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After 50 years, the hip soundtrack for 'A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving' is available as a full musical feast

An image from 'A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,' first broadcast on Nov. 20, 1973.
Apple TV+
An image from 'A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving,' first broadcast on Nov. 20, 1973.

When A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving first appeared on CBS precisely half a century ago — on Nov. 20, 1973 — American children delighted in Snoopy’s harried holiday feast of popcorn, pretzels and jellybeans. Discerning viewers would also have taken note of the music, which pianist Vince Guaraldi made with a resourceful quintet. This year, it’s possible for the first time to bask in that complete soundtrack — all 13 song cues in the network special, along with nine previously unissued alternate takes or bonus tracks.

Guaraldi was 45 when A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving aired, and synonymous with the Peanuts specials, having created the music for all nine previous installments. His 1965 soundtrack for the very first, A Charlie Brown Christmas, had yielded a few standards: “Christmastime is Here,” “Skating,” and the iconic “Linus and Lucy” theme.

Pianist and composer Vince Guaraldi
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Pianist and composer Vince Guaraldi, best known for creating the soundtracks to more than a dozen 'Peanuts' specials.

By 1973, Guaraldi, a lifelong San Francisco native, had adapted to a funkier sonic palette, playing Wurlitzer, Fender Rhodes and Clavinet as well as his trademark piano. He had also stocked his band with musicians a good deal younger than he was, like the Oakland-based drummer Mike Clark, who was less than a year out from playing on Herbie Hancock’s Thrust, as a member of the Headhunters. Joining them in the rhythm section was electric bassist Seward McCain, and filling out the horn section were Tom Harrell on trumpet and Chuck Bennett on trombone.

Harrell also wrote all the brass arrangements on the soundtrack, taking advantage of studio multitracking. And he contributed a few impeccable solos, including one on a tumbling piece in triplet time simply titled “Thanksgiving Theme.” Hear his trumpet on the theme’s second reprise, starting at the 45-second mark; in the special, it scores a scene where Snoopy and Woodstock enjoy a Thanksgiving turkey. (Never mind the implications of Woodstock gleefully feasting on a fellow fowl.)

Charles M. Schulz was of course the creator of Peanuts, but he had crucial partners in the network specials, notably director Bill Melendez and producer Lee Mendelson. The reissued soundtrack was produced by Lee’s sons Sean and Jason, for Lee Mendelson Film Productions. Sean also wrote the liner notes, rightly observing that “the score is brimming with the most comprehensive arrangements and music for a Peanuts special to date.”

Noting the vital influence of Clark’s drumming, Sean Mendelson also writes that Guaraldi “wanted that particular East Bay Sound. Thus, Linus and Lucy is never funkier. Adding the arranger (and rip-roaring trumpet player) Tom Harrell and you get a dynamic, and the perhaps the best-sounding version of Linus and Lucy.” Indeed, the 16-bar trumpet solo on the track is a paragon of lyrical economy and technical bravura. (It begins after Guaraldi’s piano solo, at 2:54.)

There are other reasons to marvel at Guaraldi’s work on this soundtrack, including a winking nod to James Brown funk titled “Is It James or Charlie?” and a Ray Charles-esque vocal feature, “Little Birdie,” on which he himself does the singing. It’s also worth noting that both Harrell and Clark went on to major jazz careers, and are still with us. (Both are now 77.) Six years ago, Harrell posted a clip of the Thanksgiving special on Twitter, noting with understated pride: “Yours truly on trumpet solo and horn arrangement.” (This was the first of five Peanuts specials to which he contributed.)

Tom Harrell performing in San Francisco, Calif., circa 1981.
Tom Copi/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives
Tom Harrell performing in San Francisco, Calif., circa 1981.

Jazz musicians of all stripes have had their fun with Guaraldi’s soundtracks for the Charlie Brown specials, recognizing not only the popular appeal of the tunes but also their swinging brio and genuine soul. But the most frequently covered material by far is from the Christmas special. It takes a truly committed Guaraldian to cover songs from A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving — as the brilliant young pianist Isaiah J. Thompson does on his brand-new album, A Guaraldi Holiday. In addition to a version of “Little Birdie” with vocals by the up-and-comer Tyreek McDole, the album features a coolly elegant take on “Thanksgiving Theme.” (Alexa Tarantino plays the alto saxophone solo.)

At the 1974 Emmy Awards, six months after A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving aired on CBS, Charles M. Schulz was cited for outstanding individual achievement in children's programming. Guaraldi scored several more specials before he died of a heart attack on Feb. 6, 1976. (He had insisted on finishing the music for It's Arbor Day, Charlie Brown that afternoon, despite feeling unwell.) At the risk of stating the obvious, Guaraldi’s legacy lives on in this music, which has delighted countless children and their grownups, across generations.

A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving has been broadcast almost every year since its debut, but it won’t appear on a network this year; it can be found instead on Apple TV+. The soundtrack is available on vinyl and CD, and in digital formats, from Lee Mendelson Film Productions.

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes. As Editorial Director at WRTI, he oversees a range of classical and jazz coverage, and contributes regularly to NPR.