SF Bay Area Studio Ace Terry Carleton Remixes A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving
Written By Michael Molenda • Photos Provided By Terry Carleton
The 50th Anniversary A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving: Original Soundtrack Recording.
Poor Charlie Brown. Lucy always pulls the football away as he runs to kick it. Aaugh! But there was no Lucy in the mix to spoil the creation of the beloved Peanuts television specials that have brought enormous smiles to generations of children (and adults). In a complete turnaround from Charlie Brown's sometimes defeatist persona, that story is one of good luck, skilled and delightful collaboration, inspiration, and magnificent talent.
And pianist Schroeder would be so happy the tale starts with a song—specifically, a jazz-piano instrumental.
Producer Lee Mendelson was driving across San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge when he heard "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" by pianist Vince Guaraldi on the radio, and thought, "This would be the perfect kind of music for the Charlie Brown cartoons I'm working on."
Mendelson had gained the trust of Peanuts creator Charles Schulz when he made a
documentary entitled A Boy Named Charlie Brown in 1963. And while that fateful song playing during a trip across a world-famous bridge led to Mendelson bringing Schulz and Guaraldi together, there was a big problem.
Shulz wanted classical music for the Peanuts television specials he and Mendelson were about to launch with director/animator Bill Melendez. Not jazz—a style that Guaraldi, of course, was totally immersed in.
But Guaraldi ended up getting the job to compose the music, and the rest is history. A Charlie Brown Christmas debuted in 1965, then It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown in 1966, and scores of other Peanuts specials followed.
One of those specials, the Emmy-winning A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. But there's also a special treat included in the holiday cornucopia. Unbound from the dialog, voiceovers, and sound effects that accompanied the television show, A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving: Original Soundtrack Recording [Lee Mendelson Film] delivers Guaraldi's jazz-ensemble score as never heard before—a complete immersion into the music and performances. You can now hear the unadulterated music cues, just as they went down at San Francisco's Wally Heider Studios in August and September 1973. It's a stunning experience.
But it took more than holiday magic to bring A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving: Original Soundtrack Recording to the table.
First, the original multitrack tapes had to be found—a job undertaken by Mendelson's children after the producer's death in 2019. Then, the fragile, 50-year-old analog
tapes had to be carefully baked in special ovens to bind any deteriorated iron oxide to the tape, so that the reels could be played once again on an analog-tape machine and transferred to digital-storage media. Once these historic tracks were saved in a form that could be safely auditioned on digital playback systems, the work of remixing the soundtrack material as a full-on music production began.
Sean Mendelson, Lee's son and a talented musician himself, offered the remix gig to Terry Carleton—a San Jose, California-based drummer, multi-instrumentalist, audio producer and engineer, journalist, and avid collector of music-culture gear and memorabilia. It was up to Sean, his brother Jason, and Carleton to re-energize the sound of the studio sessions, find appropriate (and previously unheard) bonus tracks, and capture the majesty of the Vince Guaraldi Quintet (Guaraldi on piano, and bassist Seward McCain, drummer Mike Clark, trumpet player Tom Harrell, and trombonist Chuck Bennett) bringing the Peanuts score to life. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving: Original Soundtrack Recording is also a celebration of the joyful genius of Lee Mendelson, Bill Melendez (1916-2008), orchestrator John Scott Trotter Jr. (1908-1975), and director Phil Roman.
Carleton seated at his studio's command center.
Now, Carleton—in an exclusive, first-person narrative—shares the story of how this feast for your ears and heart came to be...
Being chosen—and trusted—to remix the music of a jazz-piano legend for the 50th
anniversary of an iconic TV special that's part of a beloved cartoon series is almost
unfathomably huge. How did it happen for you?
