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Inside the formula that made ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’ a holiday music hit

<i>Allstar Picture Library Limited/Alamy Stock Photo</i><br/>
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Allstar Picture Library Limited/Alamy Stock Photo
"A Charlie Brown Christmas" is a holiday music hit.

By AJ Willingham, CNN

The familiar tunes of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” transport us. The opening measures make us children again, abed after Christmas dinner as the subtle sounds of the record player waft in from another room.

Though the beloved television special is unquestionably iconic today, its place in Christmas music history wasn’t always assured. In 1965, when “A Charlie Brown Christmas” first aired, Christmas jazz wasn’t exactly a thing. Jazz in family-friendly TV specials wasn’t really a thing, either.

It took a few brilliant, wild minds — and a host of unexpected inspiration — to bring it all together. The musical formula they created didn’t just make “A Charlie Brown Christmas” an instant hit. It helped change the sound of Christmas music for generations to come.

The first ingredient: Something unexpected

The man at the center of “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and most other music associated with more than a dozen “Peanuts” TV specials, is Vince Guaraldi. A prominent pianist at the time, Guaraldi brought a fierce musicianship that he honed playing with some of the best jazz combos in Northern California, where he was born and based.

The idea to pair jazz with the “Peanuts” comic strip, however, began with television producer Lee Mendelson, who admired cartoonist Charles Schulz’s work and was determined to bring his comic characters to the small screen. For whatever reason, Mendelson was sold on the idea that jazz would be the perfect accompaniment to a “Peanuts” special.

“It seems so absurd looking back, but jazz had a lot of strikes against it,” explains Derrick Bang, speaking to CNN as a jazz expert, entertainment journalist and “Peanuts” historian.

“We’re talking about the early 1960s. A major part of the country equated it with Black performers. A lot of people thought the sound was too ‘out there,’ and there was still a lingering sense of the genre being equated with sin and depravity,” he says. “Productions that featured jazz, most famously ‘The Man with the Golden Arm,’ dealt heavily with vice.”

In other words, it wasn’t the rollicking classical music one expected from most Disney shorts or Looney Tunes. Yet still, Mendelson knew what he wanted. When he heard Guaraldi’s single “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” on the radio while driving through San Francisco, he knew who he wanted it from.

Mendelson convinced Guaraldi to work with him on a 1963 documentary called “A Boy Named Charlie Brown.” The work never aired, but the album that resulted — called “Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown,” was a hit. It was also enough for Mendelson to call upon Guaraldi for a frantic, last minute holiday project that would become “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

The second ingredient: Something new

How did a jazz artist intend to build a musical backdrop for a group of cartoon children most people knew from the Sunday funnies — and add Christmas flair?

The answer lay in an up-and-coming sound from Brazil called “bossa nova.” The term means “new wave” in Portuguese, and is characterized by syncopated samba rhythms, unusual chord progressions and laid-back percussion.

“If you pretend for a moment that you don’t know these iconic cues and melodies, you would immediately recognize them as bossa nova,” Bang says. “And that sound is by nature cheerful, uplifting and happy.”

In the mid-1960s, it was also amassing major popularity in the US. “The Girl from Ipanema,” one of the most well-known bossa nova songs, was also a raging hit at the time and won a Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1965. In fact, the song that led Mendelson to Guaraldi’s work initially appeared on the B-side of “Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus,” the bossa nova-inspired album that made Guaraldi famous. The musician composed and recorded the album in tribute to the Academy Award-winning French-Brazilian film, which sets the classic Greek tragedy in a Rio de Janeiro slum.

“Jazz was at a transition point,” Bang says. “Bossa nova was one of the things that helped smooth its way to popularity.”

In creating music for the “Peanuts” world, Guaraldi also employed a technique that wouldn’t fully come on the cinematic scene for another decade.

“Guaraldi had an uncanny facility for melodic hooks that became earworms,” Bang says. “So he created these melodies that became themes, and they suited individual ‘Peanuts’ characters perfectly.” Examples of this can be also heard in subsequent “Peanuts” specials, for characters like Peppermint Patty and Snoopy’s Red Baron persona.

A musical theme that indicates the appearance of a character, group or moment is called a leitmotif. While the concept has roots in orchestral and operatic music, and did appear in early films, it didn’t become as prevalent in movie-making until John Williams’ seminal work on the original “Star Wars” trilogy in the 1970s and ’80s.

The third ingredient: Something that lasts

Finally, in the winter of 1965, after years of trying to get the “Peanuts” gang on TV — and a tight production schedule dictated by the program’s sponsors — “A Charlie Brown Christmas” went to air. Those involved were not optimistic. CBS executives reportedly hated the artistic choices, hated the jazz soundtrack, and were convinced it would be the first and last Charlie Brown special ever.

Audiences, did not agree. The special was an immediate hit, and its success bore the promise of a lasting tradition.

“After it aired, (the producers) thought it was over and done. The notion of a repeated holiday special was alien,” Bang says. “But CBS kept playing it, year after year. And that’s how tradition is established. This was before VCRs, so people knew they had to sit down and watch it at a certain time. It became a family tradition akin to decorating the tree or wrapping presents.”

The musical impact of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” took longer to unfold.

“I would have to say this part of Guaraldi’s career didn’t resonate in larger circles during his lifetime,” Bang says. “Everyone was scrambling to cover (his single) ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind,’ but not his ‘Peanuts’ work.”

To be clear, jazz musicians, especially Black artists whose work was often undervalued by the masses, had made Christmas albums before. But “A Charlie Brown Christmas” was the first time that particular combination permeated deep into American culture, and it was decades before people chose to replicate it with any kind of regularity.

The true resurgence of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” as a musical feat began in 1986, when jazz great David Benoit covered “Linus and Lucy” on his album “This Side Up.” The following year, the original album appeared on the Billboard Christmas album sales chart for the very first time. A general swelling of interest in jazz over the next decade lifted the work even higher, and things entered a new realm when Cyrus Chestnut, another jazz giant, covered the entire soundtrack in 2000.

Through the 2000s, songs from the special re-entered the charts on a steady basis. The album was remastered and re-released, covered and streamed, and in 2021 it became the first jazz album to reach Billboard’s Top 10 albums outside of a specialty category. In 2021, Billboard deemed “A Charlie Brown Christmas” the No. 1 Greatest Holiday 200 album of all time. This year, RIAA certified the album quintuple platinum, marking 5 million sales.

During this period, Bang notes a general increase in Christmas jazz album releases. Whether growth in the genre was influenced by “A Charlie Brown Christmas” coming back on the scene, or an expanded interest in jazz as a whole, he describes it as a definite “parallel phenomenon.”

Bang, who wrote and researched the liner notes for a special expanded re-release of the album this year, says the cultural impact of the music from “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is something even greater to behold.

“During that project I had the privilege of speaking with Guaraldi’s drummer, Jerry Granelli, before he died,” Bang says. “There is kind of a cottage industry of jazz groups playing ‘Charlie Brown’ shows around the holidays now, and he had started doing so in 2013. You could hear the joy in his voice when he described families coming up after the show, sometimes three generations at a time.”

“A grandfather, accompanied by his son, accompanied by his grandson, all telling him how much this music had meant to them.”

The little unassuming Christmas special, with its strange music, has come a long way in 57 years. But the most enduring aspect may be that, no matter how many albums are sold or how far its impact resonates, when we turn it on, we feel like children once again.

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