Born in San Francisco, Calif., Granelli’s father and uncle were both jazz drummers, but he didn’t decide to become a drummer himself until he got to spend a day with the famous jazz drummer Gene Krupa; Granelli was 8 years old. He learned to play by sneaking out at night to San Francisco nightclubs. “I’d get thrown out of the clubs because I couldn’t play,” he said. “It was a rough way to learn because you’d sit in and somebody would come up and say, ‘Get off the drums!’ Then I’d go outside and cry, but then I’d get back in there because I knew — I knew! — that if I didn’t go back in I’d never get there.” He got there: At 21 he landed a job with a jazz pianist and composer. He was the third of the Vince Guaraldi Trio, after bassist Fred Marshall. “A lot of people wanted that job,” Granelli said years later, “but I got it.” The group had a number of hits in the early 1960s, and Guaraldi landed an amazing, yet “hurry up,” commission for the Trio: to write and perform the music for a TV special. It was the first such show of its kind, and was to be titled, A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Guaraldi came up with the general themes. Granelli and Marshall worked on their own parts, and they got to recording. The music sounds fresh, almost improvised — in part because they recorded the entire soundtrack in about three hours. But once the TV special was finally finished — just 10 days before its December 1965 airtime — almost everyone hated it. Even the executive producer: “My golly, we’ve killed it,” said Lee Mendelson (Honorary Unsubscribe, 29 December 2019). “I really believed if it hadn’t been scheduled for the following week, there’s no way they were gonna broadcast that show.” As for the music, it was declared “too cutting edge” for a mainstream American audience. Yet the show was an instant classic, airing every year since. The soundtrack album, released at the same time, sold millions of copies. Yet Granelli quit the Trio — maybe that he was barely paid for his work was part of the reason. “I mean, I made $100 — a standard record date in 1965 was not even $100 — it was $68, man!” His main reason, though, was “I felt I wasn’t hearing [Guaraldi’s] music anymore, and I’d learned all I needed to learn. So I went off in another direction.” He had a successful solo career, moved to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada, and in 1999 became a Canadian citizen. Vince Guaraldi died after a gig in 1976, at just 47. Fred Marshall died in 2001. After that three-hour recording session, Granelli never played the “Charlie Brown” music again.
Until 2013, when he decided he was ready to return to it. As the sole survivor of the recording Trio, he toured the jazz circuit to tell the story of the soundtrack’s creation, playing the pieces as he went along. Ever since 1965, Granelli had been best known as “the drummer from ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’,” but “I don’t mind at all” being known for three hours of work, he said. “I’m grateful.” Going public seemed to help: “I finally got a bunch of royalties” for the Charlie Brown music in 2016, he said. After that first $100, “it took 50 years for me to get a dime.” Meanwhile, the album had been added to the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry list of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically important” American sound recordings, was voted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, and in 2016 was certified quadruple platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America. Granelli was severely injured in a fall in December 2020. “He had made steady progress but eventually was not able to overcome the ordeal,” said his son, bassist J. Anthony Granelli. Granelli died at his Halifax home on July 20, at 80.