The choice of Vince Guaraldi to create the soundtrack for the first A Charlie Brown Christmas Special, which aired on CBS on December 9, 1965, came about by chance – and ended up proving to be an inspirational decision.
American television producer Lee Mendelson, the man who produced the show, was looking for someone to do a jazzy soundtrack. He initially tried for Dave Brubeck. “The first call I made was to Dave Brubeck, who was an old friend, but he was busy,” recalled Mendelson. “Years later he said he wished he hadn’t been busy!” Among the names Brubeck suggested calling was Vince Guaraldi.
An iconic work
San Francisco native Guaraldi first came to notice playing piano with Latin jazz vibraphonist Cal Tjader in the mid-50s. By 1960, Guaraldi was leading his own band and had even achieved a hit on the pop charts with “Cast Your Fate To The Wind,” a tune which also won a Grammy.
But it was his mix of standards and original compositions for A Charlie Brown Christmas, performed with his jazz trio, that cemented his place in music and television history. The soundtrack album went on to be a massive bestseller, and its deft balance of sweetness and sorrow made it an iconic work in its own right. The success of the score also helped ensure the lasting television life of a memorable show featuring the famous characters Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Sally, and Snoopy the dog.
Initial worries about the soundtrack
Things didn’t look good at the start of December 1965, however. After the soundtrack had been completed at the Whitney Recording Studios in Glendale, California, Mendelson took the tapes to the executives at CBS. “The two top people at CBS hated it,” recalled Mendelson. “They said it was too slow and too religious. I was devastated. They said, ‘We’ll have to run it because the showing is so close, but there won’t be any more shows.’ I thought we were doomed.”
The first indications the CBS chiefs were wrong came in a glowing review of Guaraldi’s music in Time magazine. The show went on to win an Emmy and the music was acclaimed. It was released by the Fantasy record label for the Christmas market and was soon selling out in record stores across the country.
Why the music worked
“Vince Guaraldi’s music was crucial to the show’s success, because it was the first time a cartoon had used jazz, had used adult music, and that raised it a certain level,” said Mendelson. The producer added that Charles M. Schulz, who created the original comic strip Peanuts, had also told him he thought the music had been “critical.”
Guaraldi’s tunes captured the contradictory emotions of joy and sadness that many people experience during Christmas. While his songs fitted in brilliantly with the animation in a show directed by Bill Melendez, they were also magical pieces of music on their own.
“I don’t think I’m a great piano player,” Guaraldi said in 1958. “But I would like to be able to have people like me, to play pretty tunes, and to reach the audience.” He was in his 30s when he made his masterpiece album, working with two other talented jazz players. The brush-drumming of Jerry Granelli adds to the record’s subtle power, as does the warm double bass-playing of Fred Marshall – a man who had been the house bassist at San Francisco’s famous jazz club, Bop City, and who had played with jazz legends Ben Webster, Joe Henderson, and Dexter Gordon.
Even the choice of guest musicians was inventive. Tom Harrell, the trumpeter on “Thanksgiving Theme,” played on five Blue Note albums with Horace Silver. The one musician with a link to England – Swindon-born drummer Colin Bailey – was the percussionist on “Greensleeves.” He went on to play on an iconic album with Frank Sinatra and Antônio Carlos Jobim.
The A Charlie Brown Christmas album opens with “O Tannenbaum,” and though it may be a simple Christmas carol, Guaraldi’s improvisations gave it an enchanting freshness. Mendelson said they had no idea that Guaraldi’s song “Christmas Time Is Here” would evolve into a festive classic, but its nuanced shading makes it one of the least celebratory holiday standards ever written. The irresistible “Linus And Lucy” has become one of the most instantly recognizable pieces of television music from the 20th Century.
As well as taping sessions in Glendale, Guaraldi re-recorded a few songs at Fantasy Records Studios in San Francisco, using a children’s choir from St Paul’s Episcopal Church in nearby San Rafael. The sessions ran deep into the night, with the children rewarded with ice cream. They sing beautifully on “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.”
Guaraldi’s evocative score, which is heart-warming and strangely bleak, struck a chord with the public. When one of the CBS bosses realized that his initial opinion was misguided, the best he could muster to say to Mendelson was that “my aunt in New Jersey didn’t like it either.”
In August 2016, the Recording Industry Association Of America certified the A Charlie Brown Christmas album quadruple-platinum, for sales of four million copies. The soundtrack has been marked for permanent preservation by the Library Of Congress.
Guaraldi went on to compose scores for 17 Peanuts television specials, until his tragic death, at just 47, in 1976. They played his wonderful Charlie Brown music at his funeral. Guaraldi left us all a Christmas classic.