It’s a cold December morn as he bundles up his son and daughter. Today is the day and the children are eager to go outside to track down that perfect Christmas tree. He will never tell them that he has already found that perfect pine tree on his property. On the other hand, he will always tell them that this is one of his favorite days of the year.
With boots tied tight, hats on their heads and mittens on their hands, together they walk out to the shed to gather up the axe and toboggan. The children have been impatiently asking when they are going to go look for their tree. He gently steers his kids to the north, for that’s where he found the perfect Balsam pine before it snowed last week.
It’s his son who points out the tree first. His daughter rushes over to the tree with the toboggan following behind her. This is the year he teaches his son how to cut down the family Christmas tree. It’s these precious moments with his children that make this holiday so memorable.
With a gentle push the tree lands on the toboggan. Together they enthusiastically bring the tree to the house and carry it inside. In the house, his wife has gathered all the supplies needed to decorate the tree. On the table you will find popped popcorn, string, needles, colored paper, scissors, glue and all sorts of materials waiting for the children’s imaginative minds to create decorations for the tree. It’s a family effort to create a Christmas filled with love and magic.
The children vigorously shed their outdoor clothes and rush to the kitchen table to start their creative process of making decorations for their tree. With his wife’s help, together they get the tree watered and into the stand. His wife joins the children to help with the decorations as he carefully places the lights on the tree. The lights are old, but through his ingenious ways, he is able to stretch these lights out for another year.
Once the lights are adorned, he joins his family to gather up all of the home made decorations. Together, they begin the decorating process. You will never see a tree such as this in those department stores. But, those department store trees don’t have the love that surrounds this one.
With an ooh and an ah, the lights are plugged in and the tree comes to life in all it’s glory. One last thing before the tree is done, he lifts his daughter up and she puts the final touch, a star made of tin foil graces the top.
It’s not Christmas just yet. He walks over to the old turntable and places the needle on that old 45. He walks over to his wife and gently grasps her around the waste and the two begin to dance as their children laugh with delight from the sight. From the speakers that old familiar song begins to play...
Christmas includes many traditions; from decorating the Christmas tree to singing carols. Listening to the song “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” while singing and dancing to it, has become one of those traditions. As we near the 60th anniversary of the first release, I wanted to find out the story behind this iconic song.
“Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” is a fun Christmas carol written by Johnny Marks. Although Marks was Jewish, he specialized in writing Christmas songs. Some of his more notable songs include “Rudolph, The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “A Holly Jolly Christmas,” and “Run Rudolph Run.”
Johnny Marks sent the song to producer Owen Bradley, requesting that a young Georgia peach by the name of Brenda Lee should record it.
“He sent it to Owen Bradley, requesting that I be the one to record it. No one else. He wanted me to record it.” tells Ms. Brenda Lee. “I was only, not even thirteen years old at the time. I really hadn’t had any big, big records to speak of. He was taking a pretty big chance, I think on a great, great song.”
In July 1958, Brenda Lee went into a recording studio to record “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree.” Lee was joined by guitarists Grady Martin and Hank Garland, drummer Buddy Harman, saxophone player Boots Randolph and more.
“I loved the song when I first heard it. We all did. Owen Bradley, all the musicians, we all loved it!” shares Ms. Lee. “Owen had, much to my surprise, had decorated the studio. It was the middle of July when we recorded it and he had decorated a studio in Christmas, with a Christmas tree and Christmas lights, all kinds of Christmasy stuff. It was great!
I think we did it in a couple of takes. It was just one of those magical songs where we all got together. Boots Randolf, the sax player, said ‘well I’m gonna play this solo here.’ Grady Martin on guitar and Hank Garland on guitar - the guitar intro type thing - said ‘we’ll play these licks here.’ So we just all got in a little circle and we wrote it and we did it. We didn’t have an arrangement. We were all in the studio, all there together, all recording, no punching in, no over dubbing, no coming back and doing anything - it was just all done at the same time. To me it was [the best way of recording]. It still is the same way I record today.”
“Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” single was released on October 19, 1958. The “B” side of the single included Brenda’s “Papa Noel.” The original release flopped with only 5,000 copies sold. One year later, the song was released a second time. Again, the second release flopped selling just over the original release.
