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Vince Guaraldi: A Charlie Brown Christmas (70th Anniversary LP)

12-02-2020 | By Tom Gibbs | Issue 112

The first Peanuts comic strips from cartoonist Charles Schulz appeared in newspapers in October, 1950, and Craft Recordings is celebrating 70 years of Peanuts and Charlie Brown this year with a limited edition series of LP releases. Next up: the original soundtrack from 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas television special; the soundtrack album has sold a slew of LPs and CDs over the years, at one point reaching the No. 1 position on the Billboard charts. And with 4x platinum sales over almost six decades, it's the second biggest selling jazz album of all time: Miles Davis' Kind Of Blue has a death grip on the top slot. A number of other Charlie Brown-themed albums have followed, but none have come close to the level of success of A Charlie Brown Christmas; it remains to this day the Vince Guaraldi Trio's best selling record.

The idea for A Charlie Brown Christmas evolved in 1964 while San Francisco bay area tv producer Lee Mendelson was developing a documentary for CBS about cartoonist Schulz and the popularity of his Peanuts cartoon strips. Mendelson chose local bay area jazz musician Vince Guaraldi to compose the soundtrack; he'd become familiar with Guaraldi's music for the film Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus, and was particularly smitten with its popular hit single, "Cast Your Fate to the Wind." Guaraldi's compositions for the documentary highlighted the action surrounding some of the strip's more popular characters, and the thirty-minute film, A Boy Named Charlie Brown, was basically ready to go in 1964. But the network eventually pulled the plug because Mendelson failed to sign a prominent on-air sponsor, and the project never aired.

Mendelson regrouped and came up with the concept for the animated Christmas special. Guaraldi then took some of the music he'd composed for the documentary, combined it with his jazzy improvisations on more traditional Christmas tunes, and the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas was born. The television special aired in 1965, and became an instant classic, airing every year since, and served as a launch pad for an entire range of Peanuts-themed specials and movies. Seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas on television for the first time as a kid literally changed my life. Yeah, we had The Jetsons and The Flintstones in prime time, but the animated Peanuts special had a jazzy sensibility that elevated it to a completely different level of sophistication—even for a seven-year-old. It was the first animated television show ever aired that didn't have a laugh track—there were laughs aplenty, but the clever use of silence and space also gave the viewer pause for thought-provoking reflection. And it was particularly fortuitous for me, even as a kid, because it offered my first exposure to any kind of jazz music—which would become one of the foundations of my appreciation of acoustic music. I've heard this music so very many times, it's literally etched in my brain, but never fails to elicit a positive response from me, usually accompanied by a broad smile!

Side One kicks off with a Guaraldi solo piano introduction to "O Tannenbaum," which quickly transitions into a smoothly jazzy improvisational take on the classic Christmas tree song, featuring Fred Marshall on bass with Jerry Granelli providing the superb brush work on the drums. The trio offers an equally impressive rendition of "What Child is This," which is followed by a rather nifty Guaraldi reworking of "The Little Drummer Boy" into "My Little Drum," which also features some vocal embellishment from a local Bay Area children's choir. The album's signature tune follows, the Guaraldi original "Linus and Lucy," which has become synonymous over the years with the Peanuts experience; the side closes with another Guaraldi original, the instrumental trio version of "Christmas Time is Here."

Side Two features another version of "Christmas Time is Here," but here the trio is joined by the same children's choir singing the lyrics to the song, and the tune has pretty much gone on to become a Christmas classic on its own. "Skating" is another instrumental vignette that illustrates one of the most entertaining segments of the special, where the entire animated cast is ice skating on a local pond. You get the first really great impression of the zaniness of Snoopy's character, and how important he is to the success of the series. It's followed by another children's choir offering of the classic "Hark, The Herald Angels Sing," which leads into another Guaraldi original, the rollicking "Christmas is Coming." Guaraldi offers a solo miniaturization of Beethoven's "Fur Elise" (Schroeder's music for the Christmas play); it flows into a really great Guaraldi reworking of Mel Torme's "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire)." For the album's last tune, the classic "Greensleeves," Marshall and Granelli depart and are replaced by the members of Guaraldi's regular trio, Monte Budwig on bass and Colin Bailey on drums. While essentially the same opening motif as on Side One's "What Child Is This," there's an extended central improvisation that lengthens the song to well over five minutes, which is more than double the Side One version.

As an immensely popular title, bound to garner significant interest from a variety of demographics, the LP reissue from Craft Recordings has been made available in a variety of formats. My review copy is the standard, 180 gram black vinyl LP; the reissue is also being made available in a variety of color choices and from a variety of vendors. For example, there's a clear vinyl with "exploding snowball" pressing that's also available from the Craft Recordings website; there's also a clear vinyl with red and green marbled splatter effect that's available from Urban Outfitters (and possibly in their stores). There's a green translucent version that's available from Target (and also possibly in their stores), as well as a half-green, half-red translucent vinyl version available from Amazon. And to make matters even more complicated, there's a translucent blue version with snowflake patterns that's available apparently from a host of online retailers, including WalMart. As one who finds a certain amount of allure in possessing beautifully colored LPs, I find this situation very difficult to wrap my brain around. If you're a Vince Guaraldi or Charlie Brown completist, your work is seriously cut out for you!

The sound quality of the 180 gram standard black vinyl LP was nothing short of superb; the LP had extremely glossy surfaces, and there was zero trace of any surface noise other than a touch of static during the first play. Afterwards, it was about as silent as great vinyl gets, and the pressing was completely flat, which is always an appreciated bonus. I can't comment on any of the colored-vinyl variations, since I didn't have access to any of them, but I will say this: in my experience with Craft Recordings, the colored-vinyl variants have virtually all been pressed on standard 140 gram vinyl (the Nickel Creek LPs are the exception). And the pressings have been exceptionally quiet and typically, perfectly flat on arrival. My listening was done through my usual analog front end, which features a ProJect Classic turntable fitted with a Hana SL moving coil cartridge, with the signal fed into a Musical Surroundings Phonomena II+ phono preamp that’s powered by a Michael Yee linear power supply. That signal is then fed into my PrimaLuna EVO 300, EL-34 based tube integrated power amplifier; the sound gets output via my Zu Audio Omen loudspeakers. I chose the tube amp’s ultralinear setting, which I felt offered a bit more midrange presence that totally benefitted the performance.

Also included in each album package, regardless of color variant, is a beautiful, 12" x 12" lenticular print of the original 1965 album cover—it's pretty impressive, the motion effect is cool, and it would look great in one of those LP frames hanging on your listening room wall! Buy the albums for the music—which is timeless and classic—but they're also particularly beautiful pressings as well (especially the colored-vinyl variations). Don't dally though; each variant is strictly limited to a fairly small number of pressings, and besides, you'll want to get a copy in time to enjoy it for the holidays. Thanks to Jacob Mask from Chummy Press and to Craft Recordings for all their assistance. The reissue LP of A Charlie Brown Christmas is very highly recommended!

Vince Guaraldi: A Charlie Brown Christmas (70th Anniversary LP). 180 gram LP: $24.99 MSRP. Standard 140 gram colored vinyl LP (multiple color versions available): $24.99 (and up, depending on location) MSRP.

Available from Craft Recordings, Amazon, Target Stores, Urban Outfitters, WalMart, among others.

All images courtesy of Craft Recordings.