I totally agree. It's mind-blowing. I almost see myself as that guy hanging out in the family living room who gets a lucky break. I had worked for Lee Mendelson in the late 1990s, doing some projects here in my recording studio, Bones & Knives, and I got to know his son, Sean. Eventually, I ended up recording five albums of Sean's original music. He's a guitarist, a songwriter, a composer of children's music and film and television soundtracks, and he has a music degree from Santa Clara University. But Sean kind of shied away from the family business—Lee Mendelson Film Productions—which is based not far from here in Burlingame. His dad passed away in 2019, after a long, beautiful life, and I think his siblings realized the only musician amongst them was Sean. So, they asked him, "What do we do with this music from the Peanuts shows?" Sean said, "Well, are there any old tapes that still exist?" And that kind of steered things to the discovery of the Guaraldi session tapes, and the transfer of all those analog multitrack tapes to digital. At that point, the question of remixing everything for purely musical releases came up, and Sean told his family, "Let's see if Terry can do it. I've known him for 20 years, and he worked for pop."
And that was it? They handed the Peanuts remix project to you, just like that?
Oh, no. There was a test [laughs]. They sent me one tune—a really cool, minor-key jazz piece that started with a swing three groove, and then went into a 4/4 thing and a key change. It sounded like something Nelson Riddle could have written, but they didn't tell me anything about it. The track was acoustic piano, electric piano, bass, drums, and guitar. The guitar playing wasn't very good. I know they could have gotten any guitar player they wanted for this, and I figured, in the right setting, this player was probably a monster. Far be it for me to criticize this person, but I was surprised that sort of guitar playing made it on this otherwise beautiful track. So, I mixed the guitar apologetically, bringing it up where it sounded okay, and not using it in other parts of the song.
When I played it back for Sean and his brother Jason, they were incredulous. They knew this music inside and out. They grew up with it. In fact, Jason, Sean, brother Glenn, and their sister Lynda were some of the voices you hear in the original cartoons. They looked at each other and said, "We had no idea this music could sound this good."
I didn't do anything heroic—a little reverb, EQ, panning, and compression. Those are small things, but they can be big things if the tracks sound good, and you work to enhance the original intention of the musicians and engineers. But listen, I know I'm not going to receive any "Engineer of the Year" awards for this, and I also know a hundred other people could have done this same job easily or better. I'm so grateful I'm friends with Sean and the family, which afforded me the opportunity to do something so wonderful.
By the way, I found out that guitar track was played by Vince! There was no guitarist around, so it turns out this was his first attempt at recording guitar. He got much better over subsequent sessions, but in this case, he may have said, "Give me a guitar. I have some ideas and I'll just record them to show a really good guitarist what I want when we get one in here." Except that never happened.
What was Sean's role during the remix project?
Sean was here for every mix session, but he pretty much let me do what I wanted, offering suggestions as each mix took shape. I think he and Jason were there mainly to make sure I was working on the right mix. There were so many audio files. Before coming to the studio, Sean and his brother Jason poured through hundreds of tracks to find the right ones. I mean, there may have been five different takes of the same cue, so there was a fair amount of "Let me make sure this is the exact take from the show." It was important to them that the soundtrack album presented the same songs from the show in pretty much the same sequence—just mixed differently. I should also say the original tracks were mixed perfectly for a television show, but the goal here was to approach them the way a stereo jazz album would be mixed.
Besides producer Bill Melendez, you are quite possibly one of the only non-Mendelson
family members to actually dig into the original multitrack tapes.
I can't speak to all of the music that has been released from the Peanuts specials over the years, but, yes, I'm one of the first people to have access to the multitrack files. A couple of earlier shows were remixed by Clark Germain—who also had a hand in helping with some of the file transfers. The Thanksgiving special is the first one I remixed that has been released. All of the subsequent ones will be mixed by me. At this point, I've already remixed something like 140 separate cues. I've been working on this project for two-and-a-half years, and there is one more special coming to me in early 2024.
It must be quite an experience listening to Vince Guaraldi creating this music.
There are no words. I've been knocked out by Vince Guaraldi my whole life. Hearing his grand piano soloed through my humble little studio monitors was riveting. And it was poignant, as well, because Vince died so young. He was only 47 years old when he died of a heart attack just before his second set at Butterfield's Nightclub in Menlo Park, California. He walked next door to the Red Cottage Inn where he was staying to relax, and he collapsed. The rumor is that the club only paid the band for the one set they did before Vince died. "Sorry for your loss. Here's half the money." After Vince's passing, David Benoit, another highly respected jazz pianist, handled any sort of ancillary Charlie Brown music for the specials.
