You're Mired in Controversy, Charlie Brown

Who really played behind Vince Guaraldi on the soundtrack to A Charlie Brown Christmas?

This story was to have been about only one thing: how the soundtrack to a marginal 1964 TV 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, and poignant album that transcends usual holiday-music fare by saying so much using so very little. The album is a cool-jazz treasure: no sugarcoated silent-night ballads, no histrionic jingle-bell caroling. 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. It's a monument to Guaraldi's vision of Charles Schulz's characters -- the frail little children "confronted with the illogical, blind and mechanistic world," as the late Chronicle jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason wrote in the album's original liner notes.

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 local club. 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, 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 this story is not filled with much goodwill toward men. The more one digs into the history of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the more one uncovers grumbling and bitterness. 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 album, meaning that the musicians forever credited -- bassist Monty Budwig and drummer Colin Bailey -- don't even play on it. For die-hard fans of the recording, it's a little like finding out Ringo Starr and George Harrison didn't play on Revolver.

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-'80s did the label see fit to include the roster of musicians playing on the record. And got it wrong.

Furthermore, it turns out the soundtrack isn't really even a soundtrack.
Good grief.
"The credits are wrong," says Bill Belmont, Fantasy's director of international sales. "Or semiwrong, not exactly right -- or weird. But this is what happens when you enter Snoopyland. It is a whole other world."

Belmont only discovered the 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, from his Oakland 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."

When Marshall called, Belmont was actually in the middle of putting together the just-released Charlie Brown's Holiday Hits, featuring songs from A Charlie Brown Christmas and several previously unreleased tracks Guaraldi wrote and performed for 14 other Charlie Brown specials. Belmont didn't know what Marshall was talking about and didn't much believe him, even though Marshall and Granelli were well known as part of Guaraldi's trio during the mid-'60s. Belmont had always believed the credits listing Budwig and Bailey -- two members of Guaraldi's early '60s trio -- were correct, though Guaraldi was notorious for his indifference to keeping exact records of who played what and when.

The likely reason for the confusion stems from the fact that Bailey and Budwig did in fact perform some music that appeared in the A Charlie Brown Christmas TV special. But the album isn't the soundtrack to the special. Actually, it's the other way around: The record was cut before the cartoon was made and, in some ways, served as the inspiration for the crudely drawn special that became the first of 58 Peanuts half-hour cartoons.

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