Jerry Granelli had a key role in creating one of the most beloved Christmas shows in television history. But the last surviving musician from the Charlie Brown special has never been a fan of the holiday and wouldn't celebrate it were it not for family. In fact, only five years after that gig, the drummer became a Buddhist.
"And here I am, the guy who did the Christmas special," he says, laughing, adding it was his spiritual instructor who drew him to Halifax, where he now lives. "It's pretty funny. Everybody always asks about the Christmas special and I'm a Buddhist."
The wildly popular A Charlie Brown Christmas, based on Charles Schulz's Peanuts comic strip, tells the story of Charlie Brown's search for the meaning of Christmas and his realization that it doesn't have to be ruined by commercialization. Its debut in 1965 was reputed to have been watched by half the American viewing audience, and its appeal seems timeless: This year, 14.44 million Americans tuned in, while historically about a million Canadians have caught it annually.
Mr. Granelli said they were trying to create something memorable but had no clue how successful they'd be. Even now, 45 years later, he isn't sure why it worked so well.
"Nobody had any idea at the time," the 69-year-old said. "The whole thing was serendipity. You change any of the people in the room and you don't have that."
Mr. Granelli sighed a bit when a reporter called to talk about Charlie Brown, noting that it was an early success in a long and prolific career, but he spoke graciously about how it came about.
He grew up in San Francisco and, in his early 20s, scored a spot on a jazz combo called the Vince Guaraldi Trio. It wasn't long before they were recruited to create the soundtrack for the television special.
"Vince went into this saying he wanted to create a standard, something people would know," Mr. Granelli remembered. "You listen to that music and it works. It touches people. And no one can forget it."
That ability to stick in people's minds is key to the music's strength, said Maryanne Fisher, associate professor of psychology at Halifax's Saint Mary's University, who has done work on popular culture.
She noted that several factors have helped give the special its enduring appeal. It has a slow-moving lack of glitz and an innocence that allows a family to gather to watch. And the music has a memorable simplicity.
"I find the music very interesting because I think it was very, very distinctive," she said. "The distinctiveness of it allowed it to become memorable. You hear people humming it at this time of year. It really sticks in your head."
Mr. Granelli said that, at the time, it was just another gig. Only later did they realize they'd created something lasting.
He hasn't made money from the music over the years, though, having signed away copyright under the system of the day. And he moved on quickly. He had become interested in so-called free music, in which musicians use improvisation as a compositional tool, and kept evolving. He has continued recording and this year put out 1313 on Divorce Records.
Over the decades, Mr. Granelli played with such notables as John Handy, Charlie Haden and Sly Stone. In 1987 he moved to Halifax, inspired by his Buddhist teacher, and now calls the community home. For years he has run a music workshop, in conjunction with the Atlantic Jazz Festival.
"It's really important for young people to find the originals … the people who did it first," he said. "You can create boy bands and all those things, but you can't manufacture something real."
As for his own role in musical history, Mr. Granelli doesn't bring that up in class.
"I don't go back there," he said. "I'm dealing with a generation of people who saw it maybe when they were five years old. Now they're 20."