Brenda Lee’s version of the song—unquestionably the definitive version—was performed and recorded when she was only 13 years old.
Listen to the song (in the clip below) and it’s impossible not to hear the voice of someone 10 or 20 years older: This girl had pipes. The single was released over consecutive holiday seasons beginning in 1958 (selling less than 5,000 copies that season)—it became a hit two years later, and reached a peak position of number 3 on Billboard’s holiday charts in 1965. Lee so thoroughly owns this song that no other version has come close to matching the success of her original.
BONUS FACTOID 01: The song was written by Johnny Marks—the guy who wrote “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The fact that he was Jewish didn’t stop him from creating a mini empire of Christmas songs—in addition to “Rudolph” and “Rockin’,” he wrote “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” and the songs used in the TV special Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, including the Burl Ives hit “A Holly Jolly Christmas.”
BONUS FACTOID 02: Playing saxophone on the Brenda Lee recording of the song was Nashville session man “Boots” Randolph, who, in 1963, released a long-enduring hit of his own.