Today we venture a wee bit outside the normal confines of rock and pop to recognize an artist who was successful, influential and likely created some music almost all of us love, even if we don’t know his name instantly. An artist who’s works have been borrowed from the likes of Joe Walsh and the Barenaked Ladies and covered by everyone from Sarah McLachlan to Chicago to Stewart & Gaskin. Vince Guaraldi was born this day in 1928.
Now if his name doesn’t ring a bell, give a listen to this piece and you’ll probably know him. For even people who don’t care much about jazz tend to know, and more often than not love Peanuts…and the soundtracks to the classic TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas, which he composed and played with his self-named trio.
Vince was born and raised in San Francisco, with two different uncles who led jazzy big bands. No surprise he soon learned to play piano (as well as guitar, but he always seemed more at home behind the 88-keys).
He was viewed as talented and innovative and became popular on the Bay Area club scene as a young man after leaving the military. He signed to local record company Fantasy Records in the mid-’50s and with the Trio put out several records which were decently reviewed and sold marginally OK for jazz records … which is to say, not that much. Perhaps… we’ll get to that in a bit. But his big break was 1962, when a piece of music he’d done called “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” was put out as a b-side to a 7” single of his. As seemed to happen regularly back then, some adventurous DJ flipped it over and liked the b-side better. So did his listeners, and soon it was a minor radio hit across the country, getting to #22, and being a mainstay on “middle of the road” stations. It won him a Grammy for Best Original Jazz composition. And, it won him an important fan – Lee Mendelson.
Mendelson was a TV producer who loved Peanuts. In 1963, he had an idea of doing a TV documentary about Charles Schulz and his beloved comic strip. He heard “Cast Your Fate To The Wind” on the radio and loved it, and thought that was the general sound he’d like for his documentary. He called Guaraldi, who seemingly like Charlie Brown too. He was enthusiastic and soon wrote “Linus & Lucy,” and called Mendelson to have him hear it. The producer remembers “it just blew me away. It was so right. So perfect for Schulz’s Peanuts characters.” They agreed to have Vince do a number of other tunes.
Unfortunately, Mendelson couldn’t get any sponsors or backers very interested in the documentary, so it was shelved. But along the way, someone had the idea of doing an animated TV show of A Charlie Brown Christmas, and this time sponsors like Coca Cola were interested. Several of the older works for the failed documentary were resurrected and some new ones like “Skating” and of course, “Christmas Time is Here” were made for it.
Needless to say, the cartoon and its music were both hits that became part of our culture quickly. The music was far more sophisticated than anything people had seen before on a cartoon, and it seemed, as Mendelso said, so perfect for the setting. Later the L.A. Times would credit it as the work which “introduced jazz to an entirely new generation.” They noted that even if it wasn’t in the same league as the real greats like Miles Davis, it was heard by more people and probably influenced more musicians down the road.
Guaraldi and Mendelson continued to work together on music for other Peanuts TV shows like It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, all of which had the same elegant Guaraldi musical touches, but didn’t necessarily make a huge cultural impact in comparison to the Christmas ones.
After the Christmas record, Guaraldi’s relationship with Fantasy Records soured…something which maybe should have been a red flag to John Fogerty and Creedence Clearwater Revival a few years later when they signed. Vince noticed fine print in his contract was only giving him 5% of sales – he thought he got more – and what’s more, that the reported sales seemed too low. He sued; Fantasy counter-sued. Eventually Saul Zaentz took over and the lawsuits were dropped, and Guaraldi left to form his own record label, D&D. But Zaentz seemed to continue the same business practices, and in 2011, Guaraldi’s sons sued Fantasy Records and its newer parent company, Concord, for at least $2 million claiming Fantasy deliberately “under-reported sales and underpaid royalties.”
They might have a valid point since A Charlie Brown Christmas has been certified quintuple platinum (over five million sales) and is the tenth biggest certified holiday seller since Nielsen began Soundscan, in 1991… years after it was already a huge seller every December.
After the hits with Peanuts, Guaraldi never had much more commercial success, but he seemed to care little. He recorded several more albums, added electric pianos and other newer instruments to some recordings and embraced “jazz rock fusion”, which seemed to annoy jazz purists but not rock enough to cross over to that genre’s stations. He kept playing small clubs, mostly in northern California to his death in 1976 mostly because he wanted to rather than needed the money.
Sadly he did die at 47 in ’76, soon after finishing up a show in Menlo Park. One he ended with a jazzy rendition of “Eleanor Rigby”, showing his willingness to listen to pop and rock, it would seem. He had a massive heart attack, which even more sadly perhaps could have been prevented. He’d been complaining of being very tired and having stomach problems for a week, and had seen his doctor who wrote it off as developing ulcers or perhaps complications of a hernia.
New wavers Stewart & Gaskin covered his “Cast Your Fate to the Wind” in 1992 and his own version showed up in the movie Good Morning Vietnam, and was even incorporated into another piece by Joe Walsh’s James Gang. But it is his Christmas music that has resonated most deeply in pop. “Christmas Time is Here” is still a seasonal standard in his original form, and has been covered by a bevy of artists including Sarah McLachlan, Mariah Carey, Chicago, Jars of Clay and Melissa Manchester.