When Charles Schulz, director-producer Lee Mendelson and co-producer Bill Melendez announced they were bringing Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and the Peanuts gang to the big screen for the very first time, anticipation was naturally high. A Boy Named Charlie Brown was well-received upon its December 1969 theatrical debut, going on to do good business and receiving credit for breaking the Disney monopoly on feature-length animation. Today, it’s still remembered as the best of the four Peanuts animated films; a fifth, with computer animation, is on the way later this year. Part of the film’s charm can be credited to its Academy Award-nominated musical score, crafted by the team of Vince Guaraldi, John Scott Trotter, and Rod McKuen. Thanks to Varese Sarabande, McKuen’s contributions to A Boy Named Charlie Brown can be heard anew on the first-ever CD presentation of the singer-songwriter-poet’s album of the same name.
It was only natural that Vince Guaraldi would be involved with A Boy Named Charlie Brown. The jazz pianist-composer’s association with the comic strip kids began when he composed the score to an unaired television documentary also called A Boy Named Charlie Brown, which led in turn to the 1964 album Jazz Impressions of a Boy Named Charlie Brown. (The album premiered such familiar perennials as “Linus and Lucy.”) Guaraldi went on to define the sound of the characters in numerous television specials beginning with 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas. But Guaraldi, crafting an instrumental score from new and old compositions such as Christmas‘ “Skating,” was only one-third of the movie’s equation. Musical director John Scott Trotter, a venerable musician whose work with Bing Crosby dated back to 1930, was brought on board as arranger, conductor and composer. And, finally, to write the music and lyrics for the key songs, Rod McKuen joined the team. The restlessly prolific McKuen, by then well known for both his record-breaking poetry and his string of popular albums for RCA Victor, Warner Bros. and his own Stanyan label, brought a sensitive touch and warm sensibility to his music and lyrics.
Columbia Records released the original soundtrack recording to A Boy Named Charlie Brown (not to be confused with the earlier documentary), presenting it in unusual storybook-style fashion with dialogue over the score tracks and newly-recorded narrative segments, all woven into two lengthy tracks, one per side. McKuen correctly sensed that listeners would want to hear the songs on their own, and so he re-recorded them for the 1969 film on a Stanyan album also including his music from The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Me, Natalie, and Joanna. This is the album happily brought back into print by Varese. (Unfortunately, Vince Guaraldi’s fans have never gotten the chance to hear his work on the film sans dialogue and other interruptions; the story of a restored soundtrack CD-that-never-was can be read here.) McKuen is joined on the LP by musicians including jazz greats Terry Trotter on piano and Chet Baker on trumpet.
McKuen supplied four songs to A Boy Named Charlie Brown – three made the final cut of the movie, illustrating the story of Charlie Brown’s journey to New York to participate in a spelling bee, and one was resurrected just for this album. The sweetly bouncy soft-shoe “Champion Charlie Brown” bookends the LP in two different vocal renditions, both sung by McKuen with his trademark gentle gruffness. The song had its roots in “Mr. and Mrs. Chips,” a song pitched by McKuen for the score of the 1920s-set Goodbye Mr. Chips (eventually written by Leslie Bricusse) and indeed, both versions here have a pronounced music hall or vaudeville feel.
The ironically jaunty “Failure Face,” sung in the film by a group of girls taunting Charlie Brown, is heard here twice, too, once in an instrumental version and once with McKuen’s vocal. Given the singer’s warm persona, it’s quite a surprise hearing him deliver the tune’s mean-spirited (and perfectly-suited to the film) lyrics. The beautifully wistful title track serves as a theme for the movie, hinting at the melancholy underneath the surface of Peanuts.
The instrumental “Something for Snoopy” was intended for the film but ultimately unused; with its breezy piano lines as played here by Terry Trotter, it would have meshed well with Vince Guaraldi’s jazz-influenced pieces. Sylvette Allart adds a light, otherworldly touch to the track playing the Ondes Martenot, a theremin-like electronic instrument.
Selections from three other McKuen-scored films round out this release. Henry Mancini, a McKuen pal since their shared days together working the B-movie grind for Universal-International in the 1950s, provided the melody to the haunting “Natalie” from 1969’s Me, Natalie. (Its original Columbia soundtrack has recently received its first-ever CD reissue as part of Legacy Recordings’ Mancini box set The Classic Soundtrack Collection.) McKuen’s whispered vocals provide hopeful advice to the title character (portrayed in the movie by Patty Duke) while the music, arranged and conducted by veteran Peter Matz, maintains a pensive mood. Mancini sublimely arranged and conducted the atmospheric version of the romantic “We.”
Two tracks are reprised from McKuen’s score to the acclaimed 1969 drama The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie which starred Maggie Smith. Rod sings his “Bend Down and Touch Me” with Allart adding the unusual accompaniment. The familiar, Oscar-nominated “Jean” (a No. 2 Pop/No. 1 AC hit for the singer named Oliver) gets a bold, big-band makeover. From director Michael Sarne’s 1968 picture Joanna, McKuen’s first complete film score assignment, “I’ll Catch the Sun” gets a lightly bossa nova-flecked standalone arrangement. Additionally it’s woven into a medley with the brassy, “Mame”-inspired title track, “Saturday Night in Knightsbridge” and “Inside of Me.” Alternately boisterous and reflective, the medley captures the many moods of Joanna and of the sixties period in which the movie was filmed and is set.
Varese’s reissue of McKuen’s A Boy Named Charlie Brown boasts never-before-published liner notes from Rod McKuen himself, penned in November 2014 before his passing earlier this year at the age of 81. His notes are typically witty and entertaining as he reflects on each of the four movies represented. Steve Massie has remastered the entire album and Bill Pitzonka has designed a wonderful package incorporating the original album artwork with original Schulz cartoons. Though a must-have for fans of the film and of Peanuts, A Boy Named Charlie Brown, the album, also stands on its own as an enjoyable listen and a tribute to the singular gifts of the late Rod McKuen. Charlie Brown is a champion, after all.
- Champion Charlie Brown (Vocal)
- Something for Snoopy (Instrumental)
- A Boy Named Charlie Brown (Vocal)
- Failure Face (Instrumental)
- Natalie (Vocal)
- I’ll Catch the Sun (Instrumental)
- Failure Face (Vocal)
- We (Vocal)
- Jean (Instrumental)
- Bend Down and Touch Me (Vocal)
- Joanna Medley: Joanna/I’ll Catch the Sun/Saturday Night in Knightsbridge/Inside of Me (Instrumental)
- Champion Charlie Brown (Vocal)