Which of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts gang do you identify with? Charlie Brown? Lucy? Or maybe even Snoopy? It comes as no surprise that musician Jerry Granelli is partial to Linus.
Fifty years ago Granelli went into a San Francisco studio as part of the Vince Guaraldi Trio and stepped into the entertainment history book. With Granelli on drums, Guaraldi on piano, and Fred Marshall on bass, the trio recorded the soundtrack to what would become one of the most endearing and enduring Christmas animated television specials, A Charlie Brown Christmas.
“We did it all in one day over three hours, but Vince did us a favour and paid us for two sessions,” says Granelli by Skype from his home in Halifax.
Paid just $120 for the session in 1965, Granelli has not seen any royalties from a show that re-appears each year on television, or the soundtrack that has gone on to sell millions of albums. Far from bitter though, Granelli has fond memories of being part of something so iconic. “It was a tremendous amount of fun,” recalls Granelli.
It was also just another job for a group of musicians who were more at home in jazz clubs. Having rehearsed the music that would soon be part of A Charlie Brown Christmas in those same clubs, the trio went into the studio to record without having seen the cartoon. It meant they had no idea how long to continue playing each piece.
“It’s the reason the music sort of fades in and out during the show,” explains Granelli.
While the special received a lukewarm reception from CBS, it was an immediate hit with viewers at home. Television estimates put the show’s original audience at nearly 50% of all those watching television that night, and the special continues to pull consistently large numbers each year. That longevity doesn’t surprise Granelli.
“It’s become one of the soundtracks of people’s lives,” he says. “There is such a human quality to it.”
While hindsight may be 20/20, the realization of just what Granelli had helped to create would take some time.
Leaving the Vince Guaraldi Trio shortly after the Charlie Brown recording, Granelli concentrated on his work as a drummer with some of jazz music greats. He would release his first solo album, 1313, in 2010.
“Charlie Brown was percolating every year, but I didn’t pay any attention to it,” admits Granelli. “Being young and ambitious I concentrated on my own life and work.”
It would be another 45 years before Granelli would revisit his place in television history, and he has since parlayed his memories into a concert performance, aptly titled Tales of a Charlie Brown Christmas.
“It’s become one of the soundtracks of people’s lives. There is such a human quality to it.” – Jerry Granelli
The only surviving member of the original trio, Granelli has teamed up with his new trio, including Simon Fisk on bass and Chris Gestrin on piano. With clips from the cartoon used with permission from the Charles M Schultz Foundation, the Jerry Granelli Trio not only recreates the soundtrack, Granelli also tells stories about how it all came to be.
“I wasn’t interested in nostalgia, but there are a million beautiful stories that came out of it,” he says.
Joined by the Irwin Park Elementary School Children’s Choir in the upcoming show in West Vancouver, it is through the children who perform with the trio at each concert that Granelli has found his internal Linus.
“In each show there is a young child that they pick to tell the story, and I’ve got closer to Linus through these children; the fragility of Linus, and the strength of Linus,” says Granelli.
Not content to live entirely in the past though, Granelli, who turns 76 in December, celebrates his birthday by going back into the studio to record another album.
Tales of a Charlie Brown Christmas with the Jerry Granelli Trio plays the Kay Meek Centre (1700 Mathers Ave, West Vancouver) on December 9. For tickets and information visit https://coastaljazz.ca.