Brenda Lee met The Beatles, Elvis, Judy Garland – ‘I just loved to sing’

This Brenda Lee story continues to be my favorite for Holiday 2023. Her Christmas classic “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time since the song was recorded in 1958. After hanging out in the No. 2 slot for the past few years, she finally took the top spot, dethroning “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” But Mariah Carey isn’t bitter, she sent Brenda congratulatory flowers along with a handwritten note. Now The Guardian has done a profile on Brenda, and my goodness she’s met everyone! Reading the piece was like a who’s who of the mid twentieth century. A few highlights:

This year’s success has been surreal: Lee delivers the song in her inimitable rasp and it taps into perennial Christmassy themes of togetherness, family and nostalgia, but she is mystified as to why it has proved so enduring. “I’m puzzled,” she admits, “but it’s a good puzzle.” This year has been “surreal” she says. “I’m reliving the 1960s. I’m hugely grateful to the fans… I’ve had the same wonderful record company since I was 10 years old. I was just so blessed to have great songwriters. You can’t keep a good song down.”

She just loved to sing: Another TV show, Ozark Jubilee, broadcast from Missouri, catapulted her to national attention and led to a contract with the record label Decca. “I don’t know if I realised the scope of all that,” she says. “I never worried about the business end. I just loved to sing.”

Elvis liked her rockabilly quality: Her early fans included Elvis Presley, who loved her mix of rockabilly and country and saw her perform at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry. She still treasures a photograph she has of them together. “We had a connection because he wasn’t putting it on,” she says. “He was a poor boy from the south who loved his mama and wanted to do good for her.”

The Beatles were her opening act in Hamburg: “I was standing there while waiting to go on and listening to these songs I’d never heard before. When they came off, I asked John Lennon: ‘Where do you get those songs?’ And he said very nonchalantly: ‘Oh, we write them.’ I was flabbergasted and asked if they had a tape I could take to my record company. Of course they turned them down [Decca famously told the Beatles, “Guitar groups are on the way out:], but it was obvious that they were stars.” Lennon later described Lee as “The greatest rock’n’roll voice of them all.”

Judy Garland gave her child star advice: “Don’t let them take your childhood.” But Lee insists she was never waylaid by drink, drugs or scandal. “I was around that stuff but I wasn’t in that stuff,” she says, crediting her humble upbringing and “good people” around her for keeping her grounded. “My mama always said: ‘Don’t get above your raisin’.’”

Taylor Swift sings Lee’s praises: She continues to inspire younger artists, too. An 18-year-old Taylor Swift wrote a tribute to her titled Rare Peer (later published in the 2017 book Woman Walk the Line). “There’s a reason she’s been able to move people to their feet for almost 60 years,” Swift wrote. “Brenda Lee is grace. Brenda Lee is class and composure. Brenda Lee is someone I will always look up to because of the way she shines. As Johnny Cash said in 1983, it’s almost like she’s golden.”

Lee returns the favor to Taylor: “I think I’ll put that on my epitaph!” says Lee when I read it to her. “I’m not done yet, but Taylor is a phenomenon. I first met her when she was 11. She was precocious, smart and she had her head on straight. She knew where she was going and boy has she gone there.”

Rockin’ around the altitude: Recently, a video of her singing Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree on a flight went viral, too. “We hit a lot of turbulence and people were uncomfortable,” she explains. “Somebody yelled out: ‘Brenda, get up and sing.’ So I did.” Such is the potency of Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, you can get a sentimental feeling even when being bumped around at 30,000 feet.

[From The Guardian]

Elvis Presley! Judy Garland! The Beatles! I love that she’s this country kid from a very humble background, and the Beatles are the opening act for her. And I thought I knew Beatles trivia, but I did not know that baby Brenda Lee took their tape to Decca. What a hoot. Reading the full interview I got the feeling that these were just little snippets of many, many fabulous insider stories she has to tell. I hope she gets the opportunity to share more tales with the momentum she’s riding on. And speaking of ladies with momentum, how much will Taylor Swift love seeing Brenda’s comment “She knew where she was going and boy has she gone there.” And how long until Brenda and Taylor team up for something? It would be perfect for them both right now! Brendanators and Swifties: you have your mission, should you choose to accept it.

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Embed from Getty Images

Embed from Getty Images

photos credit: Eric Benetti / Avalon, Getty

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