Ace's newest release is the fifth in the Christmas Series. This one delivers the stories behind the holiday hits that ruled the radio playlists. It includes Jingle Bell Rock, White Christmas, Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer and many more. It is available in stores and at online sellers in October, 2010!
Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
In 1958, producer Owen Bradley and Decca Records were excited about Christmas. The year before, Bobby Helms had scored a huge single with “Jingle Bell Rock.” Now they had another song that was the perfect follow up for the new artist’s holiday hit.
Noting the success of “Jingle Bell Rock” and sensing the staying power of rock and roll music, Johnny Marks, who had penned the holiday classic “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer,” sat down to create a new song specifically written for the growing teen market. Marks was a formula songwriter. He didn’t write from personal experiences, but rather created from observations about current trends. He could take a simple hook and quickly transform it into a completed piece.
Almost a decade after he had created the song about the red-nosed reindeer, Marks felt he needed a fresh approach to the holidays to capture seasonal gold. He was on a New England beach in the summer of 1958 when a group of playful teenagers dancing to an Elvis song provided the inspiration for what would become his second greatest composition.
As Marks watched the kids dancing in the sand, he wondered if he could top the previous year’s rock hit by Bobby Helms. Deciding to give it a try, he returned to his office and dashed off a new melody that was similar to “Jingle Bell Rock” but different enough to sound set it apart. The tune Marks created was light enough to be enjoyed by adults, but hip-sounding to kids. When few melodies were bridging a widening generation gap, this song seemed to have that capability. Marks made sure his latest holiday offering mentioned almost every element of a traditional Christmas, from homemade pie to caroling, and wrapped them up with a bow of young love.
Marks mailed “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” to Owen Bradley. The songwriter fully expected the producer to have Bobby Helms cut it as a follow up to “Jingle Bell Rock,” but Bradley and Decca Records saw no reason to add another holiday record to Helms’ musical resume. History told them that “Jingle Bell Rock” would be an annual Christmas hit for years to come. A new release by Helms would likely dilute the first single’s sales by providing Helms fans and disc jockeys with another choice. Bradley though it was far better to give the song to an artist who really needed a hit.
In 1958, Brenda Lee was hardly the model for a rock and roll star. At 13, she was cute and had a rich full voice and dynamite stage presence. Though teens rarely wanted to listen to a junior high kid, Decca Records had been attempting to make the youngster a national sensation.
Lee was born toward the end of World War II in an Atlanta, Georgia, charity hospital. Weighing just over four pounds at birth, Lee never grew beyond four-foot nine. Growing up in a home without running water, and sharing a bed with two other siblings, her life was centered around the only affordable outlet for social outings—church. With a voice that sounded more like a sultry adult than tiny child, she sang solos in worship services by the age of three. Capitalizing on her talent, the family often made meal money after services by having Lee sing on street corners.
Her father died in a work accident when she was eight. By that time she had moved from street corner warbler and into the role of a local radio star. As the family moved to Ohio, she continued to find work in radio. She would have remained largely unknown, however, if a radio producer had not introduced the child to country music legend Red Foley. Foley was blown away by the girl with the big voice and signed her to star with him on the syndicated television show The Ozark Jubilee. Within a month of her first performance on the show, she was a pint-sized phenom. Newspaper profiled the young star and record company talent scouts checked her out.
Decca made the first offer because the label believed that a preteen blessed with an adult talent could be a huge sensation in country music. They showcased Brenda with a jazzed up version of a Hank Williams song and sat back expecting a hit. Disc jockeys all but ignored the single. Next the label tried a Christmas song released during the 1956 holiday season, but “Christy Christmas” went nowhere. At the age of twelve, Lee finally broke onto the country charts with “One Step at a Time.” After one week in the Top 40, that effort died as well. There seemed to be no place for a child in country radio.
With the growth of rock and roll, Decca Records and their top producer Bradley opted to push their child star in that musical direction. They had little success. They were desperate for a hit when Marks’ “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” demo arrived at the producer’s Nashville office.
On October 19, 1958, Bradley scheduled a session for Lee to cut Marks’s holiday song, as well as several other tunes. The session did not begin until midnight, several hours past the thirteen-year-old singer’s normal bedtime. When she arrived at 804 16th Avenue South, the child was eager and ready to work.
Bradley had spared no expense on the session. He brought in the best players in the city, including saxophonist Boots Randolph and guitar picker Hank Garland. He also added the Anita Kerr Singers for backup. To set the mood, he decorated the studio with a Christmas tree and decorations. Rather than record the Christmas number first, Lee cut a few pop standards including her gutsy take of “Won’t You Come Home Bill Bailey.” With dawn approaching, she was shown “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree.”
Using a formula that was common in Nashville at the time, Bradley played the demo record for Lee and the rest of the group. Once they were familiar with “Rockin’,” the musicians worked out their lines, Kerr decided on the harmonies, and Lee looked over the lyrics. In less than thirty minutes, the group came back together to play through and coordinate their take on the song. Working out the different creative views and meshing them into a final arrangement was left to Bradley. With just two microphones set in place, the producer counted down and the session began. Less than an hour later, “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” was finished. Lee then cut the “B” side of the record, “Papa Noel.”
Decca was so sure that the holiday single would become Lee’s first major hit that they pitched it aggressively to disc jockeys at both country and rock stations. Lee was not even a minor star on the national stage, so most ignored the new release. Instead they replayed Elvis’ “Blue Christmas” and Helms “Jingle Bell Rock.” During its initial year of release, “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” sold fewer than 5,000 copies worldwide. Decca lost money on the record.
While it was a disappointment to the studio, Johnny Marks was upset that his “can’t miss” number had been wasted on an unknown child star. In an effort to save his song, he began to pitch the song to other artists and studios. Most turned the song down because it either sounded like “Jingle Bell Rock” or because it had already been proven a flop. The song was as dead as a four-week-old Christmas tree.
In today’s world, Decca and Bradley would have given up on Lee as the disc jockeys did the holiday single. Still, the producer continued to believe the little girl with the big voice could produce hits. He continued to bring her into recording sessions. In early 1960, a song named “Sweet Nothings” proved that Bradley’s faith had been well-founded. The fifteen-year-old Lee put that release into the Top 10. A few months later, she topped the charts with “I’m Sorry.” In the fall, she stormed to No. 1 with “I Want To Be Wanted.” As Decca looked toward the holidays, Lee was the hottest female act in the country.
Bradley made a call to Decca, suggesting they dust off the old recording of “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree” and give it another spin. The label had nothing to lose and decided to try it again. When it was shipped there was no mention that it was a re-release of an older recording. The wanted the public to believe this was a brand new Lee recording.
The positive reaction by disc jockeys to Lee’s holiday tune was due in large part to her recent success. She was all over the television, and her concert tours were selling out. Another element now playing in “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree’s” acceptance was that Bobby Helms had fallen out of the public eye. “Jingle Bell Rock” was no longer being placed in as heavy a rotation as it had been two years before. Stations were looking for a new holiday rocker, and Lee’s two-year-old cut fit the bill.
Unlike Helms, whose career essentially was defined by his holiday release, Lee quickly developed into one of the most influential female singers in pop music. At eighteen she became an international star whose fame was so great that The Beatles once opened for her on a wildly successful European tour. Selling tens of millions of albums and singles, the diminutive dynamo made a huge mark on pop, rock, country, and even rhythm and blues charts. A member of the “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” her monster hits include timeless classics like “Emotions,” “Fool No. 1,” and “Johnny One-Time.” But it is “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” that fans remember most from her career. And why not? The Brenda Lee holiday offering is the fourth bestselling Christmas single of all time.