Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Will the preferred soundtrack please stand up?

I field a lot of questions regarding Guaraldi, more so now, in the wake of my book's arrival in the spring of 2012. I enjoy the correspondence, particularly when somebody points me in the direction of some previously unknown detail about the jazz pianist's life, or confirms an anecdote or concert date that I suspected was genuine, but hadn't yet verified.

Folks love to discuss his music as well, and particularly his score for 1965's debut Peanuts TV special, A Charlie Brown Christmas.

The most common question these days actually is a request: Numerous fans want to know how to distinguish the "original" 2006 Concord/Fantasy CD from the later "corrected" version. If you're not familiar with the controversy that erupted when this re-mastered album debuted, the exhaustive details can be found here. The pertinent modifications on the initial 2006 release concerned four tracks, and this is how Fantasy described them:

Track 1: "O Tannenbaum" -- the original LP version cut off the introduction to the song, which has been reinstated on this new CD;

Track 4: "Linus And Lucy" -- the original LP version was an edit of two different takes, whereas in the remix for the new CD we ran one of the takes in its entirety; 

Track 5: "Christmas Time Is Here" (instrumental) -- the original LP version fades out at the end of the song, almost losing the last chord, which can be heard quite clearly on this new CD;

Track 7: "Skating" -- the original LP version fades during the bass solo at the very end, whereas this remastered CD allows the song to run to its conclusion, which adds about 10 seconds to the track.

Unfortunately, longtime listeners were very unhappy with these changes, insisting that they wanted the listening experience to be just as it was on the 1965 LP (although apparently it was all right to clean up extraneous studio noise). One must not tamper with perfection, folks insisted, and the situation was worsened by the fact that an entirely different take accidentally had been selected for Track 9, "Christmas Is Coming."

The other side of the debate was occupied by jazz fans who hunger for just the sort of alternate takes that this 2006 album provided. (Four bonus tracks offered yet more variety.) I belonged in their company, and I honestly couldn't understand the fuss; it wasn't as if all the LPs and 1988 CDs had vanished — or ever would — leaving people with no choice but the 2006 album. People who preferred the original listening experience still could find it, and quite easily.

But Concord/Fantasy bowed to public pressure and agreed to switch things back on all future pressings of the 2006 CD. Additionally, patrons unhappy with their "defective" 2006 originals were encouraged to send 'em back for this "corrected" version; the offer was valid through March 1, 2007 (so don't expect anything at this late date).

Well, you can imagine what happened next.

Intrigued by the controversy, some folks wanted the original 2006 disc; others wanted its replacement. Some wanted both. The problem: There was no way to tell 'em apart from the outside. One had to play a disc in order to identify it. (Queue up "Linus and Lucy" and listen for drums — or the lack thereof — in the opening measures.) That's not too helpful, unless one had access to a store that carried used CDs and equipment on which to test-play them.

Flash-forward to the present day, and there's still no way to tell 'em apart. The exterior packaging is virtually identical; heck, even the discs themselves are identical. No distinguishing codes along the edges; no indication of "second printing" or words to that effect. And so I'm asked this question a lot, and until now I've not been able to share any useful information.

Thanks to the diligent help of an equally obsessed friend, however, I now can offer a partial ray of sunshine.

There's still no way to distinguish individually sealed versions of 2006 Mark 1 and Mark 2. But the 2007 holiday season debuted an attractively designed tin that contained three CDs: 1998's Charlie Brown's Holiday Hits; the 2005 compilation album, 40 Years: A Charlie Brown Christmas; and the 2006 re-mastered version of A Charlie Brown Christmas ... and the latter is the second, "corrected" version. Best of all, it can be identified by three distinguishing features:

1) The package was distributed and marketed by Madacy Entertainment, of Quebec, Canada, and each disc's exterior artwork also includes this information on the back cover;

2) The Madacy disk comes in plastic clamshell packaging, as opposed to Fantasy's paper tri-fold with the clear "cel" window; and

3) For some odd reason, the word "stereo" was left off the cover of this set's version of the 2006 Charlie Brown Christmas. And that's easy to spot.

So: Although I still can't help anybody wishing a guaranteed copy of 2006 Mark 1, folks wanting Mark 2 are encouraged to seek this tin set ... which has the added bonus of a heavily discounted price.

That's half the battle, anyway...


Speaking of minor controversies, it has long been known that while Coca-Cola sponsored the initial 1965 broadcast of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the soft drink titan's involvement was stripped away in later years, when CBS sold commercial spots to all sorts of advertisers. The TV special's opening scene, with Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts gang skating to the gentle refrain of "Christmas Time Is Here," was similarly truncated when the show was released on video; the cute plug for Coke, as Snoopy slammed Linus and his blanket into a convenient sign, was removed. A second acknowledgment, at the special's conclusion ("Merry Christmas from the people who bottle Coca-Cola"), also was excised.

