ATLANTA — "I knew the song was good, I knew the song was special, but I never dreamed that it would be the song that it is," Brenda Lee said.
The song is “Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree,” as iconic a Christmas song as there is, and Lee is its remarkable performer. She was born Dec. 11, 1944 in Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, and turned 77 on Saturday.
“My Atlanta roots run deep in that Georgia red clay,” Lee told me, with the distinctive powerful voice that took her from southern poverty to the top of American music.
Her landmark career began on Atlanta television and radio, and led her to being the top-charting solo female vocalist of the 1960s.
She sang rockabilly, pop and country music, and had 47 U.S. chart hits during the 1960s - ranking fourth in that decade, surpassed only by Elvis Presley, The Beatles and Ray Charles.
The Beatles, as it happens, once opened for her. She was an influence for the "Fab Four," and Lee was friends with John Lennon.
Driving to work last week, I was singing along to her evergreen rockabilly yuletide anthem in my SUV. When I arrived at 11Alive, the song was still rocking around my head, so I called the legendary performer at her home in Nashville.
Lee’s husband of 58 years, Ronnie Schacklett answered and told me his wife was out Christmas shopping, but I could call back after the early news ended in Atlanta.
“The song was written by Johnny Marks, who had written 'Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer' and 'Have a Holly Jolly Christmas.' As hard as Johnny wanted to write regular songs, nothing would come out of him but Christmas,” she said with a smile in her voice.
In 1958, Lee was called to the Music Row Nashville office of the legendary producer Owen Bradley. Marks had written a rockabilly Christmas song for Brenda. The publisher had passed it on to Bradley.
Only 14 years old at the time, Lee loved what she heard.
“Owen (Bradley) got it, played it for me, I loved it, I don’t know if either of us ever thought that it would become such a loved song," she said.
In July 1958, the recording session was scheduled. Bradley had assembled great musicians.
The vaunted Nashville A-Team was ready to rock, the twanging guitars of Hank Garland and Grady Martin plus the raucous sax solo by Nashville icon Boots Randolph.
The song was recorded in Bradley’s fabled Quonset Hut, two minutes and eight seconds long.
Decca released it as a single that November, but it sold only 5,000 copies, and didn’t do much better in 1959. It started to gain traction in subsequent years, eventually selling millions of copies in the 1960s.
“What really catapulted the song,” said Lee, “was the movie 'Home Alone.' A friend called me and said, 'Have you seen the movie? It’s a big part of it. They are playing the entire song.'"
I asked if she ever sings the great song for her family as they gather around the tree.
“I’ll sing it if I’m asked, and sometimes we go caroling around the neighborhood, and yep, I’ll bring it out then," she said.
Do people recognize you when they hear your voice caroling?
“Sometimes, and sometimes they close the door, it’s a mixed bag,” Lee replied with a laugh.
"Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" is her signature song, and she performs it at concerts year-round.
She said she wanted to add a special message for Georgia: “Go Dawgs! My cousins, aunts, uncles, brothers - everybody is in Georgia. My daughter is a UGA graduate, and I have a jersey of Herschel Walker.”
“Tell everyone in Atlanta Merry Christmas! and keep on rocking!”