When CBS got a look at A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time, they were not pleased. A mildly depressed Charlie Brown’s meandering search for the true meaning of Christmas, amid all the consumerism of the modern holiday season, wasn’t exactly the uplifting romp network executives had expected. And then there’s its unconventional jazz soundtrack from Vince Guaraldi, an up and coming musician few had ever heard of.
“They wanted something corporate, something rousing,” Jerry Granelli, the drummer for the Guaraldi combo, told Rolling Stone in 2015. “They thought the animation was too slow. They really didn’t like that a little kid was going to come out and say what Christmas was all about, which wasn’t about shopping. And then the jazz music, which was improvised — you know, the melodies only take up maybe 30 seconds.”
The melancholic childishness of the music is among the timeless charms of A Charlie Brown Christmas. But, at least at first, CBS executives didn’t see it that way. “There were specific negative comments about the music, the piano music, some of the voicing, which sounded kind of amateurish,” former CBS executive Fred Silverman said in the 2015 documentary, The Making of ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas.
If the voicing sounded amateurish, it’s because it was. The actors weren’t professionals and the vocal performers were a choir of regular children from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, California recorded in three sessions over two weeks. Producer Lee Mendelson and Guaraldi rejected the exacting perfection demanded by choir director Barry Mineah and pushed for the “kids to sound like kids.”
The album happened quite by accident. As Producer Lee Mendelson was driving across the Golden Gate Bridge one afternoon, he heard Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” on the radio. “[‘Wind’] was improvisational jazz for adults, but it had kind of a whimsical quality,” Mendelson said. It was a style that might be perfect, he thought, for a documentary on Peanuts creator Charles Shultz he was working on at the time.
Guaraldi, was a relatively unknown up and comer on the jazz scene. So, Mendelson called Ralph J. Gleason, a jazz critic at the San Fransisco Chronicle. “Do you have any idea in the world who Vince Guaraldi is?” Mendelson asked. In fact, Gleason told him, he and Guaraldi were scheduled to have lunch the next day. Guaraldi and Mendelson met soon after and began working together on the Schultz documentary. That project never aired, but some of the music Guaraldi wrote for it, including the show’s central theme song “Linus and Lucy,” would be recycled for a new special, A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Guaraldi originally wrote the special’s opener, a gentle, slightly mournful waltz called “Christmas Time is Here,” as an instrumental. But, Mendelson thought it would be better with vocals. Sitting at his kitchen table, he hastily scrawled the lyrics on the back of a napkin.
“It was just a strange marriage of between a bluesy jazz song and having words that embellished Christmas,” Mendelson told Vice News. “I don’t know why it worked. It shouldn’t have, but it did.”
Guaraldi‘s other original songs included “Skating,” a bright shimmering ditty to accompany the show’s ice skating scene and “Christmas Time is Coming,” which provided bouncy energetic backdrop for the children’s party scene.
Guaraldi reworked classic standards too and made them his own. From the album’s opener, a brightly reimagined “O Tannenbaum,” to the haunting, slightly off-key “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” Guiraldi’s covers have made enduring contributions to the holiday cannon.
The result is an album that is a complex mix of melancholy and child-like wonder. Like the show’s protagonist, Charlie Brown, it is a quirky underdog that didn’t have great expectations for itself yet persevered in the end.
Since it’s debut in 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas has sold 4 million copies becoming one of the two best-selling jazz albums of all time along with Miles Davis’ kind of blue. In 2012, it was selected for inclusion in the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in recognition of its significance to American musical history.
Vince Guaraldi’s score for A Charlie Brown Christmas perfectly captures the sense of alienation that the bustle of the Christmas season can sometimes bring along with its rapturous joy too. It is a timeless gift to the ages that, a half-century on, still feels fresh and relevant when we rediscover it each year.