Which of course leads us to the thing for which Guaraldi is MOST famous: Charlie Brown!
If Charles Schulz is the genius creator of the visuals and story lines of the Peanuts series, Vince Guaraldi must be rightfully considered the creator of the emotional culture surrounding the lovable characters. His music in a sense binds us to those beloved images in a way that nothing else can.
The Christmas special, in particular, is the story of a boy who has a kind of negative attitude toward life and gets depressed at the approach of Christmas. Charlie Brown eventually finds contentment in the true meaning of Christmas, which, as you may recall, is the recitation of the Nativity story from Luke’s Gospel.
In other words, the Gospel message is the very center of the Christmas special, which makes Charlie Brown a sort of evangelist in his own way for generations of kids and adults. It is said that Charles Schulz insisted on keeping that recitation of the Nativity in the show when the producers and promoters wanted to cut it out because they thought it was too preachy.
The Lord has told us that we can only enter the Kingdom of God by way of childhood, and Charlie Brown certainly helps us do that. When we watch a Charlie Brown special, we must enter the world of innocence. Every sentiment, image, and thought speaks of that pure approach to life and faith that is rapidly being drained out of our society today. I think that’s why people tend to get so nostalgic about those wonderful Peanuts specials (see list at the end).
A Combination of Talents
But the Charlie Brown Christmas special didn’t come about on its own. Three incredibly talented men pooled their skills to bring to life one of the most touching stories in modern history: the cartoonist, the musician, and the producer.
Lee Mendelson was a San Francisco television producer who contracted with Charles Schulz to produce the first Peanuts Christmas special. As the story goes, one day Mendelson was driving across the Golden Gate Bridge and heard Guaraldi’s “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” on the radio. He immediately thought jazzy music like that would be a good fit for the full-length cartoon, and as it turns out, that was an understatement.
Shortly after that, the two men talked on the phone and Guaraldi went to work. Within two weeks, he called Mendelson in a burst of excitement. He was working on a song he thought would be perfect for the show, and he wanted to play it for Mendelson while it was fresh in his mind. He hadn’t even written it down yet!
Mendelson preferred to hear it in a studio but Guaraldi was insistent: he had to play it over the phone right then and there for his producer. When he heard it, Mendelson was immediately hooked. Guaraldi had just created the signature song for the whole Peanuts series, called “Linus and Lucy” (see video below).
Incredibly, Guaraldi wrote the entire score of the Charlie Brown Christmas special in three hours. Wow. And the rest is history.
An Untimely Demise…
There is so much of interest in Guaraldi’s story that I can’t do justice to it in a short article (If you’d like to read an unexpectedly good piece from CNN on the Charlie Brown Christmas special, check it out here), but he was a truly fascinating guy who left an indelible impression of beauty and goodness on a whole nation.
Like so many creative geniuses in history, Guaraldi was not long for this world. He had a work to finish, and when it was done, he was done.
On February 6, 1976, the evening of the very day he finished recording the last of his Peanuts sound tracks, Guaraldi was doing what he loved best, performing on stage. Between sets that night, he was with a friend in a hotel room when he keeled over and died instantly from a massive heart attack. Guaraldi was only 47.
The world lost an irreplaceable talent that day. Guaraldi’s mother, Carmella, insisted that several of her son’s Peanuts music pieces be played at the funeral, and, of course, there was not a dry eye in the house.
Charles Schulz outlived Guaraldi by almost a quarter century and also died of a heart attack at the age of 77 (in the year 2000). And, in an incredible irony, Lee Mendelson, the producer of the beloved Christmas show, died in 2019 at the age of 86 … on Christmas Day.
…But An Unforgettable Legacy
The average American would probably never have heard of Vince Guaraldi were it not for his Charlie Brown creations, but our culture is richer because he shared his gifts with the world in an extraordinary way. In addition to his own jazz albums, Guaraldi recorded sixteen Charlie Brown soundtracks including the Christmas special.
Many more Peanuts specials were produced after Guaraldi’s passing, but they were never the same. His biographer Derrick Bang said that no one who came after Guaraldi ever “produced a song or theme anywhere near as catchy as the Master.” How true.
My favorite reference to Guaraldi’s impact, however, comes from a comment I saw on the YouTube channel of “A Charlie Brown Christmas”:
I know that Mr. Guaraldi is no longer with us. But if I could tell him one thing, it would be, “Thank you for making my childhood Christmases, magical.” I still get that warm and fuzzy feeling even now, in my 60’s. Very grateful for that.
The person who made the comment was undoubtedly speaking the sentiments of millions.
Charlie Brown Features
Due to a tight production timeline for the Christmas special, Lee Mendelson couldn’t find an artist to write the lyrics for the beloved song, “Christmastime is Here” (first clip below), so he wrote the lyrics himself. It was recorded by the children’s choir from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in San Rafael, CA.
Enjoy these blessed classics and Merry Christmas to you and yours from Sacred Windows!
Opening of “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1:30)
Signature Song: “Linus and Lucy” (3:02)
And my favorite: “Skating” (Audio only, 2:22)
Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts Soundtrack List
1964 A Boy Named Charlie Brown (documentary)
1965 A Charlie Brown Christmas
1966 Charlie Brown’s All Stars!
1966 It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown
1967 You’re in Love, Charlie Brown
1968 He’s Your Dog, Charlie Brown
1969 Charlie Brown and Charles Schulz
1969 It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown
1971 Play It Again, Charlie Brown
1972 You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown
1973 There’s No Time for Love, Charlie Brown
1974 It’s a Mystery, Charlie Brown
1974 It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown
1975 Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown
1975 You’re a Good Sport, Charlie Brown
1976 It’s Arbor Day, Charlie Brown
Photo Credits: Peanuts Soundtrack List (Wikipedia); Snoopy Macy’s Day Balloon (Jazz Guy from New Jersey);Lee Mendelson (It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown DVD, Warner Home Video ); Peanuts Characters (mliu92 from San Mateo); Snoopy Museum Tokyo (Syced); Schulz Hollywood Star (Neelix, Public domain); Guaraldi (YouTube screenshot); Snoopy-Woodstock (Wagner Paintings Gallery).