By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
This story was to have been about only one thing: how the soundtrack to a marginal 1965 television special has become one of the best-selling holiday albums, one that grows more popular with each passing year. It was to have simply been a love letter to A Charlie Brown Christmas--a sparse, elegant, poignant album that transcends usual holiday-music fare by saying so much using so very little. The album--currently the 17th-best-selling album on amazon.com, making it the highest-ranking Christmas album on the Web site's charts--is a cool-jazz treasure in miniature that sounds like the night before and the night after Christmas. No sugar-coated silent-night ballads, no histrionic jingle-bell caroling, no nothing save for the sound of Vince Guaraldi's piano strokes falling like snowflakes while a bassist and drummer, using brushes, whisper in the background.
The album serves as both a nostalgic vestige for children raised on the Charlie Brown Christmas special that airs annually on CBS-TV and as a stand-alone monument to Guaraldi's vision of Charles Schulz's characters, these frail little children "confronted with the illogical, blind, and mechanistic world," as the late San Francisco Chronicle jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason wrote in the album's original liner notes. And, as Wynton Marsalis puts it in the liner notes for his 1995 Joe Cool's Blues, "When I was a boy, the only time you would hear jazz on television was when Charlie Brown came to town."
Guaraldi's music for A Charlie Brown Christmas became far more influential than he would ever know. He was 47 years old in February 1976, when he died of a heart attack between sets at a club in San Francisco. He would never hear the records Wynton Marsalis and George Winston recorded in his honor; he would never hear Shawn Colvin's just-released tender reading of his ballad "Christmas Time is Here." Indeed, this year alone Chicago, Brian McKnight, Kenny Loggins, jazz singer Diana Krall, and a handful of others have recorded versions of "Christmas Time is Here," joining Mel Torme, Rosemary Clooney, Combustible Edison pianist Brad Meldhau, even guitarist Steve Vai on the long list of those who've recorded the song. The tune, with or without lyrics, is as lovely as any holiday standard, indestructible even in the soft, wet hands of Loggins.
Yet, surprisingly, this story about the beloved Christmas album is not filled with much goodwill toward men. Indeed, the more one digs into the history of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the more one uncovers grumbling and bitterness--not to mention a few other tidbits of revisionist history. Who in Linus' name would have thunk it? Guaraldi's venerable album, the musical counterpart to a television special about a big-headed Everychump and his rickety little tree and the true meaning of Christmas, comes bearing controversy.
It's like finding out there's no Great Pumpkin.
The whole squabble concerns just who plays on A Charlie Brown Christmas. As it turns out, Fantasy Records, which released most of Guaraldi's work during his lifetime, has always had the wrong performance credits on the record, meaning that the musicians forever credited--bassist Monty Budwig and drummer Colin Bailey--don't even play on A Charlie Brown Christmas. For die-hard fans of the album, the revelation is a little like finding out Ringo Starr and George Harrison didn't play on Revolver. It changes history just enough.
Fact is, the original vinyl version of A Charlie Brown Christmas, released in the 1960s, didn't feature any performance credits, just Gleason's winsome, knotty liner notes. Only when Fantasy reissued the album on CD in the mid-1980s did the label see fit to include the roster of musicians playing on the record--then got it wrong.
And, as it turns out, the soundtrack isn't really even a soundtrack.
"The credits are wrong," says Bill Belmont, Fantasy's director of international sales. "Or semi-wrong, not exactly right--or weird. But this is what happens when you enter Snoopyland. It is a whole other world."
Belmont only discovered the credits foul-up a year ago, when he received a phone call from an irate Fred Marshall, who called demanding to know why he and drummer Jerry Granelli weren't properly credited on the album instead of Budwig and Bailey. In an interview, the bass player says he waited more than 30 years after the fact to call Fantasy on the mistake because he only just discovered it. Last December, his daughter went to a music store to buy the CD version of the record her daddy played on...and discovered someone else's name was in his place. Marshall's daughter promptly took the album back to the store and said she didn't want one that had the wrong name on it.
"My kids were raised with the record, as were most kids I've ever met anywhere," says Marshall, reached at his Oakland, California, home. "That's why my daughter was so heartbroken when she went to buy the record and found out my name wasn't on it. It was kind of a shock to have your work attributed to someone else. I don't want to have other people's work attributed to me. When you do something you feel good about, it's strange to know there's another name at the end of it."