November 8, 2020
We all know the song. We might know it was performed by the Vince Guaraldi Trio. But who was Vince Guaraldi?
Vincent Anthony Guaraldi /ɡəˈrældi/ (July 17, 1928 – February 6, 1976), born Vincent Anthony Dellaglio, was an American jazz pianist noted for his innovative compositions and arrangements and for composing music for animated television adaptations of the Peanuts comic strip including their signature melody, "Linus and Lucy" and the holiday standard, "Christmas Time Is Here". He is also known for his performances on piano as a member of Cal Tjader's 1950s ensembles and for his own solo career. His 1962 composition "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" became a radio hit and won a Grammy Award in 1963 for Best Original Jazz Composition.
Early career and Grammy Award
Guaraldi was born in San Francisco's North Beach area, a place that became very important to his blossoming musical career. His last name changed to "Guaraldi" after his mother, Carmella (née Marcellino; 1908-1999), divorced his biological father (whose last name was Dellaglio) and married Tony Guaraldi, who adopted the boy. His maternal uncle was musician, singer, and whistler Muzzy Marcellino. He graduated from Lincoln High School, attended San Francisco State College, and served in the United States Army as a cook in the Korean War.
Guaraldi's first recording was made in November 1953 with Cal Tjader and was released early in 1954. The 10-inch LP record was called The Cal Tjader Trio, and included "Chopsticks Mambo", "Vibra-Tharpe", and "Lullaby of the Leaves". By 1955, Guaraldi had his own trio with Eddie Duran and Dean Reilly. He then reunited with Tjader in June 1956 and was an integral part of two bands that the vibraphonist assembled. The first band played mainly straight jazz and included Al Torre (drums), Eugene Wright (bass) and Luis Kant (congas and bongos). The second band was formed in the spring of 1958 and included Al McKibbon (bass), Mongo Santamaría (congas and bongos) and Willie Bobo (drums and timbales). Reed men Paul Horn and Jose "Chombo" Silva were also added to the group for certain live performances and recordings.
Guaraldi left the group early in 1959 to pursue his own projects full-time. He might have remained a well-respected, but minor jazz figure had he not written an original number to fill out his covers of Antonio Carlos Jobim/Luis Bonfá tunes on his 1962 album, Jazz Impressions of Black Orpheus, inspired by the French/Brazilian film Black Orpheus. Fantasy Records released "Samba de Orpheus" as a single, trying to catch the building bossa nova wave, but it was destined to sink without a trace when radio DJs began flipping it over and playing the B-side, Guaraldi's "Cast Your Fate to the Wind". A gentle, likeable tune, it stood out from everything else on the airwaves and became a grass-roots hit and won the Grammy for Best Original Jazz Composition. While "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" by Guaraldi achieved modest chart success as a single in 1963, a cover version two years later by British group Sounds Orchestral cracked the Billboard top 10 (in the spring of 1965). Guaraldi never minded taking requests to play it when he appeared live. "It's like signing the back of a check", he once remarked. When asked by San Francisco Chronicle jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason if he felt like he sold out with the song, Guaraldi responded, "I feel I bought in." Guaraldi also did not think highly of his piano skills, saying once, "I don't think I'm a great piano player, but I would like to have people like me, to play pretty tunes and reach the audience. And I hope some of those tunes will become standards. I want to write standards, not just hits."
Guaraldi then recorded an album called Vince Guaraldi, Bola Sete and Friends with guitarist Bola Sete, Fred Marshall (bass) and Jerry Granelli (drums). This began a period of collaboration between Guaraldi and Sete where Guaraldi began experimenting with bossa nova-influenced music as well as with the electric piano. This experimentation may have led to the loss of Fred Marshall, who left the group in 1964 citing "personal differences" after Guaraldi purportedly threw a cup of coffee at Marshall during the 17th Berkeley Jazz Festival. Shortly after this time, Guaraldi was invited to compose a "jazz mass" with the Eucharist chorus of San Francisco's Grace Cathedral. Utilizing his Latin influences from his bossa nova days with Sete, Guaraldi composed a number of pieces with waltz tempos and jazz standards. The performance was recorded on May 21, 1965, and released that September as At Grace Cathedral.
