What better way to celebrate Peanuts than with fine jazz artists playing music from and inspired by the animated specials and the comic strip from which they sprang forth?
“It’s perfectly possible for me to sit here in this room all by myself with an idea which I think is really funny, and to sit here and laugh at it while I’m drawing. Sometimes when I have an idea which is really good, especially for a Sunday page, I work myself up into such a nervous pitch, that I can hardly letter the thing—I’m so anxious to get the thing down on paper.”
-Charles M. Schulz
HAPPY ANNIVERSARY, CHARLIE BROWN!
GRP Records GR-9596 (12” 33 rpm LP) GRD-9596 (Compact Disc) (Stereo)
Released in 1989. Executive Producers: Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen in Cooperation with Lee Mendelson Productions and United Media. Producer: Michael Abene. Co-Producer: Gretchen Hoffman Abene. Engineer: Josiah Gluck. Liner Notes: Larry Rosen. Design: Lee Corey, Andy Ruggirello. Illustration: Charles M. Schulz. Running Time: 48 minutes.
Voices: Kaleb Henley (Charlie Brown); Brandon Stewart); Jennifer Banko (Lucy); Nichole Buda (Peppermint Patty).
• “Linus and Lucy” from A Boy Named Charlie Brown (Documentary) (Vince Guaraldi)-
• “Joe Cool” from You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown (Vince Guaraldi / Desiree Goyette) – B.B. King
• “History Lesson” (Dave Grusin) – Dave Grusin
• “The Great Pumpkin Waltz” from It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (Vince Guaraldi)– Chick Corea
• “Little Birdie” from A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (Vince Guaraldi) – Joe Williams
• “Rain, Rain, Go Away” from Charlie Brown’s All-Stars (Vince Guaraldi) – Gerry Mulligan
• “Breadline Blues” (Dave Grusin) – Kenny G
• “The Red Baron” from It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (Vince Guaraldi)– Lee Ritenour
• “Christmas Time is Here” from A Charlie Brown Christmas (Vince Guaraldi / Lee Mendelson)– Patti Austin
• ”Charlie Brown Theme” from A Boy Named Charlie Brown (Documentary) (Vince Guaraldi)– Amani A. W.-Murray
• “Linus and Lucy” (Reprise) (Vince Guaraldi) – David Benoit with The Peanuts Gang
The album opens with the popular, contemporized version of “Linus and Lucy” by pianist David Benoit, followed by a combination of Vince Guaraldi melodies and a few new compositions. There is a definite sense of respect and admiration among the participants for Peanuts, Guaraldi and the way Peanuts helped bring a specific form of piano jazz mainstream prime time cartoons.
Jazz was never a stranger to animation, as you can see in detail in James Parten’s fascinating Needle Drop Notes, which alternate here with Animation Spin on Tuesdays. The Fleischer studio brought in some of the all-time greats to perform on-camera as well as behind the animation. Almost every studio took on the big band sound of the forties with great success and some, like UPA, went for a more progressive or bluesy sound in the fifties. Hoyt Curtin brought jazz combos as well as big bands to The Flintstones, Top Cat and The Jetsons. But Peanuts was revolutionary because, until the seventies, the music was usually all jazz, all the time.
That initially made some decision-makers nervous. A lot about Peanuts made people nervous—its introspective, erudite nature, and especially Linus’ quotation in the first special, A Charlie Brown Christmas. “That bible thing scares us,” said one exec. Peanuts could be cute but it wasn’t adorable in the conventional sense. Guaraldi’s music was ideal. It captured in sound the gentle simplicity and razor-sharp depth of the comic strip at its best. It could be exuberant, it could be sad and somewhere in between. It was the musical embodiment of every character, especially Charlie Brown.
A decade earlier, the 30th anniversary of Peanuts was celebrated by with a hardcover book and was also marked with a CBS primetime hour-long special in early 1979 called Happy Birthday, Charlie Brown commemorating the 15th year of Peanuts television specials (though the characters had already appeared in Ford TV advertising).
