"Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" has been on repeat in shopping malls since Thanksgiving, but that doesn't mean it's the only popular song Brenda Lee ever recorded. Here's a quick primer on the artists responsible for five of the 10 most-broadcast holiday songs of 2011.
1. Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree
Brenda Lee was only 13 years old in 1958 when she recorded a new Christmas melody written by Johnny Marks, the composer whose resume included “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Have a Holly, Jolly Christmas.” The record only sold 5,000 copies that year but has since become a holiday staple. The pint-sized singer (she never grew taller than 4’9”) already had a small following in the South thanks to a couple of country record hits, but her career skyrocketed in 1960 when she recorded what would become her signature tune, “I’m Sorry.”
“Little Miss Dynamite” went on to have 10 consecutive Billboard 100 hits from 1960 to 1962, a record for a female artist at the time that remained unbroken until Madonna came along in the 1980s. Here’s Brenda belting out her #3 hit “Sweet Nothin’s”:
2. Feliz Navidad
José Feliciano was born in Puerto Rico and moved with his family to New York when he was five years old. Left blind at birth due to congenital glaucoma, he developed an ear for music at an early age and played both the guitar and accordion with virtuosity by the time he was nine years old. He grew up, moved to Los Angeles and became a professional songwriter and musician. In 1968 his Latin-flavored version of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” hit number three on the Billboard chart and sold over a million copies. In 1970 he wrote and recorded “Feliz Navidad” in which he purposely sang in both Spanish and English in order to bridge “two wonderful cultures” during a time of year that traditionally inspired good will toward all.
“Feliz Navidad” went on to become one of the Top 25 most-played holiday songs, but there was a period of time when many radio stations refused to play anything by Feliciano. His crime? Singing the very first stylized version of the National Anthem. It happened prior to Game 5 of the 1968 World Series in Detroit. Beloved play-by-play announcer Ernie Harwell, who’d arranged for Feliciano to perform, later noted that apparently many baseball fans were offended by Feliciano’s long hair and dark glasses (apparently not realizing that he was blind) and his guitar and immediately assumed he was one of those hippy anti-Establishment draft-dodging war protestors. That he dared to sing the “Star-Spangled Banner” in such a non-traditional way provided the additional fuel necessary to light a fire of outrage from the American Legion and other veterans organizations, and the Tiger Stadium switchboard almost blew a fuse before José uttered the words “…and the home of the brave.”
3. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Gene Autry may not have burned up the Billboard Pop Chart, but he was well-known as a cowboy crooner with several best-selling records about tumbleweeds and little dogs and the lone prairie. He was also something of a Renaissance Man: he founded Challenge Records, on which the Champs released their Number One hit “Tequila,” he starred in a passel of Western-themed films, and he owned the California Angels Major League Baseball team from 1961 until 1997. He is the only person to have five stars on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame (for Motion Pictures, Television, Radio, Recording and Live Performance/Theater). Despite the huge success of “Rudolph,” Autry’s signature tune was considered to be “Back in the Saddle Again.”
4. It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
Crooner Andy Williams hosted his own TV variety show from 1962 to 1971, and for a time his annual Christmas special was a huge ratings hit. But then marital strife struck after 14 years and he and Claudine Longet divorced. One year later Longet was charged with the shooting murder of her boyfriend (alpine ski racer Spider Sabich), and Williams personally escorted her to court every day of her trial. She was found guilty of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced to 30 days in jail.
Besides his Christmas hits, Williams is most often associated with the song “Moon River,” and he had several Top 10 hits in the late 1950s. But his one hit that gets the most retroactive airplay is his rendition of the theme song from one of filmdom’s first “chick flicks,” Love Story.
5. The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)
Nat “King” Cole was an internationally known jazz pianist and vocalist when NBC offered him the opportunity to host his own TV variety show in 1956. When Cole accepted he did so as a reluctant trailblazer; he wasn’t particularly interested in becoming a crusader, but as the first African-American to host such a prime time show, he saw the opportunity to be the Jackie Robinson of television and perhaps open up the medium to other black performers. Unfortunately in those pre-Civil Rights days most national advertisers refused to sponsor the show, fearful of a possible boycott (especially by folks in the South). A representative from Max Factor Cosmetics explained why his company declined its support: “Negroes don’t sell lipstick.” (Cole’s response: “What do they think we use – chalk?!”) To its credit, NBC believed in the program and supported it without a national sponsor for 42 episodes until Cole himself pulled the plug. He was losing an estimated $500,000 annually in personal appearances by concentrating on the stressful uphill battle that his weekly TV show had become. He returned to the concert circuit and the recording studio where the audiences tended to be a bit more colorblind. Cole had many Top 10 hits, including “Ramblin’ Rose,” which was his highest charting pop single (#2) and sold over a million copies.