When thinking of A Charlie Brown Christmas it is undeniable that the musical score that accompanied the classic added to it’s popularity. The melodies have come synonyms with Christmas and can be heard at countless parties throughout the holiday season.
As a Peanuts 50 years on TV Brand Ambassador, I had the pleasure of interviewing David Benoit, the musical heir to original Peanuts composer Vince Guaraldi. A renowned American jazz pianist, composer and producer, Benoit opened up about why Jazz fits so perfectly with Peanut specials, his favorite songs, why A Charlie Brown Christmas has remained iconic and more.
When did your passion for Peanuts and the Peanuts music begin?
When I started reading strip at 8 years old; this was in the ’60s. I followed it very closely every day. Then I watched A Charlie Brown Christmas—we all gathered around the TV to watch it. It’s been a lifelong thing.
Can you elaborate on your professional connection to Peanuts and how that came about?
I had recorded Linus and Lucy on a record called This Side Up. At that time, no one had ever covered it. I did it, then it opened up a new group of fans. I also recorded Christmastime Is Here on an album called Christmastime. Lee Mendelson’s wife, Debbie, said, “Lee, you should check out David Benoit.” And he and I hit it off. It was one of those magical relationships that really worked. They were trying out several other jazz musicians, Dave Grusin, Dave Brubeck, George Winston, Wynton Marsalis, and me. We just clicked. Not long after that I became the official composer, but it wasn’t official until I met Sparky. That’s what you called Mr. Schulz because that’s what he asked you to call him. But it took me a while to get used to that!
What was it about music and the brand that appealed to you so much?
Well, it was Charlie Brown and he was a loser! He was depressed a lot, and I was having a childhood like that myself [laughs]. I related to him, and felt I had a kindred spirit out there. Then the music was jazz and piano and upbeat and fun—I got hooked on it right away.
What was your favorite piece of Peanuts music?
Of course, Linus and Lucy is the most popular one. I like Christmastime Is Here, that’s still one of my all-time favorites. Another one I like wasn’t written for Charlie Brown Christmas, it was written for a documentary on Charles Schulz—it’s a piece called Pebble Beach. A lot of hardcore fans will know that one.
What is it about A Charlie Brown Christmas and its music—what would the special be like without the music?
It wouldn’t have quite the same charm and appeal. It’s a perfect marriage. You can’t imagine one without the other. It must have been fate that brought Vince Guaraldi to Lee Mendelson. I know from writing original music for Peanuts, Vince Guaraldi was always the reference point.
So you feel jazz is the right genre for Peanuts music?
I do. The kids are very sophisticated, their emotions, their vocabulary. Peanuts was one of first strips to do that—to have kids speaking intelligently, expressing deep emotions. Jazz, because of its sophistication, seemed to work very well.
After Vince Guaraldi died, they tried using other composers; many of them, like Judy Munson, were very good. But she approached it from traditional cartoon composing, and it wasn’t the same. Upbeat jazz just hit a spark. They were looking for another jazz pianist to start writing music, that’s how they found me.
What makes the Linus and Lucy theme so memorable?
It’s one of those immediately recognizable motifs—you’ve got the left hand movement, then the right hand comes in, and it’s highly syncopated. It just gets everybody happy. The power of music.
Why has the special remained so beloved?
It might be the simplicity in its message, that Christmas has become so commercial. It’s so simple and heartfelt. It has the makings of a classic because it’s so simple and so heartwarming.
Who is your favorite Peanuts character?
It’s Charlie Brown. However, I think Schroeder would have to be a close second! That would tell the whole story about me. I like Snoopy, but I’m not hip enough, not quite that cool.
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Disclosure: I am part of the Peanuts 50 years on TV Brand Ambassador program. I receive special perks as part of my affiliation with this group. The opinions on this blog are my own.