Scoring Charlie Brown

Sacramento’s connection to the greatest Christmas special of all time

Everybody everywhere knows Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas is a seasonal essential. How cozily the late San Francisco jazz pixie’s piano-based trio tucks into that familiar mix of traditional and original tunes, as you’d tuck your hands into woolen pockets, your chin into a scarf. As of last week, the album’s namesake TV special has aired on CBS for 41 years in a row. By now, nobody would deny the just-rightness of Guaraldi’s elegantly melancholic music for the inaugural animated Peanuts cartoon—and, by extension, for a precious and everlasting holiday mood.

Sacramentans in particular have good reason to give the album’s new Fantasy Records enhanced-edition reissue a whirl. Purists will know that previous releases got the performance credits wrong, but they’re listed properly now (yes, that’s actually bassist Fred Marshall’s warm support and drummer Jerry Granelli’s light framework of rim clicks, brush work and cymbal bells). Mere adherents will appreciate four new, illuminating alternate takes. Everybody else can gloat about how Sacramento made Guaraldi famous in the first place.

It’s right there on page one of the liner notes, by San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joel Selvin: another passing reference to Guaraldi’s big break on Sacramento radio. What’s that about?

In 1962, before Charlie Brown, Guaraldi’s trio released Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus, a spirited take on Antonio Carlos Jobim and Luiz Bonfá’s already spirited soundtrack to the Marcel Camus film. Naturally, “Samba de Orpheus” became the album’s single, but the b-side proved more important. That was a tune called “Cast Your Fate to the Wind,” an original that Guaraldi had played in clubs for years, and the album’s shortest track at just over three minutes. It was supposed to be an obscurity—filler, as far as producers were concerned.

To some radio programmers in Sacramento, though, it was a discovery. Or so says the lore. “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” got some airplay here, the story goes, and listener support that eventually would tip Guaraldi’s career.

Some accounts hold that it happened accidentally, some say willfully, and there isn’t even a consensus on which station was responsible. “I do remember it being on our playlist, but do not remember it being a smash hit,” recalled Les Thompson, a KXOA deejay during the early ’60s who now lives in Carmichael. “As I recall, it did fairly well here in Sacramento.”

Just fairly well? “It’s been a long time and I really don’t remember anything special,” said another alleged Guaraldi advocate and former KROY programming director Buck Herring, who later relocated to Colorado, “except that our group of deejays liked the sound and began to play it in rotation on the playlist. Nothing exotic, I’m afraid.”

Yet, if you ask A Charlie Brown Christmas producer Lee Mendelson about it, as SN&R did last week, he’ll tell you: “It’s true. Those Sacramento disc jockeys were responsible for it all.” Mendelson, who still lives and works in Burlingame, recalled that he’d been intending a documentary about Peanuts creator Charles Schulz when he first got an earful of Guaraldi’s unlikely second single, and knew he’d found his ideal composer. The documentary didn’t work out, but that scrappy little Christmas special seems to have gotten by OK.

“When I heard ‘Cast Your Fate to the Wind,’ it had the adult quality of jazz but there was something childlike about it, too,” Mendelson said. “And ‘Linus and Lucy’ is similar in tone. You can tell the same guy wrote it.”

Sure enough. Try listening to the grace-note-lilted voicings and easy-swinging metrical frolic of “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” without bouncing back to A Charlie Brown Christmas. Childlike, yes, but not childish, nor even cartoonish—which you can’t say for most of today’s popular Christmas treacle—and that’s part of Guaraldi’s longevity.

It’s also thanks to Mendelson—and to whoever brought the ideal composer to his attention. If no one wants to hog credit for that, it might be because of something Sacramentans have in common with good ol’ Charlie Brown: modest, unpretentious good taste.