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Catching up with Brenda Lee: The Perennial ‘Queen of Christmas’

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Brenda Lee, affectionately known as “The Queen of Christmas,” chatted about her latest endeavors.

Brenda Lee
Brenda Lee. Photo Courtesy of Adkins Publicity
Brenda Lee. Photo Courtesy of Adkins Publicity

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Brenda Lee, the “Perennial Queen of Christmas,” chatted about her latest endeavors.

Lee is an international icon. The petite singer known for her big voice and even bigger heart rose from poverty to become a child star and then continued to achieve success over the next six decades across multiple genres of music. 

Even though she’s had success in multiple genres, Lee feels her best-loved hit will always be “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree,” which was released back in November of 1958.

“Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” continues to top the holiday charts year after year.

No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts

Speaking of her holiday classic, it presently sits at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts (64 years after its initial release) right behind “All I Want for Christmas is You.” “Oh my Goodness, did Mariah beat me this year?” Lee said with a sweet laugh. “I love that song, I wrote the writer, and I love everybody that went out and got it. It has been a marvelous thing in my life. It is the gift that keeps on giving.”

She also praised the song’s saxophone player, Boots Randolph, for doing a great job on the sax solo.

Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Darlene Love, who is known for Christmas (Baby, Please Come Home), had kind words about Brenda Lee’s standard holiday tune. Love noted that she performs it in her live show, and shared that it gives her a “wonderful feeling.”

Winner of the 2022 Cecil Scaife Visionary Award

Earlier this month, Lee and fellow Country Music Hall of Famer Ray Stevens were both honored with the coveted “Cecil Scaife Visionary Award,” in an event that was held at Stevens’ CabaRay Showroom in Nashville. “That was a surprise and a shock, and it was wonderful,” Lee said.

Stevens, who was in on the planning of the event, thought he was giving the award to Lee and Lee thought she was giving it to Stevens. “That’s right,” she said with a sweet laugh.

Upon accepting their awards, Stevens and Lee bantered back and forth as only lifelong friends can. The two have known each other since they were 12 (Lee) and 17 (Stevens) years of age, respectively. 

Remembering Loretta Lynn

She also took the time to pay a moving homage to the late “Coal Miner’s Daughter” Loretta Lynn. “We lost our Loretta,” Lee said. “We are all still sad about that, she gave us many, many years and she was a wonderful, wonderful lady. I had met Loretta when I was 14, so her and I went back a long way.”

An iconic career in music

Lee holds the distinction of being the only person to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Halls of Fame as well.

She is also a recipient of the esteemed Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award as well as countless other accolades during her stellar career. Lee signed with the legendary  Decca Records label before her 12th birthday and went on to record such landmark hits as “Sweet Nothin’s,” “All Alone Am I,” “Break it to Me Gently,” “I’m Sorry” and of course, the perennial holiday favorite “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”

Throughout her career, Lee shared stages and earned the respect of the world’s most revered performers. The Beatles opened for her and the lads from Liverpool became good friends with the Southern belle from Atlanta. Elvis Presley and Lee made their Grand Ole Opry debut on the same night.

Always a fighter since the day she was born, Brenda Mae Tarpley arrived in the charity ward of Grady Memorial Hospital in Atlanta, Georgia, weighing only 4 pounds 11 ounces.  “I was little,” she says with a laugh, and notes that at 4 feet nine inches, she still is.  “Back then, they didn’t have everything they have now.  If a baby had breathing problems normally it didn’t make it, but I was born in Grady Hospital and I’m here, so they did something right.”

Lee’s family battled poverty throughout her childhood, and her musical gift became the ticket to a better life for them all. Lee had always loved music and sang along with the radio as soon as she could talk. Her mom would put her up on the counter at the local candy store when she was only three and the tiny tot would fascinate anyone within earshot.

Her big break came when local radio personality Charles “Peanut” Faircloth introduced her to Red Foley. Her powerhouse voice earned Lee a deal with Decca Records in 1956 and she began churning out hits such as “One Step at a Time,” which soared up both the pop and country charts, and “Dynamite,” which earned her the lifelong nickname “Little Miss Dynamite.”

Lee scored nine consecutive Top 10 Billboard Hot 100 hits from “That’s All You Gotta Do” in 1960 through “All Alone Am I” in 1962 which set a record for a female solo artist that was not equaled until 1986 by Madonna.

On the key to longevity in the entertainment business, Lee said, “It’s the people, they are the ones that give you everything. The people have been so good to me.”

Personal life

She married husband Ronnie Shacklett in 1963 and they raised two daughters, Julie and Jolie. These days she enjoys spending time with family and friends. Life is good and she’s grateful for her blessings.

On her New Year’s resolutions for 2023, she said, “To do the best that I can do, and to try to grow.” “I want to try to grow in height,” she said, with a sweet laugh.

Regarding the title of the current chapter of her life, Lee said, “Thank You God.”

On her favorite mottos to live by, Lee shared, “To do what we were put on this Earth for: to do the best that you can do every day, to help people, to love people, and to understand.”

She expressed her utmost appreciation for her fans. “There are not enough words that I can say to my fans. The fans have been so good to me all of these decades. They are a part of who and whatever I am, and I love them,” she said, effusively.

Lee concluded, “I want to wish all your readers a Merry, Merry Christmas, and the best of the coming New Year. I hope it will be the best. Thank you for all of the support over the years. We really appreciate it. Keep on rockin’.”

Markos Papadatos
Written By

Markos Papadatos is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for Music News. Papadatos is a Greek-American journalist and educator that has authored over 21,000 original articles over the past 18 years. He has interviewed some of the biggest names in music, entertainment, lifestyle, magic, and sports. He is a 16-time "Best of Long Island" winner, where for three consecutive years (2020, 2021, and 2022), he was honored as the "Best Long Island Personality" in Arts & Entertainment, an honor that has gone to Billy Joel six times.

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