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Brenda Lee is much bigger than her 1958 Christmas song that just hit No.1

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARIAH CAREY: (Singing) It's time.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

In case you don't recognize that famous high note, it's Mariah Carey in a social media video she dropped on November 1 this year. In the video, she breaks out of a frozen vault wearing a skintight, red Santa outfit to let us know it's time for...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL I WANT FOR CHRISTMAS IS YOU")

CAREY: (Singing) I don't want a lot for Christmas. There is just one thing I need.

DETROW: "All I Want For Christmas Is You." For so many people in recent decades, it's become the Christmas song, and it's climbed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 every single year since 2019. But...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKIN' AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE")

BRENDA LEE: (Vocalizing).

DETROW: There's another holiday classic that's been nipping at Mariah's heels for years.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKIN' AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE")

LEE: (Singing) Rocking around the Christmas tree at the Christmas party hop. Mistletoe hung where you can see - every couple tries to stop.

DETROW: Brenda Lee's 1958 hit, "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." This year her record label went all in to finally push the song to No. 1. There was a new music video with a cameo from Trisha Yearwood and Tanya Tucker, and Lee got a TikTok account at 78 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LEE: Hello, Brendanators (ph). Grandmother is here.

DETROW: It worked. This week, 65 years after its release, "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree" topped the Billboard Hot 100 for the very first time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKIN' AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE")

LEE: (Singing) You will get a sentimental feeling when you hear voices singing, let's be jolly. Deck the halls with boughs of holly.

DETROW: We talked with Brenda Lee about how it feels to get a piece of the Queen of Christmas crown and ask her about a career that was much bigger than a single seasonal hit.

I feel like I need to start the interview by saying, congratulations. You did it. You're 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.

DETROW: Yeah.

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 tape.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRENDA LEE SONG, "ROCKIN' AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE")

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...

DETROW: Yeah.

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

DETROW: Yeah.

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.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKIN' AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DUM DUM")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DUM DUM")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M SORRY")

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."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M SORRY")

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M SORRY")

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

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

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROCKIN' AROUND THE CHRISTMAS TREE")

LEE: (Vocalizing).

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.

DETROW: Merry Christmas to you. And congratulations again - the No. 1 song in the country right now, "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree."

LEE: Thank you. Keep on rocking. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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