Vince Guaraldi knew a hit record when he heard one. Years before the San Francisco pianist wrote “Linus and Lucy,” the irresistibly grooving Peanuts theme that’s been indelibly imprinted on the soundscape of American childhood for more than a half century, Guaraldi had conquered the pop charts with a seductive earworm set to a gently undulating pulse. Released as the B-side to a spritely arrangement of Luiz Bonfá’s bossa nova hit "Samba de Orpheus,” Guaraldi’s original tune “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” was such a sensation, reaching No. 22 on the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart, that it overshadowed the pioneering 1962 album it was featured on, Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus. He was one of the first American jazz artists to stoke the rising bossa nova movement, but Guaraldi came to his career-defining gig as the primary composer for Peanuts specials by, well, casting his fate to the airwaves.
Looking to make a documentary about Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, filmmaker Lee Mendelson happened to hear the hit on the radio while driving across the Golden Gate Bridge. He got in touch with Guaraldi, who promptly got to work on the assignment. The first piece he wrote was “Linus and Lucy,” and when he called Mendelson the filmmaker said he’d drive right over to hear it.
But according to Guaraldi biographer Derrick Bang, the pianist was so excited about the new creation that he insisted on playing the theme over the phone. Before the call concluded Mendelson had an epiphany. “I have no idea why, but I knew that song would affect my entire life,” he told Bang. “There was a sense, even before it was put to animation, that there was something very, very special about that music.”
While the documentary on Schulz never happened, Mendelson went on to produce many of the Peanuts specials, starting with 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. Part of the magic behind “Linus and Lucy” and the whole Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack is that Guaraldi used his working trio with bassist Fred Marshall and drummer Jerry Granelli.
Inspired by the Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Cuban rhythms that had infused his own recordings and his work as a sideman with vibraphonist Cal Tjader, Guaraldi’s music echoed the emotional depth of Schulz’s creations. Amidst the unbridled joy of “Linus and Lucy,” the trio imbues Guaraldi’s poignant “Christmas Time Is Here” with quiet longing. Practically a standard itself now, the song fits in seamlessly next to the jazz arrangements of a half-dozen traditional Christmas songs.
In honor of Charles Schulz' recent centennial celebration, NPR FRESH AIR brought back Terry Gross' 1990 conversation with the legendary cartoonist himself, plus a new chat with jazz critic Kevin Whitehead about Guaraldi's lasting legacy as the creator of the iconic soundtrack.
One of jazz’s most ebulliently swinging pianists, Cyrus Chestnut has spoken often about A Charlie Brown Christmas as formative influence. He discusses Guaraldi’s timeless music with NPR host Lisa Simeone.
📰 How the Vince Guaraldi Trio's 'A Charlie Brown Christmas' Became the Soundtrack of the Holidays - VICE
A comprehensive deep dive that traces the evolution of the soundtrack from a simple TV score to one of the most popular albums of all time.
DEEP CUTS WE LOVE...
“Linus and Lucy” - Originally released on 1964’s Jazz Impressions of A Boy Named Charlie Brown, the soundtrack to an unproduced documentary about Peanuts cartoonist Charles Schulz, “Linus and Lucy” became an iconic theme as part of A Charlie Brown Christmas. Guaraldi used variations of the infectuously grooving tune arranged for flute, chimes, or harpsichord on many subsequent Peanuts specials. Almost a jazz standard, it’s been interpreted by artists as different as Dave Brubeck and David Benoit, Wynton Marsalis and George Winton.
“Skating” - Even more than “Linus & Lucy,” Guaraldi’s relatively brief piece “Skating” represents the radical nature of enlisting a hard-swinging jazz pianist to score a children’s animated television special. With a descending melodic line that calls to mind the Fats Waller standard “Jitterbug Waltz,” the tune evokes an ice skater gliding across a frozen pond, spinning in pleasure. Propelled by drummer Jerry Granelli’s caressing brushes, it’s an unapologetic jazz performance wedded to childhood innocence.
DID YOU KNOW?
- With certified sales of more than four million copies, A Charlie Brown Christmas is a quadruple platinum album.
- A Charlie Brown Christmas was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and added to the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress.
- Drummer Jerry Granelli created a stage show Tales of a Charlie Brown Christmas that recounted how Peanuts special was almost derailed several times. He performed the show widely at jazz festivals and theaters after its 2013 premiere.
- Vince Guaraldi’s trio recorded the score for A Charlie Brown Christmas without ever seeing any of the animation.
- In the 2020 Netflix documentary about Michelle Obama, Becoming, the First Lady confidently sits down at the piano and plays a chorus of “Linus and Lucy.”
Words: Andrew Gilbert