David Bowie, Bing Crosby and the story of the strangest Christmas duet ever
The year was 1977. "The Little Drummer Boy" was just another beloved, if tired, traditional Christmas carol. Then came David Bowie, Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas, and "Peace on Earth."
The little drummer boy would never be the same again.
That clip is from Bing Crosby's aforementioned 1977 Christmas special. The conceit of the special is that Crosby is invited by a long-lost relative to spend Christmas in England. His relative's neighbour happens to be David Bowie, who enjoys popping in to play the piano. They make small talk about music and then sing their duet, "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy."
On close inspection of Crosby and Bowie's baffling but fascinating collaboration, CBC Music offers up these 10 things you need to know about the making of "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy," the shocking death that made its release surprisingly poignant, and the song's enduring legacy.
1. 'The Little Drummer Boy' was originally called 'Carol of the Drum'
Flashback to the very beginning: written by American composer and educator Katherine Kennicott Davis in 1941, "Carol of the Drum" was actually based on an unidentified Czech carol and intended for choirs. The Trapp Family Singers took a shine to it and in 1951 they recorded the song and pa-rump-pa-pum-pummed all the way into the pop culture Christmas canon.
2. After more than a decade as rock's glam space freak oddity, Bowie was 'actively trying to normalize' his career
That assertion of Bowie's motives was made by David Buckley in Strange Fascination — David Bowie: the Definitive Story. But in his McSweeney's essay, Golden Years and Young Americans: Bing Meets Bowie, Scott D. Elingburg expands on why Bowie needed to rescue his reputation:
"Fresh off a debilitating drug addiction and accusations of Nazi sympathizing, David Bowie was ready to capitalize on the non-chart success of his latest record, Low, by appearing on Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas. On paper it made sense to no one. But when these two icons met to record a television segment, it made even less sense. It must have been quite chilly on that mocked English castle set; warmer performances occur at Apple board meetings."
3. Bowie hated 'The Little Drummer Boy'
According to writer Annie Zaleski, who breaks it down for UltimateClassicRock.com, Bowie walked into the taping and asked if there was something else he could sing.
"Ian Fraser, who co-wrote the 'Peace on Earth' portion, told The Washington Post in 2006. 'We didn't know quite what to do.' Instead of panicking, he and two other men working on the special — Buz Kohan and Larry Grossman — hunkered down at a piano in the studio basement and spent 75 minutes working up the tune. Ever professionals, Bowie and Crosby perfected the new song in less than an hour."
4. The first meeting between Bowie and Crosby wasn't quite love at first sight
Crosby's children, Nathaniel and Mary, recounted the sequence of events for Billboard in 2014:
Mary Crosby remembered Bowie arriving on set.
"The doors opened and David walked in with his wife. They were both wearing full-length mink coats, they have matching full makeup and their hair was bright red," she told the summer TV critics' tour Wednesday. "We were thinking, 'Oh my god.'"
Nathaniel Crosby added, "It almost didn't happen. I think the producers told him to take the lipstick off and take the earring out. It was just incredible to see the contrast."
Watching in the wings, the Crosby kids noticed a transformation.
"They sat at the piano and David was a little nervous," Mary Crosby recalled. "Dad realized David was this amazing musician, and David realized Dad was an amazing musician. You could see them both collectively relax and then magic was made."
5. Five weeks after recording with Bowie, Crosby died of a massive heart attack after spending the day playing golf
The Christmas special aired posthumously in the U.S. at the end of November, and on Christmas Eve in England.
Music journalist John Tobler brought up Crosby's death in conversation with Bowie for ZigZag in January 1978. The line of questioning is somewhat bizarre, but it also leads to Bowie's admission that he was working with a little unrecorded American band called Devo:
I mean, it was rather bizarre that both Marc Bolan and Bing Crosby — both of whom you worked with — snuffed it recently.
You really want me to... what do I say?
I mean, do you see anything sinister in that?
No, I don't.
I'm glad to hear that. You did do a Bing Crosby TV show, didn't you?
Yes, I did.
Which could be very interesting to see... Do you have any plans to work with anybody else, like the Astronettes or anybody?
