There are a few pop culture necessities for me when the holidays roll around: Christmas Vacation, Elf, a visit to The Opryland Hotel, any and all Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole Christmas music, White Christmas (the movie), A Charlie Brown Christmas (the TV special and accompanying album), “Happy Christmas (War Is Over)” by John Lennon, “Beloved Christmas Tree” by Kopecky Family Band and Jars of Clay’s Christmas Songs.
Back to that Crosby guy, his recording of “Peace On Earth / Little Drummer Boy” with David Bowie has always interested me. Plenty hate it, I get that. Either way, it was a very important moment for music in the late 1970s. It brought together one of the most classic vocalists and talents of the twentieth century, Bing Crosby, with one of the most essential and impactful writers and performers in Rock and Roll, David Bowie.
The pairing was not a result of a pre-existing relationship. The producers of Bing’s TV special, “Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas” thought it a good idea, and made it happen. According to a 2006 story by Paul Farhi in The Washington Post, “The notion of pairing the resolutely white-bread Crosby with the exquisitely offbeat Bowie apparently was the brainchild of the TV special’s producers, Gary Smith and Dwight Hemion, according to Ian Fraser, who co-wrote (with Larry Grossman) the song’s [“Peace On Earth”] music and arranged it.”
Apparently Crosby did not know who David Bowie was initially, but his children did, so he agreed to the idea. David Bowie was not interested in singing “Little Drummer Boy.” The producers of the show literally wrote the “Peace On Earth” part of the song within about an hour’s time, on the day of the taping, which is the part Bowie sings in the second half. The two rehearsed the song for less than one hour before the recording on September 11, 1977.
Bing Crosby’s Christmas TV special was set in England and the premise behind the skit is that Bowie is stopping by to see a friend. Crosby is in visiting from America and is staying at Bowie’s friend’s home. Crosby answers the door, the two quickly connect over their musical interests and via television magic, music begins to play and the two sing a beautiful version of “Peace On Earth / Little Drummer Boy.”
There are two separate songs here, but they work together. This is called “counterpoint,” defined by Merriam-Webster as “the combination of two or more independent melodies into a single harmonic texture in which each retains its linear character.” In other words, two separate songs that totally work when performed simultaneously.
Obviously tongue-in-cheek, but still important is part of the exchange from the skit preceding the song:
Bowie: Do you like modern music?
Crosby: Oh, I think it’s marvelous. Some of it really fine. Tell me, uh, you ever listen to any of the older fellas?
Bowie: Oh yeah, sure. I like, uh, John Lennon, and the other one, Harry Nilsson.
Crosby: Oooh, you go back that far, huh?
Bowie: Yeah, I’m not as young as I look.
Crosby: None of us is these days.
David Bowie was 30 years old at the time of this taping. Crosby was 74. A difference of 44 years.
On October 14, 1977, just over a month following the taping, Bing Crosby passed away as the result of a heart attack, in Madrid, Spain. “Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas” initially aired November 30, 1977, on CBS.
Crosby is an absolute legend. I am so thankful this pairing was made and the result was recorded for posterity’s sake. When you watch the skit, notice Bowie’s youth and Crosby’s frailty.
After catching the original, be sure to catch Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly’s parody version of the performance.