Today (December 11th) marks the 71st birthday of Brenda Lee, who was just 13 years old when she first recorded “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” in 1958. The song has gone on to be recorded by hundreds of artists, making it one of the most successful Christmas songs of all time. The song was penned by Johnny Marks, a writer who specialized in holiday tunes, having also penned perennial favorites “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” “Run Rudolph Run” and the melody for “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” among several others.
Lee’s lively rendition may be the standard against which all other versions are judged but that certainly hasn’t stopped hundreds of others from putting their spin on the song. Covers have been released by acts as diverse as the Partridge Family, Green Day, Bill Haley and His Comets and Cyndi Lauper. LeAnn Rimes, Toby Keith, Patty Loveless (with the Chipmunks), Vince Gill and Alabama are just a few of the country artists who have recorded it.
Ahead of the 2008 Christmas holiday, the Grand Ole Opry — which was taking place at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium — featured new Opry member Carrie Underwood (inducted in May of that year) performing a festive version of “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” with Martina McBride (an Opry member since 1995) and singer-dancer Julianne Hough.
Although Underwood was nursing a bad cold that December night, that didn’t stop the powerhouse vocalist from taking the lead verse on the familiar tune, followed by Hough and then McBride. Just over two minutes in the length, the performance ends with the trio holding on to the song’s final note for a few seconds during which Underwood holds the mic from her mouth at arm’s length but can still be heard nailing her part in spite of being under the weather. The singer continued the Christmas theme with a flawless take on the reverent “Do You Hear What I Hear,” while McBride performed a spine-tingling a cappella version of “O Holy Night.”
Brenda Lee, who was nicknamed “Little Miss Dynamite” because of her powerful voice at such a young age, topped the pop charts twice by the time she was 15 and would also go on to have several high-charting country singles. She has since become one of only a handful of artists enshrined in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Rock & Roll Hall as well. Her original version of “Rockin'” features Nashville A-team musicians Boots Randolph on saxophone, Buddy Harman on drums, and Grady Martin on guitar. The single, while not a hit when it was first recorded, was a Top Fifteen pop hit when re-released in 1960.
At 71, Brenda Lee continues rockin’ all year long. Although she has lived in Music City for decades, she performed her first-ever full-length concert in Nashville earlier this month at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum as part of their “Deck the Hall” series of holiday-related events.