All these years later, whether on VHS, DVD, Blu-ray or anything else, the show never has been completely intact. As a result, the Coca-Cola sponsorship has assumed the aura of legend, with an equal number of people arguing that Coke never did have a visible presence in A Charlie Brown Christmas ... despite the premature — and quite obvious — fade to black and muting of the soundtrack immediately after the show's title appeared on screen.

I've long known that the Paley Center for Media, with branches in Los Angeles and New York, has a copy in its archives; visitors can visit and view the show, but the Paley Center absolutely does not make copies. I assume that their copy is the original, wholly intact version ... but as I've not yet been able to make the trip and see for myself, I cannot state this with certainty.

Happily, I no longer need to. A helpful soul has posted definitive proof on YouTube: both the key seconds immediately following the show's title and the holiday greeting, complete with Coca-Cola logo, at the end.

But every answer comes with a price: While this footage resurrects the long-discarded proof of Coca-Cola's participation, sharp-eared Guaraldi fans will realize that the background song — "Christmas Time Is Here" — in the opening scene concludes with a refrain quite different from the version used for the 1965 album!

So where in Fantasy's vault is that take hiding?

It simply never ends...

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The sincerest form of flattery

While writing the final chapter of my book on Guaraldi, when it came time to briefly mention the unusual phenomenon of contemporary musicians who’ve chosen to cover the entire Charlie Brown Christmas score, I paused long enough to wonder whether this has happened very often.

Granted, jazz is a genre that encourages such behavior; consider the number of folks who’ve put their own stamp on, say, Miles Davis’ “All Blues.” But covering an entire album? Surely, that must be unusual.

And, indeed, it is ... but, by a curious coincidence, one of my other favorite jazz albums — also a TV score — has garnered the same attention: Henry Mancini’s iconic soundtrack for Peter Gunn. The series ran for three seasons, from September 1958 through September 1961, and Mancini actually produced two albums: The Music from Peter Gunn (1958) and More Music from Peter Gunn (1959).

To say that Mancini’s swingin’ themes made a splash would be an understatement. The first album reached No. 1 on Billboard’s Pop LP Chart, and suddenly everybody wanted a piece of the action. All sorts of folks covered the groovin' title theme, with Ray Anthony's version spending 17 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart between January 5 and April 27, 1959; it peaked at No. 8 the week of March 2.

Ted Nash, Maxwell Davis and Pete Candoli had released the first cover album, titled simply Peter Gunn, the year before; Nash, Pete and Conte Candoli, calling themselves the Soundstage All Stars, followed with More Peter Gunn in 1959. Drummer Shelly Manne & His Men also released two albums in 1959: Play Peter Gunn and Son of Gunn. The Joe Wilder Quartet joined the fun in 1959, with Jazz from Peter Gunn; Ray Ellis and his Orchestra followed in 1960, with The Best of Peter Gunn.

(And if I’ve missed any others, please let me know.)

It’s very simple, really: When listeners really, truly love a particular score, they can’t get enough of it. Leonard Bernstein’s music for West Side Story is another good example; I couldn’t begin to tabulate all the jazz cover versions that album generated.

We therefore shouldn’t be surprised that Guaraldi’s beloved Christmas album has received the same treatment, and increasingly more often during the past few years.

But are they any good?

In most cases, yes, and well worth your time and money. And since this is the holiday season, it seems an appropriate time to discuss them all.

But let’s make it a bit more fun, and score the contestants according to my own whimsical parameters. Points therefore will be awarded for...

1) Covering all four of Guaraldi’s original tunes: “Christmas Time Is Here,” “Christmas Is Coming,” “Skating” and “Linus and Lucy” (5 points each, for a total of 20);

2) Covering all five of the traditional Christmas songs that Guaraldi arranged and included on the album: “O Tannenbaum,” “What Child Is This, (aka Greensleeves)” “My Little Drum (aka The Little Drummer Boy),” “The Christmas Song” and “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” (5 points each, for a total of 25);

3) Plus covering Beethoven’s “Für Elise” (25 point bonus);

4) And presenting them in the same album sequence (50 point bonus).

Fresh jazz covers of additional Christmas songs are nice, but count neither toward nor against the total score.

Finally, 10 points will be subtracted for unimaginatively calling the album A Charlie Brown Christmas, because that’s confusing. At the very least, the artist(s) in question should give their work some sort of original title.

Please note, though: The final tally applies solely to how faithful the cover elements are, and in no way reflects the musicality present. Jim Martinez’s album may score low in the “perfect cover” department, but it’s one of my favorites on this list.