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Brenda Lee talks about her new Billboard Hot 100 hit — which came out 65 years ago


And I'm Scott Detrow with a Christmas story 65 years in the making.


DETROW: It starts when an up-and-coming rock-and-roll prodigy named Brenda Lee steps into a Nashville studio and records this track.


BRENDA LEE: (Singing) Rockin' around the Christmas tree at the Christmas party hop. Mistletoe hung...

DETROW: It wasn't an immediate hit, but in the years since, the song has become a holiday classic. For years it's made the Billboard charts each December, scratching the itch for anyone chasing that sentimental feeling.


LEE: (Singing) ...Voices singing, let's be jolly. Deck the halls with boughs of holly. Rockin' around...

DETROW: But for all that success, the song had never managed to hit No. 1 until this year. This month, with a promotional push from Brenda Lee's label, it finally topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart. We're going to revisit my earlier conversation with Lee, who, by the way, is a whole lot bigger than that one holiday hit. When we spoke, she could still barely believe that she had a new No. 1.

LEE: Well, you know what? That is still not connecting with my brain. I'm just so thrilled for the writer. I was very close to the writer, Johnny Marks, and I wish he was here to witness all this. But it's a great song. It's a wonderful song, and, Lord, has it been good to me. I never thought that a Christmas song would be my signature song.


LEE: But it is, and I'm proud of it.

DETROW: You know, there's always a moment to me every November where I'm in the store and I hear a Christmas song for the first time, and I think, oh, all right, it's Christmas season. I'm wondering - do you have a moment each year where you hear yourself in a store or out there, when you hear "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" for the first time for the season? And what does that feel like?

LEE: It still feels pretty surreal. It really does. And when I say that, people say, oh, Brenda, good Lord. That thing came out when you were 12 or 13 or however old you were. I said, but you know what? It never gets old.

DETROW: Can we go back to when you first recorded it? - because you just mentioned right there you were 13 when the song came out, and I think this latest generation of fans have been surprised to learn you were so young because your voice sounds so full in the recording. You do not sound like a 13-year-old. I mean, what was going on in your life at that time? What do you remember about going into the recording studio and recording the song?

LEE: Well, I remember that my great producer, Owen Bradley - he had the air conditioning turned to zero because we recorded it, of course, in the summer. And he had a Christmas tree up, and we just had a great time doing it. You know, good songs are easy to do, and I think we did that one maybe in one rehearsal and one take.


DETROW: You know, this past few weeks, there's been so much attention. You've been climbing the charts. There's been this push to get this to No. 1. And, of course, Mariah Carey is the other singer who, in recent years, has been so identified with the No. 1 Christmas hit. Have you and her had any conversation in recent weeks, I'm wondering?

LEE: No, but I'd love to. I love Mariah. I'm...


LEE: ...A big fan. Her Christmas song is great. You know, there's room for all of us, and...


LEE: ...If it's good, it's everything, so...

DETROW: I - well, I listen to both of you a lot around this time of year, so I appreciate you both as well.

LEE: I bet you do. I bet you get tired of us.

DETROW: No, not for another few weeks (laughter).

LEE: Well, that's big of you. Thank you so much (laughter).


LEE: (Singing) ...In the new old-fashioned way.

DETROW: You mentioned before you are totally fine with the fact that this is the song that is in people's minds, but I wanted to talk about the rest of your career, if you're up for it, for a few minutes.

LEE: Absolutely.


LEE: (Vocalizing). (Singing) Oh, yeah.

DETROW: There's an anecdote that's floated around a lot of the profiles that mentions that there was one point in time where The Beatles opened for you.

LEE: That's exactly right. I used to work with the guys when I first started going to England, touring over there and just loved them. I was closest, I guess, to John, knew they were going to be huge, brought back a little acetate that they made for me. And I took it to my record company, and I said, I need you to hear these guys, and I need you to sign them. Well, they turned them down. And, of course, the next thing you know, it's all about The Beatles, so you just never know. But I knew they were good.


LEE: (Singing) A-music's sweet. The lights are low, playing a song on the radio.

DETROW: You know, you had success so young, and so many people who have success so young have a harder time in life. It seems like you've lived a really fulfilling, long life. It seems like things have worked out pretty well. What do you think the trick was to navigating being so famous early on in your teen years and coming out of it seemingly pretty OK?

LEE: Well, I think that the greatest thing was nobody ever told me I was famous. I loved what I did. I loved singing. I loved the whole scope of the industry, and I just wanted to be a part of it. I didn't have to be No. 1 to be happy. And I think when you can get to that place in life, in anything that you do, you're going to be successful.


LEE: (Vocalizing).

DETROW: Of your other hits that people these days might not be as much familiar with, what's your favorite? What's one that we should make sure to include in this segment?

LEE: Well, you need to include "I'm Sorry."


LEE: (Singing) I'm sorry, so sorry, that I was such a fool.

The early stuff 'cause that's really how I cut my teeth and learned what I was doing.


LEE: (Singing) Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, yes.

I appreciate the songwriters that brought them to me. I appreciate the great A Team, the musicians, because they were like my big brothers and the Anita Kerr Singers. It's just listening to all these great guys do their thing and share their talent with me.


LEE: (Singing) Love was blind, and I was too blind to see. Sorry.

And it just don't get any better than that.

DETROW: Well, Brenda Lee, I've got to say I get a sentimental feeling every time I hear your song. And it was truly wonderful to talk to you. Thank you so much for joining us.

LEE: Thank you. Merry Christmas.


LEE: (Singing) You will get a sentimental feeling when you hear voices singing, let's be jolly. Deck the halls with boughs of holly. Rockin' around the Christmas tree - have a happy holiday. Everyone dancing... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.