Behind Guaraldi's Timeless Holiday Soundtrack On Tuesday night, a tradition continues: ABC airs the animated special, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Its jazzy Vince Guaraldi soundtrack is a holiday staple, too, but it wasn't embraced by all who first heard it.

Behind Guaraldi's Timeless Holiday Soundtrack

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Tonight CBS will broadcast that holiday television tradition, "A Charlie Brown Christmas." It first aired back in 1965. By now we all know Charlie Brown will pick the sorriest tree on the lot, he'll lose control of his school play, and he'll object to the commercialization of the holiday.

But did you know that the show's jazzy soundtrack almost prevented this classic from ever making it on the air? Now the music has been remastered and re-released in time for the holidays. And as NPR's Felix Contreras reports, it has as much to do with the show's longevity as Charlie Brown himself.

FELIX CONTRERAS: In 1965, Charles Schultz's comic strip "Peanuts" was reaching the kind of popularity that would keep it on the funny pages for another 35 years. All over the country, children as well as adults were cheering for the hapless Charlie Brown and absorbing Schultz's very grown-up themes of alienation, perseverance and redemption.

Lee Mendelson was filming a television documentary about Schultz and his pioneering strip. He needed some music for his short animation segment. He thought about his good friend Dave Brubeck, who was by then a popular jazz musician. But one morning on his way to work across the Golden Gate Bridge, he heard this song on the radio.

(Soundbite of song, "Cast Your Fate to the Wind")

CONTRERAS: "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" was one of those rarest of things - a jazz instrumental that became a hit song. It was written and performed by Vince Guaraldi, a pianist who was not well-known beyond the Bay Area.

Mr. JOEL SELVIN (Senior Pop Music Critic, San Francisco Chronicle): It was a journeyman's jazz career that was interrupted by this fluke hit single.

CONTRERAS: Joel Selvin is senior pop music critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. He says after Mendelson heard this song, he tracked down the pianist and hired him to compose music for the documentary.

Mr. SELVIN: Mendelson still remembers calling Vince Guaraldi up to see how things were going, and having Vince play him over the telephone the Linus and Lucy theme. It was one of those moments where everything became clear and the future was obvious.

(Soundbite of "Peanuts Theme")

CONTRERAS: In fact, Mendelson, animator Bill Melendez and even Charles Schultz were so excited about seeing the animation set to music they finished the documentary and immediately began working on another program. This one would be a 30-minute Christmas special for CBS.

Despite their enthusiasm, Lee Mendelson says the network hated it.

Mr. LEE MENDELSON (Composer): They said, why are you mixing jazz music with traditional "Hark the Herald Angels" music and just didn't think jazz fit properly.

(Soundbite of TV show, "A Charlie Brown Christmas")

PEANUTS CHARACTER #1: Try to catch snowflakes on your tongue. It's fun. Mmm.

PEANUTS CHARACTER #2: Needs sugar.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: The network also wanted professional child actors to do the voices of the characters, not the untrained youngsters Mendelson recruited. And finally he says the network objected to the adult themes - this time materialism and faith. They didn't think they were appropriate for children.

(Soundbite of TV show, "A Charlie Brown Christmas")

Mr. PETER ROBBINS (Actor) (as Charlie Brown): I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming but I'm not happy. I don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel.

Mr. MENDELSON: Bill Melendez and I - the animator and I - thought that we had ruined Charlie Brown. You know, we were too close to it. And the network, as I mentioned, didn't like the show. So we figured it would be on one time and be gone, or maybe twice.

CONTRERAS: Despite their concerns and after a few cosmetic changes, CBS aired the program. And during an age when there were just three networks, a lot of people watched it.

Mr. MENDELSON: When the show went on and we got a 50 share, which meant half the country tuned in to the show that night, suddenly jazz, Charlie Brown and the voices all were wonderful for the network.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of TV show, "A Charlie Brown Christmas")

PEANUTS CHARACTER #3: All right. Quiet everybody. Our director will be here any minute and we'll start rehearsal.

CONTRERAS: Joel Selvin says Guaraldi's jazz soundtrack played a very specific role in the show's popularity.

Mr. SELVIN: It captured something in the innocence of the Charlie Brown characters that television viewers had never heard before.

(Soundbite of song "Christmastime is Here")

CHORUS: (Singing) Christmastime is here, happiness and cheer...

CONTRERAS: One of several original compositions written for the show is "Christmastime is Here." Vince Guaraldi wrote the music and Lee Mendelson wrote the lyrics by playing a children's game on the back of an envelope.

Mr. MENDELSON: I didn't know that much about music. I just put down a long dash or a short dash for the notes, if it was a quarter note, half note, whatever. Like in, you know the game Hangman? I just filled in the spots on the envelope. It was weird but that's what I did. It took longer to work out the dashes than it did the words. And for just, again, I don't know why, the words just came to me. And that was the first draft. We never changed it.

(Soundbite of song, "Christmastime is Here")

CHORUS: (Singing) Yuletide by the fireside, and joyful memories there...

CONTRERAS: Mendelson and Melendez went on to do 50 Charlie Brown specials. The most recent was last year's "He's a Bully, Charlie Brown." Vince Guaraldi collaborated on 17 shows. He died suddenly in 1976 at the age of 43 before he could see the show and his songs become modern symbols of the holidays. Joel Selvin:

Mr. SELVIN: He died between sets at a nightclub down in Menlo Park called Butterfields. You know, it was probably a $100, $200 gig, you know. It wasn't exactly like the palaces of entertainment that he was working. He was still a journeyman jazz guy right to the end.

(Soundbite of TV show, "A Charlie Brown Christmas")

Mr. ROBBINS (As Charlie Brown): I guess we better concentrate on finding a nice Christmas tree.

Unidentified Man: I suggest we try those searchlights, Charlie Brown.

(Soundbite of music)

CONTRERAS: The show's popularity grew with each annual broadcast, and for some families a third generation will watch "A Charlie Brown Christmas" this year. And Vince Guaraldi's soundtrack has never been out of print since it was released 41 years ago. Considering those successes, perhaps CBS and Charles Schultz underestimated the impact of Charlie Brown's search for the true meaning of Christmas as well as our collective capacity to embrace jazz.

Felix Contreras, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: You can hear more music from Vince Guaraldi's classic soundtrack along with other holiday classics at

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm John Ydstie.

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