Sean Mendelson and his daughter Jillian recording vocals at Bones & Knives.
I was totally unaware that Lee Mendelson was based in Northern California, and that Vince Guaraldi recorded his music for the Peanuts specials in San Francisco.
Lee was always a Bay Area guy, and he ran his business from here—never Los Angeles. In
addition—except for a few of the early soundtracks—all of Vince's music for the specials was recorded at Wally Heider Studios—now Hyde Street Studios—in San Francisco.
As a point of interest, though, it seems the multitrack tapes for the Peanuts specials weren't stored in the Bay Area.
Lee Mendelson Film Productions owns the master tapes, but only during the pandemic did they rediscover the original studio session tapes—as opposed to the mixed show masters—were located in the Los Angeles storage facilities for Mendelson Productions and Melendez Productions. Once found, they brought these elements together, and they were able to undertake these remix projects. And, remember, these are reels of two-inch tapes. They're bulky! Those things were probably stored in something the size of a dumpster. Trust me, it was such a relief the Mendelsons had Deluxe Entertainment Services in Burbank transfer the original analog tapes to high-resolution digital. As I've been responsible for remixing all of the later multitrack material, I literally had a mountain of individual WAV files sent to me through Dropbox. Happily, all of the tracks for each piece were already aligned and synched up through the transfer process.
What digital workstation did you use for the remixes?
I can tell you it wasn't Pro Tools [laughs]. I used an old Alesis HD24 hard-disk recorder. The mixing board was an analog Allen & Heath console without automation. All of the remixes were done using the "fingers on faders" method.
How many tracks did the original audio team use to record the music?
Well, time went on, and things changed. The first Peanuts episodes were recorded in mono and went straight to mastering. Soon, it was four tracks, then eight tracks, and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving was recorded on an analog 16-track machine.
It's the 50th anniversary of A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving—which means the multitrack tapes are 50 years old, as well. When you first played the Guaraldi sessions, were you confronted with "damaged audio quality" or were you surprised at how wonderful everything sounded?
You know, when Giles Martin remixed the music for the Beatles LOVE production in Las Vegas, he admitted thinking that the 50-year-old analog tapes from Abbey Road were going to require a lot of work to reduce hiss, wow and flutter, and all kinds of things. But he said that wasn't the case at all. The tones came flying out of the monitor speakers, crisp and spanking, and sounding as if they were recorded yesterday on modern equipment by today's greatest audio engineers. That's the way the Guaraldi tracks sounded. I didn't need to go in and triage a bunch of degraded audio. The tones were rich and slamming. The high end was crystalline. No distortion or saturation. Every track was super clean. So, my main job was making decisions such as, "Do I want to EQ the kick drum? What type of reverb should I put on the piano? Would the bass sound better with a little compression?"
The Allen & Heath mixing board, assorted recorder and computer controllers, and more
outboard gear at Bones & Knives studio.
How did you approach remixing such a celebrated work?
I guess this is where personal expression comes in, because none of the guys from those
sessions were in the room with me. I didn't know what Vince had on his mind, or how Bill decided to approach things. I wanted to respect the intention of the music, of course, but I also realized I was mixing something that would be different from the television special. I'm sure the original engineers recorded Vince's band as they would any jazz album. But that's not how the music was initially released. As a soundtrack for the television special, the music was often buried under voiceovers and sound effects. As a result, maybe the loudest thing you hear on A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving is Vince's piano. People wouldn't necessarily know there are also bass, drums, horns, and percussion. But for this, as the music isn't competing with voices and so on, I could really represent each musician and their instrument.
Quite honestly, I could have just put the faders up—no EQ, no reverb, no compression, no
panning—and the tracks would have sounded nice. But I thought, "I have some tools here, so I might as well see what I can do to bring up the sonic spectrum a little bit without compromising the integrity of the original tracks."