No, there's one band that I can mention. I like them very much indeed. They're an unrecorded band in America called Devo. I've been listening to them for a long time since they sent me their tapes and I hope if I have the time at the end of this year to record them. It's sort of like three Enos and a couple of Edgar Froeses in one band. Most peculiar. That's very nut-shelling of what they're like.
6. Bowie considered the recording his 'most bizarre experience'
He discussed it in an interview with Q's David Quantick in October 1999:
What's it like being the only person ever to work with both Lou Reed and Lulu?
Now I am not sure if that's — opprobrium, or if it's my apotheosis. I like it. I believe… I'm not sure, but I believe that working with Bing (Crosby, on the unnatural "Little Drummer Boy") led to Bono working with Frank (Sinatra). I set a precedent there… I think the thing with Bing is the most ludicrous… it's wonderful to watch. We were so totally out of touch with each other.
Can you remember what you were thinking when you did it?
Yes. I was wondering if he was still alive. He was just… not there. He was not there at all. He had the words in front of him. (Deep Bing voice) "Hi, Dave, nice to see ya here…" And he looked like a little old orange sitting on a stool. 'Cos he'd been made up very heavily and his skin was a bit pitted, and there was just nobody home at all, you know? It was the most bizarre experience. I didn't know anything about him. I just knew my mother liked him. Maybe I would have known (sings) "When the mooooon…" No… (hums) "Da da da, da da da, someone waits for me…" That's about the only song of his I would have actually known.
What about 'White Christmas?'
Oh yeah, of course. I forgot about that. (Kenneth Williams voice) That was his big one, wasn't it?
7. The Christmas special's producers, Gary Smith and Dwight Hemion, were stars behind the camera
The pair produced countless award-winning television programs and specials before Crosby's Christmas show, and would go on to produce countless more. By 1977 though, their successes included taped concerts for Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand, as well as Elvis Presley's final special, Elvis in Concert.
In an interview with Billboard in 1978, the producers admitted that the pairing of Crosby and Bowie was more about looking for demographics than anything else, as was the decision to shoehorn-in Bowie's solo performance of his new single, "Heroes".
"Most people, I'm afraid, felt it really stuck out," Smith told Billboard. "All of a sudden David Bowie's number in the middle of this Christmas show. But you don't book somebody for what they do and then not let them do what they do. You can't manipulate talent that much."
8. MTV gets partial credit for the ubiquity of 'Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy'
Writer Roger Catlin on Songfacts.com:
When MTV launched in 1981, without a wealth of seasonal material come Christmastime, it started playing the duet, leading RCA to issue an official release in 1982 with the arbitrary B-side of "Fantastic Voyage" from The Lodger album. Bowie was annoyed with that move, according to Nicholas Pegg's 2000 The Complete David Bowie, contributing to his departure from the label soon after. Still, it was a high-charting single for Bowie in the post-Scary Monsters era, reaching No. 3 on both U.K. and German charts (his Let's Dance juggernaut for EMI would start three months later). And of course, it's been a seasonal pop staple ever since.
9. Following the taping, Crosby praised Bowie as a 'clean-cut kid'
In fact, RebeatMag.com describes Crosby as speaking highly of Bowie, calling him a "clean-cut kid and a real fine asset to the show. He sings well, has a great voice, and reads lines well."
10. The song continues to inspire — and feature in — new art
Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly paid tribute to Crosby and Bowie's duet in a brilliantly faithful Funny or Die video in 2010.
Jason Segel and Jack Black made an animated tribute in 2010 for CollegeHumour.
It also forms part of Ali Smith's 2016 short fiction in New Statesman. The main character recalls how much they'd hated the song until finally reaching some kind of new understanding of it whilst experiencing heartbreak.
"Now I walk through the Christmas-cheap streets this morning more than thirty years later, and it may have taken thirty years to dawn on me but I can hear that there's something unexpected, something enthralling, in a song I've always taken for granted too, when all along, unnoticed by me, Bowie was bending the song open and Crosby was holding it steady while he did, and then that soaring harmonious stately part starts where they both leave the song behind or sing a whole other song into it.
You can watch Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas in its entirety right here: