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David Bowie And Bing Crosby: The Full Story Behind The Unlikely Christmas Duet
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David Bowie And Bing Crosby: The Full Story Behind The Unlikely Christmas Duet

David Bowie and Bing Crosby’s Christmas duet, Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy, has become a much-loved seasonal classic. Here’s why.

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When David Bowie joined Bing Crosby in London’s Elstree Studios to film a duet for one of the crooner’s trademark Christmas specials, 1977’s Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, it was as unlikely a pairing as anyone could have dreamed up. Singing a medley of Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy, however, the two vocal titans created a seasonal classic that lives on as one of the best Christmas songs of all time. With Bowie also taking the opportunity to film a performance of his anthemic song “Heroes” for the broadcast, he also added some unexpected art-rock edge to Crosby’s traditional yuletide fare.

This is the full story behind David Bowie and Bring Crosby’s Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy duet, and why an entirely new Christmas song had to be written in order to make it happen.

Listen to the best Christmas songs here.

The backstory: “I was a little concerned originally that Bing and Bowie wouldn’t work out”

Bowie was in the middle of his “Berlin era” when he agreed to guest on Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas. His future-shaping Low album had been released at the start of the year, and that record’s follow-up, “Heroes”, was due in October. Having made little in the way of public appearances for Low, Bowie, who would stage a full tour in support of “Heroes”, had wholly committed himself to promoting his new album. When CBS TV producers Gary Smith and Dwight Hemion, the brains behind Elvis Presley’s final TV special, Elvis In Concert, extended an invitation for Bowie to be a part of Crosby’s latest seasonal celebration, it gave him an opportunity to reach a whole new mainstream audience.

“For Bowie it was all about the US market and the exposure there for ‘Heroes’,” Sue Scott, a PA who worked on the set at Elstree Studios, later told Uncut magazine. Bowie also had a more personal reason for agreeing to appear, telling the producers, “I’m doing the show because my mother loves Bing Crosby.”

“I was a little concerned originally that Bing and Bowie wouldn’t work out,” Gary Smith admitted to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, ahead of the special’s broadcast date, “but they worked well together. And I’m sure Bowie feels proud that he had the opportunity to work with Crosby.”

The special: “Crosby’s Christmas special was very traditional”

With the White Christmas star touring the UK at the time Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas was due to be filmed, the conceit behind the 1977 special had the singer receiving a letter from a distant relative, the fictional Sir Percival Crosby, inviting Crosby to spend the holidays with him in his mansion in England. “Crosby’s Christmas special was very traditional, like Andy Williams with all the family involved,” Sue Scott explained.

As well as Bowie, the special included Crosby’s real-life family – his wife, Kathryn, and their three children, Harry, Mary and Nathaniel – along with 60s supermodel Twiggy (who, perhaps coincidentally, had featured on the cover of Bowie’s Pin Ups album) and the actors Ron Moody (as both Sir Percival and his home’s former owner, Charles Dickens) and Stanley Baxter (as an array of comical staff members). As was traditional for many guests on Crosby’s Christmas show, Bowie performed a scripted skit with the host, setting up the duet that would soon go down in history as one of Christmas’ greatest – but not before a last-minute change of plans had the show’s creators scrambling to write a whole new song.

The song: “I would say within an hour we had it written”

With shooting scheduled to start at 10am on 11 September 1977, Bowie arrived on the elaborate set for Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas wearing a long fur coat. His first request – for a bottle of water – was easy enough to grant, after someone fetched one from a nearby Sainsbury’s. His second, however, was a little tricker to resolve.

“We had decided that we wanted them to do a duet of Little Drummer Boy,” recalled Larry Grossman, who, along with Ian Fraser, was one of the production’s musical supervisors. Speaking for the documentary American Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered, Grossman continued, “And when we told Bowie about the number, he said, ‘I won’t sing that song.’” Asked why, Bowie’s response was unreserved: “I hate that song.”

With the backing track having already been recorded by British bandleader Jack Parnell and his jazz band, Grossman, Fraser and the show’s scriptwriter, Buz Kohan, were limited in what they could do. Holing up in a basement room at Elstree, they raced to come up with a solution. “We decided the best way to salvage the arrangement was to do a countermelody that would fit in between the spaces and maybe write a new bridge, and see if we can sell him that,” Kohan said. With time pressures bearing down on them, the trio penned the lyrics and vocal line for a song they titled Peace On Earth. “I would say within an hour we had it written and were able to present it to him again,” said Kohan.

The filming: “You could see them both collectively relax and then magic was made”

Within another hour, Bowie and Crosby had worked out their parts for what was now the Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy medley. “They sat at the piano and David was a little nervous,” Mary Crosby told Billboard in 2014. “Dad realised David was this amazing musician, and David realised Dad was an amazing musician. You could see them both collectively relax and then magic was made.”

“Bing loved the challenge,” Kohan confirmed. “And he was able to transform himself without losing any of the Crosby-isms – that relaxed feeling and the atmosphere that he would always create whenever he was on camera.”

That relaxed feeling filtered through to the scripted scene, in which Bowie arrives at Sir Percival Crosby’s house, hoping to use the piano, and the pair trade quips over the then 77-year-old Crosby’s fortunes (“Oh, you’re not the poor relation from America, are you?”) and the younger Bowie’s taste in music (“But tell me, you ever listen to any of the older fellas?” “Oh yeah, sure. I like John Lennon and the other one – Harry Nilsson.” “Ooh. You go back that far, huh?”). Stating that he even has “a go” at Crosby’s signature song, White Christmas, each year, Bowie picks up some sheet music for a tune he recognises as “my son’s favourite”.

The performance: “Little Drummer Boy was one thing, but ‘Heroes’ was quite a departure”

Watching offstage, Bowie’s then six-year-old son, Duncan Jones, truly did recognise the song Bowie and Crosby began to sing. Later writing on Twitter (now X), he said, “I remember being on the set for this shoot, meeting Mr Crosby and then the two of them singing and thinking, Oh! They’re singing that song Dad was practicing in the kitchen!”

After initially harmonising with Crosby on the opening verse of Little Drummer Boy, Bowie breaks away into the newly penned Peace On Earth – “Can it be?/Years from now, perhaps we’ll see” – his higher voice gliding gently over Crosby’s smooth lower register. “We played it through a couple of times on set, and they sang live with a boom microphone moving between the two voices,” Sue Scott told Uncut.

As well as duetting with Crosby on Peace On Earth/Little Drummer boy, Bowie recorded a solo performance of “Heroes”, which was due to be released in just two weeks’ time as the lead single from its namesake album. A mix of the song’s shadowy promo video, directed by Stanley Dorfman (who had previously shot Led Zeppelin’s acclaimed 1970 concert at London’s Royal Albert Hall), and the mime routines Bowie used to act out during the Ziggy Stardust era, the clip featured an impassioned new vocal sung by Bowie over the song’s original backing track, and made for a sharp contrast with Crosby and Twiggy’s preceding take on Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas. “Little Drummer Boy was one thing, but ‘Heroes’ was quite a departure,” Scott remembered.

Reflecting on the incongruity a few months later, producer Gary Smith told Billboard, “You don’t book somebody for what they do and then not let them do what they do.”

The release: “We never expected to hear about it again”

Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas premiered in the US on CBS, on 30 November 1977, and was picked up by ITV in the UK, where it aired on Christmas Eve – five years to the day since Bowie had staged a homecoming Christmas concert at London’s Rainbow Theatre. “We never expected to hear about it again,” scriptwriter Buz Kohan said. But soon, the recording of Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy would be granted a standalone release, going on to find a wider audience than even Bowie could have imagined.

When MTV launched, in August 1981, Bowie immediately rocketed into the list of the channel’s most-played artists. As one of the most innovative music videos of all time, his Ashes To Ashes clip, issued the previous year, had set the pace for the best promo videos of the 80s. With a lack of seasonal footage available to air, it didn’t take MTV long to alight on the Bowie and Bing collaboration, putting the duo’s performance of Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy in heavy rotation during the Christmas season.

With Bowie on the cusp of releasing his commercial smash Let’s Dance album, Peace On Earth/Little Drummer boy was issued as a single, on 27 November 1982, backed with Fantastic Voyage, a song which had initially appeared on the 1978 album Lodger. Bing Crosby had died of a heart attack a month after filming with Bowie, but when the single hit No.3 in the UK, it fulfilled one of the singer’s final wishes. “They might release it as a record,” Crosby had speculated to the BBC in the weeks leading up to his death. “That’d open up a whole field for me, if I could get hooked up with David Bowie.”

The legacy: “It keeps going into the Christmas charts!”

Crosby may not have lived to see its success, but in the decades since he and Bowie sang Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy together, the medley has gone on to become part of Christmas tradition – right up there with the “presents, a tree, decorations” Bowie told Crosby he and his family laid on each holiday season. Indeed, though it remains one of the most surprising Christmas songs not to hit No.1, The Washington Post has declared Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy to be “one of the most successful duets in Christmas music history”, and the song has become the most-played Christmas duet on the local Washington, DC, radio station 97.1 WASH-FM. “It comes out every year,” Bowie marvelled on Jonathan Ross’ chat show. “It keeps going into the Christmas charts!”

With reissues surfacing regularly – including on the Re:Call 3 collection, issued as part of the 2017 box set A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982), and a reworking with the London Symphony Orchestra, for the 2019 album Bing At Christmas – Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy is part of the cultural fabric. And the odd couple of David Bowie and Bing Crosby has caught the imagination of artists in the music world and beyond.

Having made his own mark on Christmas, with the immortal Fairytale Of New York, former Pogues frontman Shane MacGowan teamed up with Irish vocal trio The Priests to record a cover of Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy in 2010. That same year, two comic teams paid tribute to Bowie and Crosby’s duet, with Jack Black (singing Bowie’s part) and Jason Segal (singing Crosby’s) spoofing it in a rocked-up version that was animated for the streaming service Dropout, and Will Ferrell (Bowie) and John C Reilly (Crosby) largely sticking to the script – with tongues firmly in their cheeks – for a near-shot-by-shot remake filmed for Funny Or Die.

Bowie himself made light of the unusual pairing two decades after its original broadcast, telling TV host Conan O’Brien that Crosby “said he just loved the ‘Heroes’ period. He tried for months to get [collaborator Brian] Eno to work with him on his next album.” But while Bowie would reveal that the septuagenarian Crosby “was maybe reminiscing an awful lot in his own mind”, and would seemingly forget Bowie’s name with some regularity during the shoot, he was also aware that, together, they had created something lasting.

“I’m not sure, but I believe that working with Bing led to Bono working with Frank [Sinatra],” Bowie suggested to Q magazine in 1999, while promoting his own mortality-focused album, ‘hours…’. “I set a precedent there… I think the thing with Bing is the most ludicrous… it’s wonderful to watch.”

Find out where Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy ranks among the best Christmas songs of all time.

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