december 2011

Brenda Lee: Rockin’ around the Christmas tree…

Good Tidings From Little Miss Dynamite

Brenda Lee Makes Christmas Merry

By David McGee

Brenda Lee
MCA Nashville
Released: 2003

In Brenda Lee's world, a "White Christmas" comes with "Strawberry Snow" and "Papa Noel" goes "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," but "Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day." This may seem a facile a description of Little Miss Dynamite's collection of Christmas recordings made for the Decca label during her hit heyday in 1964-65, but those song titles do summarize the emotional sweep of the selections now collected on the MCA 20th Century Masters volume The Best of Brenda Lee: The Christmas Collection, which supplants the 1999 album, Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree: The Decca Christmas Recordings (the newer version contains exactly the same tracks but sports a drab cover by comparison).

Brenda Lee, the Cajun-flavored Yuletide classic, ‘Papa Noel’

One wonders if Owen Bradley had an agenda when he had the 11-year-old country wunderkind dubbed “Little Miss Dynamite” cut "I'm Gonna Lasso Santa Claus" in 1956. This amiable, loping arrangement with a western flavor in its galloping gait and atmospheric steel guitar moans is catchy enough on its own, thanks to a spunky vocal from Miss Lee, who at this tender age sounds a whole lot like a stone country version of another child sensation, Jimmy Boyd, he being the 11-year-old who topped the charts in 1952 with the now-classic "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus." But although the Catholic Church condemned the Boyd record for mixing sexuality with Christmas, no comparable fury attended the release of "I'm Gonna Lasso Santa Claus," which wasn't even a hit but gained a favorable review in Billboard. If anyone had been listening, though, they would have heard Lee suggesting she was going to take Santa to task for leaving toys for her but not for other kids--a muted but unambiguous assertion that Kris Kringle overlooks the less fortunate when making his rounds, something she would be sensitive too, since she had been her family’s primary breadwinner from the age of ten, following her father’s death. This is one of two Christmas songs on the collection cut in Lee's first Decca sessions in July 1956, the other side being a perky frolic of a "character song" called "Christy Christmas"; otherwise 12 of the remaining 16 tracks are the entirety of Lee's 1964 Christmas album, Merry Christmas From Brenda Lee (now out of print), with the remaining three being 1965 recordings of Yuletide standards--"Jingle Bells," "White Christmas," "Silent Night"--left off the Christmas album and heretofore unreleased in the U.S.

Of course the standard bearer of the set is the first track, the original and definitive "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" (written by Johnny Marks, who also gave us “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”), with its swinging vocal, solid beat, robust Hank Garland guitar fills and Boots Randolph’s honking sax solo. In fact, this and the “Papa Noel” B side are two of the best rockin' Christmas tunes ever committed to tape. The latter is the delightful Cajun-flavored "Papa Noel," a celebration of family and friends gathered together "down on the bayou," with an exuberant, rhythmic vocal from Lee that gets more infectious every time you hear it--it's full of joy, soul and irresistible charm. No matter her age, Lee has always been at her best on heart-tugging ballads--witness her emotional performance of "Christmas Time Is Near," a song popularized by Brook Benton in 1959. Producer Bradley gives it a lush string-and-choir arrangement, always keeping his young charge's touchingly vulnerable vocal out front in the mix to give it a more direct impact.

In the wispy woodwinds and tender chimes on a lush treatment of "Silver Bells"; in the Nelson Riddle-like elegance of the crying strings and mixed chorus supporting Lee's vulnerable reading of "Blue Christmas"; in the same combination of musical elements in a frolicsome arrangement, enhanced by cheery harpischord fills, on a warm rendition of the Carl Sigman-penned evergreen, "Marshmallow World" (this version's easygoing, pop strut is a nice contrast to two other outstanding renditions that take it from different perspective--Dean Martin's suggestive, blues-inflected treatment on his Christmas album, and Darlene Love's delicious powerhouse attack on A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector), Bradley provides Lee with settings designed to enhance the emotional commitment informing Lee's vocals, which are every bit as intense and involved as on any of her great '60s singles. Bradley and Lee even seem to tip their collective Santa hats to Phil Spector (whose aforementioned Christmas offering was released less than a year prior to Lee's 1964 sessions) with a distinctively roaring wall of sound arrangement of "Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day." Although the lyric is as downbeat as the title suggests, it's given a booming, aggressive soundscape keyed by thundering, insistent drums, keening strings and a united front of male and female voices shadowing Lee's belting vocal, which in its spiteful tone is quite unlike the typical Lee persona on record. In short, this 18-track package, so unassuming in its design, assays a wide range of feelings, and illustrates anew the great synergy between producer Bradley and artist Lee. All those enduring pop and country hits were no accident, and the performances herein, though less well known, are standing the test of time quite well, too, thank you.

The Best Of Brenda Lee: The Christmas Collection is available at

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