I assume there may not have been much reverb or echo used for the original television mixes, as that effect could muddy the dialog and sound effects. Now that those impediments weren't in your way, how much did you incorporate room ambience into the remixes?
I would try to suit each song by imagining the venue in which I would see these guys playing. They weren't playing in a concert hall, but they weren't stuffed into a smoky jazz nightclub, either. I would go for environments that were more or less intimate settings—especially as the music is majestic and the drumming so bitchin'. To shape the atmosphere of each piece, I did use different reverbs from song to song, but I was always careful to maintain continuity throughout the album. I never did anything outrageous with reverb that would make a particular song sound as if it were recorded in a totally different studio by another crew of engineers.
Can you share some of the surprises you encountered as you listened back to these 50-year old sessions?
One of the neat things was hearing the guys talking to each other. There's the usual studio banter such as, "Right, man, let's count it off." But then, I'd hear Vince say things like, "You know what? We don't have time to change that bit. We only have the studio until 4 o'clock, so let's run it one more time, and they get what they get."
It was also great getting a peek at how the band would rearrange things. Peppermint Patty's theme song, for example, was not always the exact same arrangement for every TV special. Sometimes, it would be Latin, another time it might sound funky, and it could be slow or fast. It was so great to hear Vince and the musicians come up with these variations.
Then, there was a song with four keyboard tracks—a stereo grand piano, a Fender
Rhodes electric piano with the tremolo activated, a Wurlitzer electric piano, and a Hohner Clavinet. I decided to pan the grand hard left and right, and then subtly pan the other three keyboards under the grand piano within the stereo perspective. I soloed the keyboards to check out the stereo spectrum, turned to Sean, and said, "Man, these keyboards mixed like this just by themselves would make a killer bonus track." Sean had the exact same thought. It's really a sublime track. That was a cool surprise and discovery.
It also got me thinking about Vince's process in the studio. I mean, a 16-track recorder was kind of a new technology in the early '70s, and it gave Vince the opportunity to consider adding things to the ensemble tracks if there was time. Maybe he'd say something like, "This is going well, and we have the studio for another hour, so let me throw down a Rhodes track and maybe a clavinet." My perception is he'd just add stuff to the tracks that were already up on the board. The funny thing is, due to time constraints, he may have never had the occasion to ask the engineer, "Hey, just let me hear the keyboards." I think Bill Melendez did the mixing after the band was gone, so Vince may not have heard any of these additional, off-the-cuff tracks. That's one question I would have loved to ask Lee Mendelson.
Outboard signal-processing gear at Carleton's Bones & Knives studio. You can see the Alesis digital machines used to play the A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving audio tracks at
Did Guaraldi chart out the music cues for the players very explicitly or were the sessions more improvisational in nature?
Vince's normal process was, he'd see the cartoons long before the recording sessions. He would take notes and jot down some melodic ideas, but not specific charts. I think Vince would come in with some licks or a chord progression, and just play for the guys, so they could set a groove and find a tempo. I kind of feel they were making up a lot of stuff as they went along. Perhaps they'd say, "Let's try funk. Now, let's try swing." And because they were all working for film, I assume someone would have to alert them, "Okay, this is the part where Snoopy gets his dinner."
As you had the multitracks to work with, it was probably the first time that even you had
heard the musicians spotlighted. What did you think of them?
They sounded so good. Seward McCain's bass playing and Mike Clark's drumming on these tracks is spectacular. Seward was an upright bassist, and he didn't want to play electric bass on the sessions, but he was persuaded that electric bass was the way to go. And, man, his playing is dead on and super cool. Mike has the ferocity of Buddy Rich meets David Garibaldi and some of the stuff he did on these records—such as his hi-hat and ride cymbal interplay—is just amazing. And the horn tracks that were played and arranged by trumpet player Tom Harrell, and trombonist Chuck Bennett are beautiful. These guys were all in their 20s when they recorded these tracks, and they are still active today. It's almost unbelievable.
Carleton sitting on his transparent-green Fibes drums.