'A Charlie Brown Christmas' at 50: The Making of a Classic Soundtrack

Producer Lee Mendelson, drummer Jerry Granelli reflect on enduring seasonal favorite

"The fact that it's become such a permanent part of the holiday season is surreal," says original 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' producer Lee Mendelson. Credit: United Feature Syndicate Inc./ABC

The legend goes like this: In 1963, producer Lee Mendelson made a documentary about Peanuts cartoonist Charles M. Schulz, for which he needed music. One night, Mendelson was driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, tuned into a San Francisco jazz station. "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" came on the air, a drifting cut where melodies appear and then disappear, and bouncing elation is matched by tiny moments of despair. The track was pianist Vince Guaraldi's mini-hit that year, and Mendelson was struck by how it sounded simultaneously adult and childlike. The next day, he called up the San Francisco Chronicle's jazz critic, Ralph J. Gleason. "Do you have any idea in the world who Vince Guaraldi is?" Mendelson asked. "Yes, as a matter of fact, I'm having lunch with him tomorrow," Gleason said. Mendelson met Guaraldi a few days later, and they agreed to work together.

The documentary ultimately didn't sell. But two years later, Coca-Cola, who had seen the doc, called up Mendelson, and asked if he'd ever thought of making a Christmas special. Mendelson said, "Absolutely!" and hung up the phone, then called Mr. Schulz. As Mendelson remembers it: "I said, 'I think I just sold A Charlie Brown Christmas.' And Schulz said, 'What in the world is that?' And I said, 'It's something you're going to write tomorrow.' There was a long pause, and he said, 'Alright. Come on up.'"

The rest, of course, is history. A Charlie Brown Christmas aired 50 years ago today, on December 9th, 1965. Over the years, the special has become a perennial classic: the 25-minute story of wistful Charlie Brown and his struggle to find the true meaning of Christmas in the face of holiday-season commercialism. "I almost wish there weren't a holiday season," he sighs, at the story's beginning. "I know nobody likes me. Why do we have to have a holiday season to emphasize it?" The genius of A Charlie Brown Christmas was the way it channeled the looming sadness and anxiety that come with the holidays — and the way its timeless, best-selling soundtrack by the Vince Guaraldi Trio tapped into that narrative seamlessly, with muted, melancholic jazz.

Indeed, to create such an unabashedly anti-consumerist story with the backing of both Coca-Cola and CBS was a subtly radical accomplishment in 1965, as it would be now.  The executives at CBS were displeased with the finished product: its slow-moving animation, its religious undertone, its jazz soundtrack. They had no choice but to air it, though — they had already advertised it in TV Guide.

"They wanted something corporate, something rousing," says drummer Jerry Granelli, the lone surviving member of the Guaraldi combo. "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." Yet A Charlie Brown Christmas was an immediate, massive success.

The first of many specials that Schulz and Guaraldi would collaborate on with Mendelson and animator Bill Melendez, A Charlie Brown Christmas came together in just six months. "We brought Vince Guaraldi in to reprise the music he had done for the documentary, plus some Beethoven and some traditional music," Mendelson says. 

Employing his background in easygoing, West Coast jazz, and working with a local children's choir that sounded perfectly off-key at times, Guaraldi crafted future classics through original compositions and re-arrangements of holiday standards. Like the characters themselves, the songs merge bits of Schroeder's bookish sophistication, Charlie Brown's heavy heart, and Snoopy's unpredictable mischief. The songs are both smooth and snappy, with Granelli's brush and stick sounds pushing them steadily along. 

"We went in and did it in three hours," recalls Granelli, who was only 24 at the time. "That's just the way jazz records were recorded. I think we even went to work in a club that night." Some of the songs were already part of the group's repertoire. "We were improvising all the time, so each night, the song kind of evolved."

The trio's version of the 1824 German carol "O Tannenbaum" exemplifies this process. Guaraldi, Granelli and bassist Fred Marshall took the song's harmonic foundation and ran, moving the composition into more explosive, bluesy territory. In the special, the song plays as Charlie Brown and Linus look around for a Christmas tree. "This doesn't seem to fit the modern spirit," says Linus, when Charlie Brown picks out the smallest, most dilapidated one he can find. The funny sound of flat piano keys chirp as the tree's twigs fall to the ground.

"Linus and Lucy" was one of the holdovers from the Schulz-documentary days; in A Charlie Brown Christmas, it is the centerpiece of the soundtrack, capturing a moment when inner anxieties subside and the season feels fleetingly fine. "My playing is really very simple on that record, but it's exactly what captures the story," says Granelli. "It moves the music forward doing very little. Just the way the brush starts on 'Linus and Lucy,' so it doesn't conflict with the bass line, and then it goes to the Latin part, and then it goes back to the left hand, the conga drum part."

"Christmas Time Is Here" was originally an all-instrumental piece. "Guaraldi had written a very beautiful melody for the opening skating scene, but about two weeks before it was about to run on the air, I thought, 'Maybe we could get a lyricist to put some words to this,'" remembers Mendelson. "I called a few lyricist friends of mine, and everyone was busy. So I sat down at my kitchen table and I wrote out a few words, and we rushed it to the choir that Vince Guaraldi had been working with in San Francisco. And he recorded it, and we got it into the show about a week before it went on the air."

"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." —Jerry Granelli

"It's deceptively simple, but at the same time, impressively complex, kind of the way Charles Schulz approached his newspaper strip," says Derrick Bang, author of Vince Guaraldi at the Piano and multiple books on Peanuts, of Guaraldi's soundtrack. "He never wasted a line; Guaraldi never wasted a note. Every note was important."

"We’re living in times where so much is done to manipulate us," reflects Granelli. "And things last for, what, a news cycle? A few minutes? This [album] is something that’s lasted 50 years. And not only lasted, but grown ... I think there’s just a humanness."

"The whole thing from beginning to end has been surreal," Mendelson says. "The fact that it's become such a permanent part of the holiday season is surreal. And every time I hear it on the radio, or I hear it in a store, or someone says, 'wah, wah, wah,' I realize we're very lucky to have been associated with Mr. Schulz and his characters. It all comes back to his characters, and his philosophy, and his humor."