Original — a word everyone wants to hear next to their name, but very few are daring enough to challenge the status quo. By default, what’s popular is often what’s repeated. And many people find comfort and validation in walking the familiar path to greatness. However, those well-traveled paths are typically a result of someone risking it all to step out into the wilderness of uncertainty and potential failure.
In 1965, Lee Mendelson contacted Vince Guaraldi to score music to his recently commissioned work on a television Christmas special, featuring characters from Charles Schultz’s Peanuts comic strip. This project needed to be completed in less than six months, on a shoestring budget … and animating a newspaper comic strip for television had never been done before.
Guaraldi agreed and promptly began to brainstorm music for the project. A short time later, Mendelson received a phone call from Guaraldi, who played the following theme for him stating, “I think I’ve got it. I want to play it for you before I forget it":
Setting a jazz arrangement to a children’s television special was a dangerous gamble, but well worth the risk to the creators. Yet, the project wasn’t finished; there were still other challenges to overcome.
Mendelson — squeezed by the TV network’s deadline — was having trouble finding a lyricist to craft words to Guaraldi's instrumental intro. “So I sat down and wrote a poem in about fifteen minutes on the back of an envelope to the music,” Mendelson recalled. This poem set to Guaraldi’s music was entitled “Christmas Time Is Here,” and would eventually become one of the most recorded holiday songs of all time.
The project was soon completed and, despite a very poor response from CBS executives, A Charlie Brown Christmas was reluctantly aired on December 9, 1965. No one thought it would it be a success.
Fifty years later this program is one of the highest rated television broadcasts ever. In 2007, the Vince Guaraldi Trio’s A Charlie Brown Christmas album was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry list of "culturally, historically, or aesthetically important" sound recordings.
I’ve spent most of my life listening to creative people (including myself at times) share their dreams and desires to be original and make an impact in the world. Unfortunately, many people will stop short of making their mark because fear has made them “trail-walkers” when they should be trailblazers.
Shultz, Mendelson, and Guaraldi may have been uncertain of their project’s success, but all pioneers must learn to navigate in the great unknown. There are no shortcuts.
I’m not big on New Year’s resolutions, but if I were, I’d challenge everyone to be original.