CBS personality and sports anchor Phyllis George hosts the CBS salute. A blend of clips and “interviews,” one of the upsides is hearing the original star of Snoopy!!!, Don Potter, sing “The Big Bow-Wow” before the musical became its own special.
For those who know their Peanuts records, the most interesting part comes at the end, when the 1979 voice cast does a roll call. They are the same actors heard on the Disneyland/Vista Charlie Brown Records series of albums and read-alongs, including Arrin Skelley, Michelle Muller and Daniel Anderson. After they call off their names, the music heard is “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” from the Hallmark TV Cast LP of the 1973 NBC special, which we explored in this Spin. Someone added You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown to YouTube recently, if you have not seen it.
HERE’S TO YOU, CHARLIE BROWN: 50 GREAT YEARS!
Music from the CBS TV Special
GRP Records 314 543 637-2 (Compact Disc / Stereo)
Released on April 25, 2000. Producer: Tommy LiPuma. Engineers: Bill Schnee, Clark Germain, Marcelo Pennell, Koji Egawa. Liner Notes: David Benoit, Lee Mendelson. Recorded in New York, Hollywood and Nashville. Running Time: 42 minutes.
Musicians: David Benoit (Piano), Christian McBride (Bass), Peter Erskine (Drums, Percussion).
Guest Artists: Vince Guaraldi (archival), Marc Antoine (Guitar); Russell Malone (Guitar); Chris Botti (Trumpet); Michael Brecker (Tenor Saxophone); Take 6 (Vocals); Al Jarreau (Vocals)
Music by Vince Guaraldi: “Linus and Lucy,” “Charlie Brown Theme,” “Pebble Beach,” “Frieda,” “Christmas Time is Here” (Lyrics by Lee Mendelson), “Blue Charlie Brown,” “Red Baron.”
Other Music: “Linus Tells Charlie,” “Getting Ready” by David Benoit; “Happiness” by Clark Gesner.
“I read the Peanuts comic strip and I identified with Charlie Brown right away, just because he was a loser and couldn’t get anything right and depressed most of the time,” jazz pianist David Benoit told interviewer John Bathke with a chuckle. “It was like my childhood. Until I really got good at the piano, I just couldn’t find myself. Then I started getting better at the piano and that special came on–A Charlie Brown Christmas–and it just turned me on. It was like, “That’s what I want to do.”
After Peanuts special producer Lee Mendelson heard Benoit’s recording of “Christmastime is Here” (from the album, Christmastime), the musician was given the dream job of composing an episode of This is America, Charlie Brown called “The Great Inventors.” Benoit ended up working with Mendelson on Peanuts (and Garfield) projects for the ensuing decades, as well as for director Steve Martino for the excellent Peanuts Movie.
The CBS retrospective special Here’s to You, Charlie Brown: 50 Great Years was also a CBS retrospective special, first broadcast in January of 2000, a month before Charles Schulz died in his sleep. It must have also been rerun a few months later because the version on the YouTube link below is bookended with mentions of his passing.
A blend of CBS entertainment and news documentary form (the iconic Walter Cronkite made an appearance), it was hosted by Whoopi Goldberg. Two musical highlights are Faith Hill singing Larry Grossman and Hal Hackady’s “Poor Sweet Baby,” originally sung by Pamela Myers in Snoopy!!! (see this Spin ), and the legendary B.B. King performing Vince Guaraldi’s “Joe Cool,” heard on the 1989 Happy Anniversary album.
It would also be great to once again see the 1969 documentary, Charlie Brown and Charlie Schulz — which was also tied into an excellent companion book that followed the history of comic strips as well as Peanuts. We’ll have to keep Googling. Apparently, there have been no albums of new music to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Peanuts, but Fantasy Records has reissued a Peanuts Greatest Hits album of previous Vince Guaraldi classics on CD and picture disc.
IT’S A DAVID BENOIT CHRISTMAS!
