Brenda Lee may not have the immediate recognition of some 1960s music stars, but when Christmas comes around, her iconic song “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is sure to fill the air. At the age of 78, Lee, who first stepped onto the stage before she could even drive, remains a prominent figure in music, celebrated for her powerful vocals that led to “unprecedented international popularity” as the most successful female artist of the 1960s.

Standing at a mere 4 feet 9 inches, Lee’s voice belied her petite stature, capturing the hearts of fans when she was just 12 years old. Born Brenda May Tarpley in 1944, she began her musical journey in the late 1940s, gained immense popularity in the 1950s, and, over a career that commenced before she even left elementary school, topped the charts an impressive 55 times, earning her the title of the most successful female recording artist of the 1960s.

Lee faced early challenges when, at the tender age of eight, her father, a construction worker, tragically lost his life at work. This marked a turning point for the young Brenda, who, in the face of adversity, assumed the role of the family’s primary provider, a responsibility she took on after changing her last name to Lee.

Taking care of her younger brother, big sister, and mother—employed as a cotton mill worker—was not just a duty for Brenda Lee but something she truly wanted to do. At a young age, she found joy in making her first $20, knowing it could make a difference for her family. She expressed, “Even at that young age, I saw that helped our life. It put some food on the table. It helped, and I loved it.”

Born in Atlanta, Brenda Lee, often referred to as a “pioneer of early rock and roll” by the Georgia Encyclopedia, achieved “unprecedented international popularity in the 1960s.”

Despite her incredible success, Lee remains remarkably humble and credits those who played a part in her journey. When asked about being a legend, she responded, “I don’t think of myself that way! 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.”

In 1956, Brenda Lee joined country star Red Foley for a show at the Bell Auditorium near her home in Augusta, where she delivered a powerful rendition of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya.”

Brenda Lee’s career soared after being signed to appear on Red Foley’s Ozark Jubilee, a country music show, where her exceptional talent and sassy demeanor won the hearts of millions of viewers despite her young age of 12.

In the same year, Lee signed with Decca Records. The following year, she moved to Nashville, Tennessee, and skillfully fused country with rhythm and blues, marked by her unique hiccupping vocals. She recorded early rockabilly classics such as “BIGELOW 6-200,” “Little Jonah,” and “Let’s Jump the Broomstick.”

When asked if she felt nervous performing in front of large crowds as a young girl, she responded, “No, not really. Nobody ever told me to be nervous. The stage always felt like home to me because I had been in front of people ever since I was 3 years old, singing to people. So it was a very comfortable spot for me.”

In 1957, Lee earned the nickname “Little Miss Dynamite” for her powerhouse recording of the song “Dynamite.” In 1958, she released “Rockin’ around the Christmas Tree,” a holiday standard that transcended genres and generations, becoming a timeless classic when she was only 13. Reflecting on the song, she said, “I knew it was magical.”

Over the next few years, Lee continued to make chart-topping hits like “Sweet Nuthin’s,” “All Alone Am I,” and “Fool #1.” Despite her success, her songs often contradicted her real-life experience as a young girl, as her mother did not allow her to date, and she graduated high school without experiencing the heartbreak of young love.

Brenda Lee’s success continued into her teenage years with hits like “I’m Sorry” and “I Want to be Wanted,” both expressing sentiments of love and desire when she was still in school. At the age of 18, she met Ronnie Shacklett, and they have been happily married for 60 years.

Lee’s life on the road as a young performer presented challenges. Celebrating her 12th birthday in Las Vegas, she reflected on her loneliness and the limitations imposed on her due to her age. Unable to walk through a casino, she was escorted through the kitchen and the showroom. Despite these restrictions, Lee found solace on the stage, where she felt the most joy.

Expressing the yearning for a more typical childhood, Lee stated, “Many times, I yearned to be with my friends rather than be out there on the road.” However, she also formed unique connections with fellow musicians on tour, such as John Lennon, whom she described as extremely intelligent, acerbic with his jokes, and a gentle person. Learning that The Beatles were fans of her music later left her “floored.”

Brenda Lee’s circle of friends includes iconic figures like Elton John, who was stunned upon hearing her perform for the first time. She has also danced with Elvis Presley and maintained a friendship with Little Richard since the 1960s. In 2019, both Lee and Little Richard received Distinguished Artist awards at the Governor’s Arts Awards, marking Richard’s last public appearance before his death in May 2020.

Reflecting on her friendship with Little Richard, Lee expressed her deep appreciation for his music and the impact it had on her. She attended the event with a profound sense of gratitude, acknowledging that her success, both personally and professionally, is owed to her husband, whom she married in 1962. Lee attributes the blessings in her life to God, emphasizing the qualities of integrity, honesty, love, protection, and care that she found in her husband as a divine gift.

Brenda Lee continues to be an influential figure in the world of country music, contributing to events like Sunday Mornin’ Country and maintaining a lasting impact on both seasoned artists and emerging talents. She serves as a role model for younger stars, including Taylor Swift, who penned a highly personal essay titled “Rare Peer” in the book “Women Walk the Line, How The Women In Country Music Changed Our Lives,” reflecting on Brenda Lee’s influence.

While Lee has retired from performing, her legacy endures, especially during the Christmas season, thanks to her timeless hit “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” The song has become a Christmas staple for 65 years and counting, experiencing a resurgence in popularity in 2019 when it reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, nearly six decades after its recording. Lee reflects on the surreal experience of hearing her own song while shopping in a department store, considering it a wonderful and enduring gift.

It’s incredible that decades later, Brenda Lee has provided fans with such happy music! “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” is still a favorite and makes me wish for the holidays! What are your favorite memories of Lee?