In 1960, Brenda Lee released here signature song “I’m Sorry,” which earned her Number 1 position on Billboard’s Pop Chart. It was this success and her rising popularity that finally drew attention to “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” song. Later that year, the third release of the song finally resulted in over five million copies sold. The song peaked at Number 14 on Billboard’s Hot 100 Pop singles chart and continues to sell well during subsequent holiday seasons. In December 1965, the song peaked it’s highest at Number 3 on Billboard’s Christmas Singles chart. As of December 25, 2011, Nielson SoundScan estimated total sales of digital downloads at 679,000 units, thus placing it at number four on the list of all-time best-selling Christmas digital singles in SoundScan history.
“Well, much like all the goals that I had on anything that I recorded, I had recorded it to make it the best that I could make it. To sing it the best that I could and to make the writer proud of what he had written.” explains Ms. Lee.
Writer Johnny Marks was quite proud of Ms. Lee’s performance of the song. The two became good friends and stayed good friends up to Mark’s passing in 1985.
Although each Christmas the song becomes popular again, the sales have diminished over the years. Then on November 16, 1990, the movie Home Alone was released. The song “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree,” was included in this ever popular film and introduced a whole new generation of fans to this iconic Christmas song.
“I didn’t know that Home Alone was gonna include the version of the song.” humbly shares Ms. Brenda. “But it was wonderful, because it opened it up to whole new era of young people that didn’t know it. So it was wonderful! It was great! They did the whole song, which was unheard of! They did the whole version!”
Brenda Lee’s version of the song was also included in the 2007 film, Deck The Halls, starring Matthew Broderick and Danny DeVito. However, only the main lyric portion of the song is included in the film.
For decades, Brenda Lee’s recording was the only notable version of the song. Ms. Lee’s version is so notable as she performs it with such youthful banter that it brings out the joyful child in each of us. Through the years many entertainers have recorded their own versions, however none match to Brenda Lee’s.
“I’ve heard some of the versions, but I haven’t heard all of them. But I have heard some of them.” shares Ms. Brenda. “I’m one of those artists that I always think the original is always the best. Not because it was sung better or played better or whatever. But it’s the first one. It’s the one you relate too. It’s the first one.
Owen Bradley always had a saying - ‘If you couldn’t do it better than the original, don’t do it!”
On December 11, Ms. Brenda Lee will turn 71 years young. Today, she continues to perform selected cities as well as on The Grand Ole Opry.
“They love it! They love it!” explains Ms. Brenda about performing the song. “Because I don’t do it until the end of the show, it’s the last song. So, I think they’re thinking the whole show - when is she going to do it? They even yell out ‘Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree!’ So I think they’re thinking is she going to do it? I guess she’s not going to do it! Then we close with it! I save ‘I’m Sorry’ and ‘Rockin’’ ‘till last.”
Since the songs’ release, our society has changed so much. However, one thing is still clear - when it comes to Christmas and Christmas music, we still resort back to the old ways. This song has faced the test of time and still keeps coming back.
“Oh golly, society has changed so much, ideas have changed so much, attitude, things have gotten more complicated - I would hope that it [the song] would make someone happy and bring just a bright light in their day when they played it.” shares Ms. Brenda.
Very few entertainers are noted for one iconic song that has survive the test of time. Can you imagine being noted for a Christmas song?
“It’s something that I thought would never happen. I always wanted to be well known for a song.” explains Ms. Lee. “A Christmas song was certainly not one that I would be remembered by. But I’ll take it! It’s a great song. It’s a very beloved song. It’s a happy song. Kids and adults and everybody between love it and it makes me happy that it makes them feel good. It’s a feel good song and you strive for those!”
2018 will mark the 60th anniversary of the original release of this iconic song. There are no current plans for a special release, however, I hope that everyone will celebrate Johnny Marks and this incredible song, the musicians who played on it and of course the angelic youthful vocals of Ms. Brenda Lee.
“It’s been a blessing. The old adage proves true that you know wonderfully written songs by a great writer withstands the test of time. I was lucky enough to be the artist to get it. Of course it’s been recorded by many artists, but I was the first artist to record it and to be known for it. It’s unbelievable that I would have a Christmas standard because that’s just unheard of in the Christmas field of records.
And as I always say - keep on rockin’!” - Ms. Brenda Lee.
(This article was printed in the November / December 2015 issue of Strictly Country Magazine.)
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