Guaraldi's relationship with Fantasy Records began to sour by late 1965 after it was learned he was receiving only five percent of every record sale while Fantasy retained the remaining 95 percent. He sued in April 1966 in an effort to sever all relationships with the label; Fantasy promptly countersued. Fantasy executive Saul Zaentz became president in 1967, eventually buying the company from original owners the Weiss brothers in December of that year. The sale of Fantasy Records to Zaentz resulted in both Guaraldi and the label dismissing the twin lawsuits, leaving Guaraldi a free agent. His final album for the label, Live at El Matador, had been released in October 1966. 35 years after Guaraldi's death, Fantasy Records and its parent company Concord Music, were sued by Guaraldi's children for engaging in "a system" of "serving false and deceptive statements while underreporting units sold and underpaying royalties." Their lawsuit, filed in December 2011, claimed a private accountant uncovered a discrepancy of at least $2 million for the years 2005–2010 alone. When asked if the alleged wrongdoing goes back decades further, the Guaraldi family's attorney Alan Neigher responded, "Well, we hope it does."
During the period of flux with Fantasy in 1967, Guaraldi formed his own record label, D&D (named after his children, David and Dia), and released his only album on the label in December 1967, Vince Guaraldi with the San Francisco Boys Chorus.
Compositions for Charles Schulz's Peanuts
Guaraldi composed music scores for the first sixteen Peanuts television specials plus one feature film and was responsible for their signature theme, "Linus and Lucy."
In 1963, while searching for music to accompany a planned Peanuts documentary entitled A Boy Named Charlie Brown, television producer Lee Mendelson heard "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" on the radio while driving home from a meeting with Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz. Mendelson then contacted Ralph J. Gleason, who put him in touch with Guaraldi. Mendelson offered Guaraldi the job of composing several jazz scores for the documentary, which Guaraldi gladly accepted. Within several weeks, Mendelson received a call from an excited Guaraldi who wanted to play a piece of music he had just written. Mendelson, not wanting his first exposure to the new music to be marred by the poor audio qualities of a telephone, suggested coming over to Guaraldi’s studio. Guaraldi enthusiastically refused, saying "I’ve got to play this for someone right now or I’ll explode!" He then begun playing the yet-untitled "Linus and Lucy" for Mendelson, who agreed the song was perfect for Schulz’s Peanuts characters.
The documentary soundtrack, entitled Jazz Impressions of A Boy Named Charlie Brown, was recorded by Guaraldi's current trio (with bassist Monty Budwig and drummer Colin Bailey) in October 1964 and released in December of that year. Although the documentary was ultimately shelved due to Mendelson's inability to secure sponsorship, Schulz and Mendelson retained Guaraldi for the upcoming Peanuts Christmas special, A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). The soundtrack album was recorded by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, this time featuring drummer Jerry Granelli and bassist Fred Marshall, and contained the songs "Christmas Time Is Here", "Skating" and "Linus and Lucy". Both the seasonal television special and accompanying soundtrack were very successful.
Derrick Bang, Guaraldi historian and author of Vince Guaraldi at the Piano, commented that, "the importance of Jazz Impressions of A Boy Named Charlie Brown and its successor, the score to the Christmas special, cannot be overstated; rarely has an entertainment icon been so quickly—and firmly—welded to a musical composition...indeed, to an entire body of work from one individual. Guaraldi defined the Peanuts sound, and it's just as true today as it was in the 1960s. The compositions themselves are uniformly sparkling; it's as if the jazz pianist and his trio were waiting for this precise inspiration.
All involved with the project initially regarded the stunning success of A Charlie Brown Christmas as something of a one-time fluke, but the second official Peanuts television special—Charlie Brown's All Stars!—was televised in June 1966 to similarly high ratings and acclaim. It was at this point that Schulz, Mendelson and animator Bill Melendez focused on creating another holiday blockbuster in the vein of A Charlie Brown Christmas, eventually titled It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Guaraldi spent most of summer 1966 composing cues for the Halloween-themed special, strongly encouraging Mendelson to consider making "Linus and Lucy," which had been featured prominently in the Christmas special, the unofficial Peanuts theme. Guaraldi did not include the song in the music score for Charlie Brown's All Stars! and worked to correct that oversight by featuring it throughout It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. Melendez responded to Guaraldi's suggestion by beginning the special with a lengthy cold open sequence sans dialogue, employing only music and sound effects to convey Linus and Lucy's search for a pumpkin. Guaraldi recorded a fresh version of "Linus and Lucy" for the opening sequence as a sextet, featuring Budwig and Bailey, as well as trumpeter Emmanuel Klein, guitarist John Gray, and flautist Ronnie Lang. Lang's flute counterpoint was featured throughout the new version of "Linus and Lucy", resulting in the song ultimately becoming the Peanuts franchise signature melody.
Guaraldi went on to compose scores for thirteen additional Peanuts television specials, as well as the 1969 feature film A Boy Named Charlie Brown. Despite the wealth of Peanuts material Guaraldi recorded, only A Charlie Brown Christmas and A Boy Named Charlie Brown (both the unaired documentary and feature film) received official soundtrack releases during his lifetime.
