Brenda Lee, though her name may not be as widely recognized as some other music stars from the 1960s, has left an indelible mark with her iconic holiday song, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” At the young age of 12, Lee’s powerful vocals propelled her to unprecedented international popularity, making her the most successful female artist of the decade.
Despite her petite stature of only 4 foot 9, Lee captured the hearts of fans early on. Born Brenda May Tarpley in 1944, she began her journey in the late 1940s and achieved immense fame in the 1950s. Remarkably, her chart-topping success, with 55 number one hits, occurred while she was still in elementary school.
Lee’s journey to stardom was not without challenges. At the age of eight, she tragically lost her father, and she became the primary provider for her family. Taking care of her younger siblings and working to support her mother, a cotton mill worker, became her purpose. Even at a young age, Lee found joy in helping her family, and her early earnings brought food to their table.
Despite her remarkable achievements, Lee remains remarkably humble and credits the support and hard work of those who believed in her. When asked about being a legend, she modestly replied, “I’m just a girl who’s been really blessed to be doing what I’m doing, and there’s a lot of people who’ve sweated a lot of tears and put a lot of life’s work into me to be able to have my dream. So, if I’m a legend, then they’re legends, too.”
Lee’s musical journey began in 1956 when she joined country star Red Foley for a performance in Augusta. Her talent, well beyond her years, captivated millions of viewers on Foley’s country music show, Ozark Jubilee. Following this breakthrough, Lee signed with Decca Records and moved to Nashville, where she merged country and rhythm and blues, creating early rockabilly classics.
While her songs often reflected experiences beyond her youth, Lee’s personal life differed. Her mother didn’t allow her to date, and she graduated from high school without experiencing the heartbreak of young love. At the age of 16, she sang about love’s cruelty in “I’m Sorry” and expressed her desire for genuine kisses in “I Want to Be Wanted.” These hits resonated with audiences, showcasing Lee’s maturity as an artist.
Throughout her career, Lee formed lasting friendships with notable musicians. She bonded with John Lennon during a 1962 show in Germany, describing him as intelligent and gentle. She also counted Elton John and Little Richard among her friends, cherishing their musical connections.
With a career spanning decades, Lee’s faith has been an essential aspect of her life and success. She credits God for guiding her choices, including her 60-year marriage to her husband, whom she married in 1962. Lee’s influence extends beyond her own accomplishments, serving as a role model for rising stars like Taylor Swift.
Though retired from performing, Lee’s legacy endures, particularly during the Christmas season with her timeless hit, “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” The song continues to captivate audiences, reaching new heights on the charts even 65 years after its recording. For Lee, hearing her own voice in department stores while shopping remains a surreal and cherished experience—a wonderful gift that she appreciates deeply.