Featuring the Music of Vince Guaraldi and Other Holiday Favorites
Steinway & Sons (Compact Disc / Stereo)
Released on August 18, 2020. Executive Producers: Eric Feidner, Jon Feidner. Producer: Jon Feidner. Engineer: Laura Sclafani. Assistant Engineer: Melody Nieun Huang. Editor: Jon Feidner. Editing/Mastering: Daniel Shores. Production Assistant: Renée Oakford. Paino Technician: Laura Sclafani. Art Direction: Jackie Fugene. Recorded at Steinway Hall, New York. Running Time: 69 minutes.
Music: “Christmas Time is Here” by Vince Guaraldi and Lee Mendelson; “Skating,” “Christmas is Coming,” “My Little Drum,” “Peppermint Patty,” “You’re in Love, Charlie Brown,” “Pebble Beach,” “Red Baron,” “Linus and Lucy,” “Oh Good Grief” by Vince Guaraldi; “Just Like Me” by David Benoit; “My Favorite Things” by Richard Rodgers, Oscar Hammerstein II, Arranged by David Benoit; “The Christmas Song” by Mel Tormé and Robert Wells, Arranged by Vince Guaraldi; “Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town” by J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie, Arranged by David Benoit; “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” by Felix Mendelson, Charles Wesley and George Whitefield, Arranged by Vince Guaraldi; “What Child is This” (Traditional) Arranged by Vince Guaraldi.
This seems to be the only album of new musical material commemorating the 70th anniversary of Peanuts, and it does so in a most significant way. David Benoit salutes the holiday special that many consider being the greatest of one of them all, one that never seems to lose its subtle impact.
It again seems fitting that this should be performed by the musician whom Charles M. Schulz and Lee Mendelsohn awarded the heady Guaraldi mantle of jazz piano successor. And unlike the albums mentioned above and Benoit’s 2008 Jazz for Peanuts with other jazz musicians, this album is performed with piano alone.
It’s a David Benoit Christmas! is a tribute to the comic strip, the films and the music of Peanuts, but it can also be seen as a salute to the original soundtrack album of A Charlie Brown Christmas. It seems, at least to this author, that the reissues of the original LP seemed to always have sides one and two reversed.
As this Animation Spin explains, it has seemed odd that the 1965 album does not begin with the vocal of “Christmas Time is Here” and end with the instrumental of the song. Instead, it begins with “O Tannenbaum” and ends with “The Christmas Song.”
It was not uncommon for record albums to save hit songs for side two. Indeed, Everything’s Archie placed “Sugar, Sugar” on side two. But in this case, the vocal and the instrumental of “Christmas Time is Here” are such perfect bookends that it does not seem to make sense.
The very first 1965 Fantasy Records release of A Charlie Brown Christmas had no tracklist on the album cover. The labels on the record itself did not say which side was one or two. However, the “matrix numbers,” which are those identification codes etched into the “runout” section of the plastic can be seen on the label, at least on one pressing, as “F-2531” and F-2532.” According to those codes, “O Tannenbaum” actually did come first and that must be why every CD, vinyl and picture disc reissue of A Charlie Brown Christmas has been done in that order.
Nevertheless, it still seems odd and makes for a less cohesive musical program. It makes the instrumental and the vocal of “Christmas Time is Here” seem to awkwardly “bump into” each other rather when played in that sequence, rather than providing a nice “main title” and “finale.” (We have always played side two first.)
Because It’s a David Benoit Christmas! contains all the music from A Charlie Brown Christmas, David Benoit and his creative associates have, for the first time, modified the track order for this album in a more logical way. Some compositions now appear sooner and others are saved for later, as additional Peanuts themes and other holiday tunes are inserted. Altogether it makes for a very pleasing new program, done in a solo style echoing the unpretentious world of Peanuts.
Also during this 70th Peanuts anniversary year, Fantasy Records reissued their Peanuts Greatest Hits album of previous Vince Guaraldi classics on CD and picture disc.