Brenda Lee Reflects on Her Record-Breaking No. 1 Hit 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree' (Exclusive)

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The music legend shares memories of recording her Christmas classic (65 years ago!) and opens up about early friendships with the Beatles and Elvis Presley

<p>Alexa King Stone</p> Brenda Lee

Alexa King Stone

Brenda Lee's 2023 music video for "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree'

Brenda Lee kicked off the holiday season in the new old-fashioned way: with a song at No. 1

"Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree‚" the indomitable Nashville-tinged yuletide anthem that she recorded 65 years ago at the age of just 13, reached the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100 earlier this month. It marks both a first for the song and also the first time in recent memory that Mariah Carey's holiday juggernaut "All I Want for Christmas Is You" took second place on the charts during the holiday season.

Lee's achievement will go down in history as only the third holiday song to reach No. 1 on the Hot 100. It also marks her third-ever career No. 1 following "I Want to Be Wanted" in October 1960. The 63-year stretch has earned her a place in the record books as the longest gap between No. 1 songs — an honor previously held by Cher for a quarter century following the ascent of "Believe" in 1999. At 78, Lee is now the most mature musician to reach No. 1, breaking a 59-year record held by Louis Armstrong, who was 62 when "Hello Dolly" became a hit in 1964.

Lee, however, is a musical history book in her own right. The pioneering rock legend spoke to PEOPLE about her friendly rivalry with Carey, her memories of the hilarious "Christmas in July" recording session that yielded the recording-breaking classic and her early friendship with the Beatles and Elvis Presley.

Related: Brenda Lee's 'Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree' Hits No. 1 65 Years After Release

First off, I want to say congratulations!  Take me back to the moment that you learned that you were No. 1. 

Oh, good lord. It was so surreal! I still don't believe it. Even though I know the song is great and written by a great man, after all these years it's just surreal.

“Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree” has come close to reaching No. 1 a few times in the last few years, but it’s always been stuck at No. 2 behind “All I Want for Christmas is You.” Did you ever think that your song would get past Mariah's? 

You know, I don't think in those terms. I'm one of those weird artists that wants everybody to do good, because when everybody does good, we all do good! But “Rockin'” is really close to my heart, and I was hoping that it would do well, like it always has. There's room enough for all of us.

Why do you think it happened this year? Was there something different in the air this year? 

Well, I just think all you guys got on the stick! My record company certainly did. They made it their mission to get “Rockin’” back up there. It's been a concerted effort with all of us and it's just been a lot of fun. Kinda like the music days of yore.

I love the new music video with Tanya Tucker and Trisha Yearwood.

They're two of my best friends. We asked them to do that and said, “Okay, we're turning the cameras on. Y'all do what you wanna do!” There was no script and no direction, but I guess it turned out okay.

You have so many friends, especially nearby neighbors of yours. I read a profile that described you as the honorary mayor of Nashville! Have a lot of fellow singers been reaching out to say congrats the last couple days?

They have. And you know, Nashville's the kind of town where we feel like if one artist does well, we all do good. So we're all rooting for each other. So it’s like, “They like me! They really like me!” [Laughs] My record company is filled with lots of hip, on-the-go young people. They worked really hard and it’s just been a lot of fun.

I know you're close to Dolly Parton. Has she reached out to say congrats yet? 

Oh, yeah. Dolly and I, we talk a lot. I tell you what — she's great. I've known Dolly since we were both 17 or 18 years old. We go back a long, long way. Her husband and my husband went to school together. It's a good relationship.

Have you heard from Mariah yet? Has she passed you the honorary Christmas crown? 

They have not given me the crown, and I'm gonna tell you — if they don't, I'm gonna go get it myself! [Laughs]

[Editor's Note: Carey sent Lee a bouquet of congratulatory flowers shortly after this interview.]

<p>Brenda Lee/X</p>

Brenda Lee/X

I saw a really fun video the other day of you singing “Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree” over the P.A. system of an airplane in the middle of the flight. How did that come to pass? 

