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David Bowie and Bing Crosby Creating Harmonies at Christmas

David Bowie and Bing Crosby Creating Harmonies at Christmas

By Dave Price

Forty years ago this holiday season, two iconic, distinctive singers – one America’s greatest pop crooner and the other a much younger British rock innovator – teamed up to produce one of the most popular Christmas duets ever recorded.

The conservatively clad, pipe smoking American was already inextricably linked with Christmas since his 1942 song “White Christmas”, featured in the film Holiday Inn, had topped the pop music charts then for almost 3 months in that year. Meanwhile, the ever-changing Englishman was best known at the time for his portrayal of the strange, androgynous space character Ziggy Stardust he had created for his acclaimed live performances.

But despite their startling differences in style, Bing Crosby and David Bowie combined for one of the most popular Christmas duets ever recorded – their version of “The Little Drummer Boy.”

But the pan-generational, holiday-oddity pairing almost never happened.

During the 1970s, Crosby would air an annual Christmas special. In 1977, Crosby was on tour in England. The theme of that year’s special was to be Merrie Olde England and would be taped in that country. The show’s producers thought it would be intriguing to team the 73-year-old Crosby with the fast-rising Bowie, who was 30 at the time. In a bid to convince Bowie to perform, the producers planned to have Crosby introduce the new video for Bowie’s soon-to-be-released song “Heroes.”

Bowie finally agreed to appear since his mother was a huge Bing Crosby fan.

Initially, however he didn’t want to sing “The Little Drummer Boy.” “I hate this song,” Bowie told the producers. They scrambled and in about 75 minutes composed an original tune they titled “Peace on Earth,” then worked out an arrangement that would let Crosby and Bowie sing the two songs simultaneously in what was to become a weaved together masterpiece.

On the special, Bowie arrives at a set representing Crosby’s temporary English home. The pair of singers banter for a while before heading to a piano where Bowie casually picks out a piece of sheet music for “The Little Drummer Boy.” He then declares “this is my son’s favorite,” an ironic scripted line considering Bowie’s initial distaste for the song. With Bowie plunking the starting notes on the piano and Crosby standing next to him, the duo then drift into their beautiful, reworked version.

Loss fueled the popularity of the song.

The Bowie segment was recorded on Sept. 11 for a holiday season release. However, a month later, Crosby died of a heart attack. Despite the death, CBS decided to go ahead with the airing of the special. So, when viewers tuned in, they knew they would be seeing the great Crosby in his final performance.

To the producers’ delight, the song with the odd pairing immediately attracted wide acclaim, which has only grown over time.

For several years after the special aired, a bootleg recording circulated among fans of both Crosby and Bowie. In 1982, RCA issued a remixed version as a single. During holiday times in its early years, MTV featured a video of Crosby and Bowie singing they would air multiple times during the day. Today, the historic performance is available as a DVD or on YouTube so fans can watch it annually. The song is also a regular on radio stations’ holiday play list.

Although more than 150 different versions of “The Little Drummer Boy,” originally written in 1941 by American classical music composer Katherine Kennicott Davis and at first titled “Carol of the Drum,” have been released, the Crosby/Bowie version continues to be one of the most popular and the one many music critics consider to be the definitive recording of the song.

Of course, the song with its “Peace on Earth” partner is also musically important because it represents a symbolic passing of the torch from Crosby, one of the most popular singers of the Greatest Generation, to Baby Boomer Generation favorite Bowie, who himself died in 2016.

Here’s the YouTube video of the pair’s duet;

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Dave Price operates a freelance writing/speaking/consulting/tour guiding practice in Washington, D.C., where he focuses on 3 topics – the Baby Boomer generation, classic rock, and issues on aging, especially those affecting men. A former journalist and educator, Price is researching 2 books, one on the status of classic rock music and its songs, performers, and fans today and the other a DC guidebook designed especially for Baby Boomers.