My bumbling attempt to write a simple, fawning article about how Vince Guaraldi’s A Charlie Brown Christmas is the greatest musical statement of the modern era has failed, struck down by a posse of indifferent trombonists, Scrooge-esque piano bar kingpins, and profanely squabbling sidemen.
Merry #!*@$%^#&*!! Christmas.
I love A Charlie Brown Christmas. It’s so beautiful it makes me want to die. Vince Guaraldi’s piano jazz majesty is best known for giving us “Linus and Lucy,” that gleefully rumbling tune you know simply as “that Charlie Brown song.” But the whole of this 1965 holiday classic — doled out by Berkeley’s own Fantasy Records — will destroy you, or at least it destroyed me.
Credited to the Vince Guaraldi Trio (more on who was, and wasn’t, in that trio in a second), A Charlie Brown Christmas captures both the childlike thrill of Christmas morning and the endless melancholy all 364 other days in the year generate in comparison. The almighty “Christmas Time Is Here” is simultaneously gorgeous and almost unbearably sad, like noting the unending beauty of your true love as a gang of bloodthirsty Mongols burns down your house and drags her away.
The concept: Get East Bay jazzer types to wax philosophical on the might and majesty of A Charlie Brown Christmas.
The result: Good grief!
It starts out just fine. “I played a gig last night, and I opened with the Charlie Brown song, because I knew that it will take any hostile crowd and put them on your side immediately,” raves Kelly Park, owner and piano player of Kelly’s of Alameda, the six-month-old jazz bar success story. “People just love that thing. They just love it.”
He has a vague idea as to why.
“Rhythmic feel,” he says. “It’s his compositions. They’re so joyful and so buoyant and so innocent, which made it perfect for all the Peanuts stuff. Bounce and joy. In my estimation, that would be the thing that sets him apart, the joyfulness and the playfulness and the childlike innocence, if you wanna get poetic about it.”
Rod Dibble does not.
Don’t bother discoursing with East Bay pianist types without consulting Rod, immortal karaoke master down at the Alley near Lake Merritt in Oakland. There’s Rod holding court on an idle Tuesday at his piano/tank/bar apparatus, as gleeful patrons pound out “Danny Boy” and “Ain’t Misbehavin'” and assorted Cabaret tunes.
During his 11:15 break, I find myself sitting shotgun in Rod’s beat-up Ford Tempo, parked outside, engine running for warmth.
Warmth Rod evidently lacks when it comes to the holidays. “I don’t like any Christmas music,” he says. “I’m kind of a Scrooge. My repertoire in Christmas music is very limited. And so I do the same things over and over and over and over, and I get very tired of it. You know, ‘Rudolph’ and ‘White Christmas’ and ‘Here Comes Santy Claus. ‘”
Oh, and no Charlie Brown. Too old. “I don’t do any of that. I love it, but I don’t do it. It’s not my repertoire — ’30s and ’40s. I don’t go much past early ’50s.”
Why? “It’s when rock ‘n’ roll came in. The beat changed, and electric guitar became the main instrument. And I’ve heard it from the start until now, and I still prefer the standards.”
Screw you, Charlie Brown.
“I’m probably one of the few people in the world who has absolutely no reaction to Charlie Brown Christmas,” concurs Mal Sharpe, trombonist for the sarcastically named Big Money in Jazz, frequent Bay Area invader of haunts like Yoshi’s and Albany’s Ivy Room.
You’re killin’ me, Mal.
“You know, I used to hate Christmas music,” he adds. “I used to hate it. But there’s something about it now. I think there’s something about the ’50s that seems so nice now, so when I hear Bing or Frank, the Boston Pops playing ‘Sleigh Ride’ and all that stuff, as corny and as awful as it is, it sort of harkens to a world before everyone had a pistol.”
Now, here’s where the squabbling begins.
Kelly Park had casually mentioned bassist Al Obidinski, who had turned up at Kelly’s just recently, waxing nostalgic about his role in A Charlie Brown Christmas. “He was saying how he thought that ‘Christmas Time Is Here’ would never make it, because the kids were so out of tune, and it was just terrible.”
Reached at home in Daly City, Al recalls just that. “Oh, the first time I heard it I thought, ‘Boy, this is sounding weird, the kids were singin’ and it’s all out of tune,'” he says. “But as it turned out, it turned out really great in a way. That’s the way they wanted it. Kind of a fun thing.”
