and they'd say 'We don't care.'

"So I put it in and I close my shows with it."