"I have always felt that one of the key elements that made A Charlie Brown Christmas was the music," said Mendelson in 2010. "It gave it a contemporary sound that appealed to all ages. Although Vince had never scored anything else and although I was basically a documentary film maker at the time, we started to work together on the cues because we both loved jazz and we both played the piano. So he would bring in the material for each scene and we would go over it scene by scene. Most of the time, the music worked perfectly. But there were times we would either not use something or use it somewhere else. We went through this same process on all sixteen shows. Although there was always some left over music, most of the time what he wrote and performed is what went on the air.”
Guaraldi's final three albums released during his lifetime were recorded for Warner Bros.-Seven Arts after spending nearly two years trying to extricate himself from Fantasy Records. Warner signed Guaraldi to a three-record deal in early 1968, insisting that his inaugural release consist of Peanuts material. This was done in part to fill the void left by a lack of soundtrack albums to accompany the successful television specials, Charlie Brown's All Stars!, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, You're in Love, Charlie Brown and He's Your Dog, Charlie Brown. Guaraldi responded with new renditions of eight of his most popular scores from those programs on his first release, Oh Good Grief!.
Guaraldi was then given complete artistic control over his sophomore, self-produced Warner effort, The Eclectic Vince Guaraldi, resulting in an unfocused and overindulgent album that was not well received by both critics and consumers. At Warner's insistence, arranger Shorty Rogers was recruited to produce Guaraldi's final album, Alma-Ville. Though deemed a focused improvement over the previous album, Warner did not promote the album, ultimately choosing to not retain Guaraldi at the end of their three-record deal. Both The Eclectic Vince Guaraldi and Alma-Ville gradually fell into obscurity, while Oh Good Grief! remained a steady seller due to the perpetual popularity of the Peanuts franchise.
After working on the soundtrack for the Peanuts feature film A Boy Named Charlie Brown, Guaraldi ceased releasing any new material. In his review of The Complete Warner Bros.–Seven Arts Recordings, The Recoup critic Joseph Kyle lamented, "frustrated and unable to secure a record deal, he spent the remainder of his life as a live performer, recording more soundtrack material, and banking on the goodwill his Peanuts compositions earned him."[Guaraldi's sound also evolved into a more fusion jazz/rock sound, as he largely traded the piano for Hammond B-3 and Fender Rhodes electric keyboards. His live performances included musicians who specialized in funk and soul as well as traditional jazz. Posthumous releases Oaxaca (recorded in 1971) and Live on the Air (recorded in February 1974) feature live performances recorded during this period of transition.
All Peanuts soundtracks scored after Play It Again, Charlie Brown (1971) feature Guaraldi favoring electric keyboards over traditional piano as well. You're a Good Sport, Charlie Brown (1975), Guaraldi's penultimate music score, fused his fusion jazz style with the funk, disco and pop music that was popular at the time coupled with the use of the ARP String Ensemble synthesizer.
Guaraldi biographer and historian Derrick Bang put the musician's later years in perspective, saying, "As jazz clubs were closing in the 1960s, with the advent of rock 'n' roll—a development that put many jazz musicians out of work—Guaraldi embraced the enemy, adjusting his style and approach to include electric keyboards. By the mid-'70s, he had become a respected veteran in what remained of the declining Northern California jazz club scene."
The amount of wealth Guaraldi accumulated from his perpetual Peanuts scoring opportunities plus royalties from previous work allowed him to live comfortably in Mill Valley, California. His desire to continually perform at small, local clubs was not due to financial necessity but because he wanted it like that. The monumental success garnered from his Peanuts work resulted in lucrative offers coming in from all over the U.S., all of which he declined. "Once the Peanuts music became famous, Vince could have gone out and done a whole lot more," Mendelson said. "But he was very provincial; he loved San Francisco, and he liked hanging out and playing at the local clubs. He never branched out from there; he never really wanted to. He'd get offers, but he'd tell me, 'I just want to do this; I'm having a good time, and I'm satisfied with it'." Eddie Duran concurred, saying, "he did talk at times about moving to Los Angeles, but I think he really dug staying in the area, because he was sure of himself. When you're sure of where you are as an artist, you don't seek to go other places and prove it."
Death and impact
Guaraldi died suddenly at age 47 on February 6, 1976, after suffering a massive heart attack. The evening before, he had dined at Mendelson's home and was reportedly not feeling well, complaining of indigestion-like chest discomfort. "He was about to do his first cruise. He'd be able to play Peanuts music on the ship, and he was excited about that. We talked about the cruise and the Peanuts shows, and I said that I didn't know what the next one would be yet, but that we wouldn't start until he got back. But he also said he wasn't feeling well, and had gone to see the doctor. The doctor thought Vince might have a diaphragmatic hernia, and that they might have to deal with it."