Al quietly reminisces about Guaraldi, recalling their gig at the Trident, the semifamous Sausalito club, and recording with him at Fantasy. He’s still not sure what to make of the composer: “Uh, I don’t know. I don’t know. For my money, he was kind of a loner … I never spent a lot of time payin’ attention to what Vince was about. He was one of those quiet — genius in a way — the two or three things he did right were really good.”
Funny though, there’s no Al Obidinski anywhere in A Charlie Brown Christmas’ liner notes. “No, it’s not on there,” he admits, laughing, “I played the string bass. Benny Barth played drums. Neither one of us are on there. I don’t know why our names were never on the thing. Occasionally I used to get a check, but anyway.”
Fantasy publicity director Terri Hinte, who moonlights as Express proofreader, sure doesn’t know the guy, although she admits the label’s paperwork was somewhat incomplete back then. “He could’ve worked, conceivably,” she says. “I’ve never heard of him, I don’t know anything about him or what he could or couldn’t have done. I have never heard that name in my life.”
What she can attest to is Charlie Brown‘s phenomenal success — two million copies sold thus far, with a recent big-shot remastering package out now on SACD (Super Audio CD, a new high-tech audiophile format). “It’s just kind of magical,” Terri says. “Maybe it’s the connection with the TV special. I’ve read stories in which Wynton Marsalis talks about seeing the Peanuts shows with Vince Guaraldi’s music when he was a kid, and that’s the first time he’s ever heard jazz, instrumental jazz, on television. I don’t know. A lot of people just connect with it, and that’s the mystery of a hit.”
And with that she points me to Colin Bailey, a drummer who does appear in Charlie Brown‘s liner notes. Called at home in the Martinez/Pleasant Hill/Lafayette region, Colin reacts to this Al Obidinski business with a bit less Christmas cheer:
“On what?” he asks, incredulously. “He never played for Vince Guaraldi. He’s full of shit. On what record? Bullshit! Well, he’s a liar. I know Al Obidinski. He never played for Vince. Jesus Christ. These people come out of the woodwork.”
“Al Obidinski said he was on that record? What a lying bastard! Jesus. He wasn’t on it. I’ll tell you that right now. There’s no way he was on it.”
And with that, Colin launches into his own reminiscences. “It is innocent stuff. Charlie Brown, he’s like a kid. I mean, I’m from England originally. I didn’t even know who the hell Charlie Brown was. I didn’t have a clue. Vince came in and said, ‘Hey, we’re gonna do this Charlie Brown Peanuts stuff.’ Who? What?”
Next stop: David Guaraldi, Vince’s son and determined keeper of his father’s legacy. David has set up VinceGuaraldi.com and says he’s sitting on a ton of unreleased live and studio material that he’s hoping to release — his opening salvo, a CD entitled The Charlie Brown Suite and Other Favorites, came out in August.
On the subject of Al Obidinski, David is less profane than Colin, but just as certain.
“Nobody like that ever played on it,” he says. “Nobody with that name ever played on it. I guarantee you … that guy, whoever you mentioned, he’s never worked with my dad. I know all the people who worked with him. I was hangin’ with him pretty much in those days.
“I love the shit out of the music,” David adds. “I always have, though. At sixteen years old, hangin’ out with him, I loved his music then. There’s just somethin’ about it. It’s definitely from the heart. He’s just one of those total musicians that gives it his all, and I guess people pick up on that.”
Bringing all this chaos back to Al, he doesn’t sound angry or penitent. He just sounds confused. I describe the recording process Colin described: a quick four-hour session cut in 1965 somewhere in Los Angeles, and maybe Glendale too. (Hey, it was the ’60s, there’s gonna be a little haze.)
“Oh, I wasn’t on any of that thing,” Al says. “I don’t know which one’s which, but this is the one where there’s a whole bunch of kids singing. He must’ve recorded some of that stuff more than once.”
As for David Guaraldi, Al says: “I never met his son at all. I don’t think I ever saw him in my life.”
You can practically hear Al shrug over the phone. He mentally retraces the chronology and decides his personal Charlie Brown recording session took place around 1963 in Berkeley, so it must’ve been something else. In any event, he’s not too concerned about it. And that’s good, because Fantasy wasn’t a recording studio back then.
“I’ll have to listen to it sometime, ’cause I played a little lick on it,” Al concludes. “I think I’d recognize myself. The last time I heard it was a couple years ago in Macy’s, when I was shopping or something. I wasn’t ever paying much attention to it all. Maybe I should have.”
Al may have had the right idea. Don’t pay attention to it. You’re better off just listening to the damn thing.