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.”