45 at 45: David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy

In honour of this iconic yet incongruous duet, a celebration of a festive 45 like no other, Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy. The Bowie and Bing bonanza was taped at Elstree Studios on September 11, 1977, just a month before Crosby passed away on October 14.

The British television special, Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, first aired on November 30th and the duet was cunningly released by RCA Records as a single for the Christmas 1982 market when it became clear their star turn was leaving the label. Carlo Basile, the Dame’s label boss in Italy who compiled the odds and sods album Rare almost simultaneously, assures me Bowie was “furious”. On with the show then.

White Christmas, Bing Crosby’s classic hit about a picturesque snowy scene, is one of the most famous Crimbo songs ever — Guinness World Records even named it the best-selling single of all time. It was on this basis that David Bowie incongruously agreed to duet with the Old Groaner on his 1977 special Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas.

This surreal encounter between the Thin White Dame and the good ol’ boy of American family TV has become the stuff of legend. After the Dame ‘mistakes’ Bing for a butler and Crosby jibes at Bowie’s music taste, they launch into a medley that was a shotgun marriage of two songs: something old, something new.

Although Bowie explained in the song’s scripted preamble that Little Drummer Boy was the favourite of six-year-old Zowie (later Duncan), the 30-year-old father despised it: “David came in and said: ‘I hate this song. Is there something else I could sing?’” Ian Fraser, one of show’s musical writers, said. “We didn’t know quite what to do. When we told Bowie about the number, he said, ‘I won’t sing that song. And if I have to do that song, I can’t do the show.’”

Fraser and Larry Grossman, another of the show’s writers, hatched a plan. “We decided the best way to salvage the arrangement was to do a counter-melody that would fit in within the spaces, and maybe write a new bridge, and see if we could sell him on that. It all happened rather rapidly: I would say within an hour we had written it and were able to present it to him again.”

Crosby and Bowie rehearsed for less than an hour before Little Drummer Boy was recorded. “They sat at the piano and David was a little nervous,” Mary Crosby remembered. “Dad realised that David was this amazing musician, and David realised that Dad was an amazing musician. You could see them both collectively relax, and then magic was made.”

After the recording, Crosby would call Bowie a “clean-cut kid and a real fine asset to the show”. “He sings a lovely counterpoint,” he added, “has a great voice, and reads lines well”.

The results are… astounding. 

Sadly, Bing went bong on a golf course in Madrid a month later, and in November 1982, just as he was prepping Let’s Dance, the recording was belatedly issued by Bowie’s record label RCA as a single, much to the singer’s chagrin. With no promotion, the 45 got off to a shaky start, entering the British charts at No. 73, though with repeated showings of the now legendary telly clip, it managed to peak in third place during Christmas week itself, behind (gulp) Renée & Renato and the just as horrific Shakin’ Stevens. Whatever happened to them anyway?

Perhaps we’ll see.

Steve Pafford

Perfect 10: Christmas Songs. Prepare yourself for a shock is here

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