We had a lot of turbulence on that flight, and everybody was really nervous. Somebody said, “Brenda, get up and sing “Rockin’!” Before I’d even thought about it, I was up singing. I don't like flying, but that was a fun time for me.

Did you have any inkling when you recorded the song back in 1958 that it would become such a huge part of your life? I mean, you're singing it on airplanes decades later!

No. I knew it was a great song and I was happy to get it, but I never thought that it would be my signature song. Never.

You've recorded a few Christmas songs over the years: “I'm Gonna Lasso Santa Claus” — which is my favorite — and “Papa Noel.” Did you ever think, “Hey, why didn’t ‘I'm Gonna Lasso Santa’ become my signature song? What do you think it is about “Rockin'” that makes it connect with so many generations?

Oh my lord, “I’m Gonna Lasso Santa Claus” — you're going way back. I love it! I just think “Rockin’” is contagious. You know, it's easy to learn, it's easy to sing, and it's just a contagious thing.

What do you remember of the recording session? Didn’t you track the song in the middle of summer? Talk about Christmas in July! 

We did! [Producer] Owen Bradley had the studio [live room] all decked out with Christmas decorations and a Christmas tree. Back then you cut all Christmas songs in the heat of the summer, so Owen had the air conditioner turned down to zero to set the mood. And honey, that Quonset hut got cold! It added to the spirit, though. It was really a lot of fun. 

Courtesy Decca Brenda Lee - "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"
Courtesy Decca Brenda Lee - "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree"

This song has become a part of so many people's Christmas traditions. What were some of your holiday traditions growing up?  

When I was growing up, we were not financially stable. We did the best we could, but we didn't have a lot of accouterments. So, our house was filled with relatives and everybody cooking and stuff like that. Instead of presents, it was more family oriented.

Speaking of houses filled with family, one of the first times I heard “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” was while watching the movie Home Alone.  Does that movie get a lot of play at your house at Christmas?  

Sometimes! A friend called me and said, “Brenda, have you seen that new movie Home Alone?” And I said, “No, why?” They said, “Your song's all over it.” I hung up and thought, “Huh. What song are they talking about?” So I called them back and they said, “‘Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.’ It’s all over it!” And that's really where that song got a big surge. It's sure been good to me — as has the public in keeping it No. 1 all these years. I really appreciate it.

Well, you are now the reigning Queen of Christmas, but you've been the Queen of Rock for much longer. In the ‘60s you had more charting hits than almost anyone, and Billboard named you the top female performer of the decade. I wanted to ask about some famous fans of yours: the Beatles. I know you go way back with them. Are there any memories you’d like to share? 

I go back a long way with the Beatles. I worked with them in their early years when I used to tour England all the time. I just went to Ringo's show. He did a concert here at the Musicians Hall of Fame and we reminisced a little while about stuff. It was a lot of fun. But we were all learning back in those days. It was by the seat of our pants a lot of times, but we were having fun. We played in Germany too, at the Star Club.

John Lennon once said that your voice defines rock and roll. 

Awww, that was so sweet of him. Thank you for sharing that!

I know Elvis was another big fan of yours. What are your memories of him? 

We were good friends. I loved Elvis. He was a good guy. I wish he was still here. He certainly changed our industry, and I think we all miss him. One thing I can say about Elvis, I don't think there was an entertainer that knew him that was jealous of him. We all loved him. We all appreciated him, and we all miss him.

You have such a beautiful community of musicians around you. I don't get a sense of competition at all. I get the sense that it's not like that in the music industry today. 

It's not. And it's a shame that it's not. Because you know what? We all have something different to offer. We all love what we do, and we should all love each other.

That is a beautiful message to end on as we settle in for the holiday. One last question I want to ask you: When it comes to decorating your own Christmas tree, do you have any traditions? 

We have our old ornaments. Half of them are broken because the kids dropped them! We put them up and we remember when we got them. We remember which one belongs to which grandchild or child. Christmas at our house is pretty special.

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