Can you remember the first jazz musician you knew by name? Chances are, it was Vince Guaraldi and his trio who scored many of TV’s Peanuts animated specials beginning with A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Guaraldi made a name for himself with his 1962 LP, Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus. The track, “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” was an instant hit and earned him a GRAMMY Award in 1963. Then, in 1964, producer Lee Mendelson was working on a TV documentary about the Peanuts comic strip and its creator Charles Schulz titled, A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Mendelson hired the Bay Area artist to score the film. Sadly, the documentary never made it on TV. However, when working on the holiday special, A Charlie Brown Christmas, Mendelson came knocking on Guaraldi’s door once more.
Like the documentary that came before it, A Charlie Brown Christmas was a tough sell. The TV executives of CBS were wary of its unconventional format, which featured the voices of child actors, a jazz score, and no laugh track—all unprecedented for the era. But you already know how it all worked out. In addition to capturing nearly half of all of America’s TV audience when it debuted, the special became an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning special. Soon, the tune of “Linus and Lucy” would become synonymous with Christmas from then on out. It also remains the Guaraldi’s most famous track.
According to Craft Recordings, the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s album featuring the music of A Charlie Brown Christmas has the distinction of being the best-selling jazz album of all time (alongside Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue) after earning 5x platinum certification by the RIAA last May. A new version of the album has been recorded with immersive Spatial Audio with Dolby Atmos and becomes available this month.
Beginning November 18, A Charlie Brown Christmas in spatial audio will be available on all compatible digital platforms, while those who prefer a physical copy can find it on the Blu-ray disc contained within the 4-CD/1-Blu-ray Super Deluxe Edition. Set for release on December 2nd and housed in a hardcover book, this definitive collection offers fans an unparalleled deep dive into all aspects of the album through more than 50 never-before-heard outtakes and in-depth session notes. In addition, the classic 11-track album has been upgraded with a new stereo mix from the original two-and three-track sources by the GRAMMY® Award-winning engineer Paul Blakemore. Both the new and original mixes can be found on the Super Deluxe Edition (also available as an 80-track digital release). The slimmer Deluxe Edition 2-LP and 1-CD sets each feature the new stereo mix alongside a selection of 13 studio outtakes. The LP and CD versions are available now.
“The wealth of music captured in these half-dozen sessions is—in a word—amazing,” marvels Derrick Bang in his liner notes. “It’s also fascinating to observe how a given tune evolves, over the course of the six weeks these sessions took place, from September 17 through October 28, 1965…. Along the way, you’ll hear all manner of false starts, initially terrific takes that collapse when Guaraldi fluffs a few notes, and outré experiments that sound almost nothing like what we know today.” He continues, “Consider this a ringside seat—a place of honor, watching and listening from the recording engineer’s booth—as the individual songs for this historic album were fine-tuned and ultimately laid down.”
The five sessions featured in the Super Deluxe box set are presented in their entirety, including blown takes and cross-chatter between the members of Guaraldi’s trio (bassist Monty Budwig and drummer Colin Bailey for many of them, as well as bassist Fred Marshall and drummer Jerry Granelli for others).
Among the highlights are 18 takes of “Christmas Is Coming,” a lively, bossa nova-influenced tune that took longer than others to take shape, as Guaraldi struggled to find a conclusion to the song and experimented with instrumentation and stylistic choices. Another selection, “Skating,” transforms over ten takes.
The favorite tune, “Christmas Time Is Here,” is presented on the original album in both instrumental and vocal versions. Initially, the song was written as an instrumental cue. But when Mendelson saw the opening sequence paired with the music, it seemed like something was missing. “I felt we should get some lyrics, and some voices,” Mendelson told Bang. “We couldn’t find anybody to write the lyrics, and I called all my Hollywood friends who were songwriters. But nobody took the assignment, so I sat down, and in about 10 minutes wrote the words to ‘Christmas Time Is Here’ on an envelope.”
Guaraldi enlisted young singers from San Rafael’s St. Paul’s Church Choir to perform the song (the children also served as stand-ins for the PEANUTS® gang as they sang “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”) Several of these singers shared their memories with Bang, including Dan Bernhard. “Vince and Lee wanted kids who sounded like kids,” he explained. “They used a version of ‘Hark, the Herald Angels Sing’ that was slightly out of tune, and [St. Paul’s Choir director Barry Mineah] threw a fit. But Vince and Lee used that one on purpose; we did a whole bunch of takes that were perfect, but they didn’t want those.”
Last year, the music of A Charlie Brown Christmas reached its highest spot ever on the Billboard 200, landing at No.6—56 years after its release. Among other honors, the multi-platinum soundtrack has been inducted into the GRAMMY® Hall of Fame and was added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry.
Main Image: Craft Recordings
I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.