It's been a staple of Yuletide playlists for six decades now, but Brenda Lee's "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" finally topped the Billboard singles chart this week. The song was boosted in the popular imagination thanks to a viral video the 78-year-old singer released in November.
With the No. 1, Lee makes history in a number of ways. She becomes the oldest artist to top the singles chart, as well as the singer with the longest stretch between No. 1s (63 years). The 65-year-old song also takes the record for the longest period between release and summiting the chart.
Written by Christmas tune maestro Johnny Marks (who also penned "Holly Jolly Christmas" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer") the song was first recorded by Lee when she was only 13 years old. Released in 1958, the tune took a few years to catch on, eventually reaching No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960.
While the song has rarely been out of holiday rotation since, and reached No. 2 just last year, its current spike in popularity can be traced to a new music video -- featuring Lee lip-syncing to the original recording, alongside guest appearances from Trisha Yearwood and Tanya Tucker -- which has racked up more than 3 million views on YouTube in the month since it was released. Lee has also recently been active on TikTok, and will perform the song on NBC's Christmas at the Opry, scheduled to air on Dec. 7.
Speaking to Variety in a recent interview about the song's resurgence, Lee made a point to call attention to Marks: "It was a few weeks ago that I got the five-times platinum award from my label on 'Rockin’.' And my first thought was, 'Oh, I’m gonna call Johnny' — Johnny Marks, who wrote it — but he’s gone. He was the sweetest man, and he wrote so many Christmas standards. We got to be real good friends. He’d call me every day, just about. I’d say, 'Johnny, you’re Jewish. You don’t even believe in Christmas!' And he’d start laughing and laughing. He said, 'Well, I do now.'"
In contrast to the UK's customary hullabaloo over Christmastime chart-toppers, holiday songs have rarely made it to the top of the pops in the U.S. Alvin and the Chipmunks' "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)," was the first, reaching No. 1 in 1958. It would take more than half a century for another to reach the top spot, when Mariah Carey's "All I Want for Christmas Is You" climbed to the summit in 2019. (Coincidentally, Carey's 1994 staple was the previous record holder for the longest gap between release and singles chart dominance, at 25 years.)
Holiday associations aside, Lee enjoyed a hugely fruitful career in the early 1960s and beyond, with 12 top 10 singles between 1959 and 1963, including two consecutive No. 1s with "I'm Sorry" and "I Wanted to Be Wanted." She later became the first woman to be inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Country Music Hall of Fame, and she won a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009. At 78, Lee overtakes Louis Armstrong as the oldest Billboard chart topper -- Armstrong was 63 when his "Hello Dolly" reached No. 1 in the mid-1960s.