The following morning, on February 6, Guaraldi awoke with a bad cold and remained in bed throughout the day. That afternoon, Guaraldi finished recording the soundtrack for It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown at Wally Heider Studios with bassist Seward McCain and drummer Jim Zimmerman. "We had just come back from a concert we did up in the mountain," recalled Zimmerman, "and Vince had been skiing, and up there carrying on like nothing was bothering him. But once we were back in the studio, he started complaining that his stomach was bothering him."
That evening, after concluding the first set at Butterfield's Nightclub in Menlo Park, California, with his interpretation of the Beatles' "Eleanor Rigby", Guaraldi and Zimmerman returned to the room in which they were staying that weekend at the adjacent Red Cottage Inn, to relax before the next set. Zimmerman commented, "Vince was feeling sick to his stomach. He got up to go to the bathroom...and went down on the floor. I tried to bring him around but wasn't successful. It happened so fast." McCain commented, "Vince headed for the bathroom but never made it. When Vince fell and hit the floor, Jim [Zimmerman] got me. We went back and tried to revive him, but it didn't work."
Guaraldi was rushed to Stanford Hospital where he was pronounced dead on arrival at 11:07 P.M. The official cause of death was certified as "acute myocardial infarction, due to or as a consequence of coronary arteriosclerosis with thrombosis and generalized arteriosclerosis."
Pianist George DeQuattro recalled years later, "I saw him about a week before he passed away. Vince seemed really fine. But he had seen a doctor because he had stomach problems, and was feeling ill and tired. The doctor told him it might just be ulcers, and prescribed some dumb medicine and told him to forget about it. But it wasn't that, and it's really a shame. That would never happen today." In his 2012 biography, Vince Guaraldi at the Piano, author Derrick Bang wrote, "as time passed, Guaraldi's friends, family and colleagues would begin to wonder if a stomach aneurysm—or something else—had played a role in that heart attack," adding that Guaraldi's "complaint of a painful stomach ache clearly hadn't been taken seriously enough."
Guaraldi's death was a blow to his friends, family and colleagues. "It was totally unexpected," said Mendelson. "The day before the funeral, Carmella [Guaraldi's mother] called and said that they wanted to use the Peanuts music. I said, oh, God, I don't think that's a good idea. I begged her not to do it, but she was a strong woman. And they did play it, and I just fell apart; everybody broke up. She was sitting right behind me. I guess it was the right thing to do, but that made the funeral very hard. It was not an easy day; he was so young. It was one of the saddest days of my life." Peanuts animator Bill Meléndez added, "He was a real good guy and we miss him."
Guaraldi married high school girlfriend Shirley Moskowitz on February 1, 1953. She initially filed for divorce on April 21, 1966, citing "extreme cruelty." Their divorce was not finalized until December 8, 1970. The union produced two children: David Anthony Guaraldi (b. August 11, 1955) and Dia Lisa (b. February 16, 1960). Guaraldi also had a long-term affair with Gretchen Katamay, with whom he appeared on the cover of his 1964 album, The Latin Side of Vince Guaraldi.
A book-length biography of Guaraldi was published in March 2012. Vince Guaraldi at the Piano, by author and Guaraldi archivist Derrick Bang, chronicles Guaraldi's career and role in the Northern California jazz scene, and also includes a complete discography and filmography, as well as an appendix of quotations from Guaraldi's former sidemen.
Jazz musician David Benoit has often credited Guaraldi and the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack for his interest in jazz. In 1985, Benoit recorded a cover of Guaraldi's "Linus and Lucy" for an album called This Side Up, which enjoyed considerable radio airplay and helped launch the smooth jazz genre. He released "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" on the album Waiting for Spring in 1989.
Pianist George Winston released a Guaraldi tribute album in 1996 titled Linus and Lucy – The Music of Vince Guaraldi. Winston performed many Peanuts songs that had not been released by Guaraldi. "I love his melodies and his chord progressions", Winston said of Guaraldi. "He has a really personal way of doing voicings. His music is part of our culture and we know it even if we don’t know Vince. He had three bags: the Latin, the Peanuts, and the impressionistic 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind' stuff. And those three bags are all his." The album was very successful, leading Winston to record a follow-up, titled Love Will Come – The Music of Vince Guaraldi, Volume 2, released in early 2010.
Mendelson reflected on Guaraldi's contribution to the Peanuts franchise when Winston released his two tribute albums, saying "Several generations have now grown up with Vince Guaraldi's music. If people hear just one or two bass notes of the intro to 'Linus and Lucy', they cheer. The Peanuts programs and Vince's music were such a wonderful marriage. It's a shame it got cut off so soon, but people like George are perpetuating it, for which we are very appreciative."