Brenda Lee was born Brenda Mae Tarpley on December 11, 1944, in Atlanta Georgia. Her parents, Annie Grace and Reuben Lindsey Tarpley were extremely poor but worked very hard to support their children.
Even from an early age, Brenda showed interest in music and when she was only 2-years-old she was able to whistle the melody of songs she heard on the radio. A year later her sister entered her into a talent contest and little Brenda won. Over the next few years, she continued singing at baseball games, local halls and even made an appearance on an Atlanta radio show.
In May 1953, when Brenda was only 8-years-old, her father who worked as a carpenter died in a construction accident. It was now little Brenda that was supposed to support her family through singing at events and on local radio and television shows.
She performed on various TV and radio shows, and when her mother remarried to Jay Rainwater Brenda started singing in his record store. When she was only 10-years-old she turned down a performing gig in order to meet Red Foley, who was hosting a new show called Ozark Jubilee.
Foley allowed little Brenda to open the show with the song “Jambalaya” and he didn’t regret it. Brenda’s powerful voice impressed not just Foley but everyone else who heard the song. This is what Foley said after he heard Brenda sing for the first time:
“I still get cold chills thinking about the first time I heard that voice. One foot started patting rhythm as though she was stomping out a prairie fire but not another muscle in that little body even as much as twitched. And when she did that trick of breaking her voice, it jarred me out of my trance enough to realize I’d forgotten to get off the stage. There I stood, after 26 years of supposedly learning how to conduct myself in front of an audience, with my mouth open two miles wide and a glassy stare in my eyes.”
The crowd wanted to hear more from Brenda and refused to let her leave the stage until she had sung three more songs.
Only three years later when she was 13-years-old she recorded Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree. Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree is a Christmas song written by Johnny Marks, and recorded by Brenda Lee in 1958 for Decca Records.
The song mostly flopped upon its initial release in 1958, selling just 5,000 copies. In 1959 the song again flopped, and it did not sell well until Lee became a popular star in 1960. That year Lee’s Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree peaked at No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop singles chart. In 1965 it went as high as No 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop singles chart.
Countless artists have recorded covers of this timeless holiday classic including Cyndi Lauper, Green Day, Jessica Simpson and many others.
A member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, Lee was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 2009.