Day 6

'It was pretty radical': Charlie Brown Christmas drummer reflects on iconic soundtrack

Jerry Granelli, the last surviving musician who played on A Charlie Brown Christmas, says he returned to the album after 48 years after a family shared how much the music meant to them.
Jerry Granelli returns to his concert series, "Tales of A Charlie Brown Christmas" where he plays the same songs he did 52 years ago as part of the classic Christmas special. (Fantasy/CBC)

Originally published Dec. 1, 2017. Jerry Granelli died at his home in Halifax on July 20, 2021. He was 80.

A signature part of the 1965 holiday special A Charlie Brown Christmas is its jazz soundtrack by the Vince Guaraldi Trio.

Critics called the soundtrack "too cutting edge" at the time, but in the decades after its initial release, it's sold 4 million copies and become a Christmas staple in its own right.

Alongside bassist Fred Marshall and star pianist Vince Guaraldi, drummer Jerry Granelli performed the music for the special. Fifty-two years later, Granelli is the last surviving member of the band.

But until about four years ago, Granelli, 76, didn't want to play those iconic tracks.

A long-time Halifax resident, Granelli said he was inspired to return to the album after meeting a family who told him how much A Charlie Brown Christmas meant to them — that, plus a lot of distance from the initial performance. 

He only started playing again in 2013.

"I haven't done it in 48 years. There are so many memories. All my friends who were on it are dead," he told CBC News that year. 

Now, Granelli is about to embark on the latest round of his Tales of A Charlie Brown Christmas concert series, which showcases music from the special — like Linus and Lucy and Christmas Time is Here.

The first performance of the season is on Dec. 10 in Halifax. 

Day 6 host Brent Bambury spoke to Granelli about why he chose to stay away from A Charlie Brown Christmas for so long, and how he feels listening to it today.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Brent Bambury: You only returned to playing the Charlie Brown Christmas music four years ago after you spent decades avoiding it. Why did you walk away from it?

Jerry Granelli: I didn't avoid it. That's not true. I resisted it. I fought it. I want credit for the battle that I did [in order] to not play this music. I would have to look at it at this point and say a part of it was immaturity. Part of it was that I left Vince not long after Charlie.

BB: Yeah.

JG: But I'd felt I wasn't hearing his music anymore and I'd learned all I needed to learn. So I went off in another direction, completely to the left of what Vince was doing.

Linus talks to Charlie Brown about his Christmas tree in this scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas. (Lee Mendelson Films/ABC)

BB: But something changed in you to bring you back to the music. What was that?

JG: That's the maturity part. I mean, there are just a number of people and one of them happened to be a gentleman I've never met since — I was lying up on a beach up in Cape Breton with my friend and ... this old guy comes by with his grandchildren, I think, and he says, "Are you Jerry Granelli?" And I figured, "Oh god, they finally caught up with me. This is it."

And he said, "I just want to really thank you. For the joy that that music has given my family every year." And it was quite touching and I think that kind of like broke my guard down and then I could see it as a piece.

That's why it's called, really, Tales of Charlie Brown's Christmas and it has elements in it of me talking about how it almost never happened — the great odds that it would never happen or ever be seen or heard again.

It was pretty radical and there was no compromise.- Jerry Granelli, original drummer on the Vince Guaraldi Trio

Now we play the music with the trio and we play it for real. For some people it's their first real jazz concert.

BB: Well that's the thing. This music crosses over. I mean, you were a serious jazz trio when you made the music and yet it becomes this giant pop hit and people love it.

It matters to people. It's a part of their lives. It's part of their childhood. And it has longevity as well. So when A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired in 1965, how did people react to this idea of a jazz trio recording the soundtrack to a children's cartoon?

JG: When it got on the air, half the viewing audience in North America watched, and that just blew CBS's mind. Because CBS thought that — they had they finally caved because Coca-Cola had their arm twisted — but 'we'll do it because no one will ever see this thing again.'

Jazz drummer Jerry Granelli, seen here in the early 1960s (courtesy Jerry Granelli)

You know ... there was a jazz station here and a jazz station there, but you didn't hear jazz radio. There wasn't jazz on television. Ralph Gleason had a show on PBS. So it was pretty radical and there was no compromise. It wasn't like let's water this down so it'll go on there. It was like, "Hey man, this is the way it is and that's it."

BB: So in the cartoon, when the song is playing, Schroeder is on piano. Pig Pen is on bass. Snoopy's on guitar. And there's no drummer in the animation.

JG: Yeah, I know.

BB: How do you feel about that?

JG: Doesn't bother me that much. I finally got a bunch of royalties for it so it's fine now. But I figured as long as I wasn't getting any royalties — you know, it took 50 years for me to get a dime.

And it was I guess last year or the year [before] I came home and it was finally a royalties check. I mean, I made $100 — a standard record date in 1965 was not even $100 — it was $68, man.

BB: You got $68 for playing that music that has become so important to so many people.

JG: Yeah, a lot of pyjamas got sold off that music.

BB: That's right.

JG: I was just out at Fantasy Records mixing my new record ... I walked in and I was surprised but all of the old people from Fantasy came out to meet me, came out to greet me. And there on the wall was A Charlie Brown Christmas and I was like, "Wow that's cool. ... I paid for that chair, man. That's mine."

BB: So, Jerry, when you hear Charlie Brown now, what does it mean to you?

JG: You know, I don't talk about this much but you have to realize it's a little melancholy. I mean, these people were my friends, you know. So it's kind of like listening to my friends and they're not around. It would be hilarious if they were because we had, you know, a lot of great laughs.

So there's melancholy and then there's — I can hear traces of things — like the way I play brushes on Christmas Time is Here. Sometimes I hear that cymbal and I go, "I wonder what happened to that cymbal? Damn, did I give that cymbal away? And who did I give it to?" 

Jazz drummer Jerry Granelli at his studio in Halifax. He first returned to playing music from the Charlie Brown special in 2013. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

I think Vince would be cracking up, man. You know, somebody once said to him, "Well, as a jazz musician, don't you think you've sold out?"

And Vince said, "What, are you kidding? I figure I just bought in, man. You know, I can actually keep my trio working. What, are you joking? 'I sold out?' I play this honestly. I didn't water it down. So now I can keep my trio alive and I can keep writing music, you know."

So I think he would be really, I mean, happy — I mean it's too bad that he's not alive to enjoy this part, you know.

BB: Jerry Granelli, I'm so glad you spoke to us.

JG: Oh you're quite welcome. My pleasure, always.