Today, two weeks out from Christmas, you’ve no doubt heard the most lasting hit of Brenda Lee (Brenda Mae Tarpley, b. 1944) several times already, as America does every year. “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” was penned by Johnny Marks, author of the previous holiday hits “Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer” and “Have a Holly Jolly Christmas”. Lee professes bewilderment as to why Marks wanted her in particular to sing it, as she hadn’t had any big hits yet, but it’s no mystery to me. In 1957, when she recorded the tune, she was still a kid, 13 years old, and isn’t Christmas about kids?
Though Lee had just entered her teens at that early juncture, she had been singing for money for about a decade. When she was three the Georgia native sang for coins in stores and on sidewalks. She was nine when her father died, and that’s when her mom began to push her career seriously, and she began appearing on local radio and television. On 1956 she went national with her first single, a cover of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya”, and appearances on Ozark Jubilee and Kraft Music Hall with Perry Como. The following year she was on Steve Allen’s Plymouth Show, and released her next single “Dynamite”, which provided her with her permanent handle, “Little Miss Dynamite”. The nickname took because she was a crackling ball of energy well suited to the rock and roll era, but also because she never grew any taller than 4’9″! Thus her earliest publicity claimed she was still nine years old when she was 13 or 14.
While “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” was released in 1958, it didn’t become a charting hit until 1960, by which time Lee had had several other mjaor hit singles on the pop charts: “Sweet Nothin’s” (1959, #4), “That’s All You Gotta Do” (1960, #6), “I’m Sorry” (1960, #1), and “I Want to Be Wanted” (1960, #1). Then came “Emotions” (1961, #7), “You Can Depend On Me” (1961, #6), “Dum Dum” (1961, #4), “Fool Number One” (1961, #3), and “Break It To Me Gently” (1962, #4) which you may remember as a hit for Juice Newton almost 20 years later. In 1962 she toured the UK and West Germany — the Beatles were her opening act! (She was still younger than George, the youngest of them). She continued to have hits like “Everybody Loves Me But You” (1962, #6), “Heart in Hand” (1962, #15), “All Alone Am I” (1962, #3), “Losing You” (1963, #6), “The Grass is Greener” (1963, #17), “As Usual” (1963, #12), “Is Is True” (1964, #17), “Too Many Rivers” (1965, #13), “Coming on Strong” (1966, #11), “Ride, Ride, Ride” (1967, #37), and “Johnny One Time” (1968, #41).
Thus, as you can see, though she was slipping in the pop charts by the end of the decade, she also laster far longer as a charting artist than almost all of her contemporaries from the original crop of rock and roll stars. By the early ’70s though she failed to stay acrest the wave, though she was to remain popular on the country charts for years to come. She released her autobiography Little Miss Dynamite: The Life and Times of Brenda Lee in 2002.
To learn about the roots of variety entertainment, including TV variety, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous