24 December 2009

Albums You Must Own (#6 and #7 in a series)

Vince Guaraldi Trio
A Charlie Brown Christmas (Fantasy 1965)

In December of 1965, the CBS Television Network broadcast a new animated special based on a story by Charles M. Schulz the author of the popular daily comic strip Peanuts. Since then it has literally been a yearly staple of the holiday circuit, entertaining two generations of fans to its sweet comedic but spiritual message.

At the core of the A Charlie Brown Christmas is the music performed by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, a mix of holiday standards and new originals in the jazz tradition. Schulz himself picked fellow San Francisco Bay Area native Guaraldi for the soundtrack.

Born in 1928, Guaraldi began playing the piano around age seven. By the time he was a teen, he had learned the boogie-woogie and blues style by listening to masters like Jimmy Yancy and Lux Lewis. In his twenties, like many other jazz musicians, Guaraldi took to the bebop mastery of Bud Powell and the impressionistic playing of Bill Evans. He gained some notoriety in the San Francisco and was signed to local label Fantasy Records. After spending some time on the road with Woody Herman's Thundering Herd and declining offers to tour the country as a solo, Guaraldi settled into regular performance at Bay Area clubs.

In 1962 lightening struck for Guaraldi. He scored an unexpected hit with his own composition of "Cast Your Fate To The Wind." Originally a B-side of a single released locally, a Sacramento DJ flipped the 45 over and kept playing the song every hour. It caught on nationally, reaching the top ten of the U.S. pop charts. In addition, Guaraldi received a Grammy for Best Jazz Composition in 1963.

Planning the special in 1963 with Schulz, producer Lee Mendelson heard "Cast Your Fate" on the radio and decided to contact Guaraldi about authoring the soundtrack. The musician's interested was keen because he was a reader of the comic and had two children of his own. Within weeks Guaraldi presented Mendelson with what would become "Linus and Lucy." Mendelson recalled: "As soon as I heard it, I knew it was perfect. When I brought the tape for A Charlie Brown Christmas to Charles Schulz, he fell in love with it. I have always felt that one of the key elements that made that show was the music. It gave it a contemporary sound that appealed to all ages."

"Linus and Lucy" has become a jazz standard. A rolling boogie-woogie piece, it allows the kids to cut loose and dance to Schroeder's piano while Charlie Brown is trying to get them to rehearse for the annual Christmas pageant.

The other stand-out track has to be "Skating," which translates beautifully onto the screen as the children a try to catch snowflakes in their mouths while gliding along on the ice.

Vince Guaraldi went on to score fifteen Peanuts specials and a feature film before his untimely death in 1976 at the age of 47.

WATCH the entire A Charlie Brown Christmas and enjoy the Guaraldi soundtrack on Hulu.

Darlene Love, The Ronettes, Bob B. Soxx & The Blue Jeans, The Crystals

A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector (Phillies 1963)

Produced by Phil Spector

Unfortunately released on the date of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, A Christmas Gift For You From Phil Spector almost was relegated to the permanent cut-out bin. Instead, despite being released on numerous record labels, it has probably become the most critically acclaimed holiday record in the annals of rock and roll. And cited by Brian Wilson as his favorite of all time.

The array of singers on the record were from the stable of "Wall of Sound" producer Phil Spector. Seasonal classics jump off the album: Darlene Love's "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)," The Ronettes' "Sleigh Ride," and The Crystals' "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town" all are standouts. They have led to notable "covers" by Bruce Springsteen and U2, among others.

The musicians playing on the records are noteworthy for rock enthusiasts. They included Jack Nitzsche (future producer of albums by Neil Young, among others), Hal Blaine (one of the most respected session drummers over the years) and Leon Russell (a fine piano player and singer in his own right, but also a credited player on records by George Harrison, Joe Cocker and Bob Dylan).

The Ronettes sing "Sleigh Ride."

U2's cover of "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home."

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band perform "Santa Claus Is Coming To Town."

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