Puck’s Christmas Favorites: Bing and Bowie
Bing Crosby’s final Christmas special, in 1977, featured an odd little duet with none other than glam rocker David Bowie. “The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth” has now become a classic in its own right. This article gives a good behind-the-scenes account of how it all went down. There’s a widely-held notion that Bing was generally out of it and had no idea who Bowie was, but this is disputed here:
It’s unclear, however, whether Crosby had any idea who Bowie was. Buz Kohan, who wrote the special and worked with Fraser and Grossman on the music, says he was never sure Crosby knew anything about Bowie’s work. Fraser has a slightly different memory: “I’m pretty sure he did [know]. Bing was no idiot. If he didn’t, his kids sure did.”
A simple duet of “The Little Drummer Boy” might not have been memorable on its own. The “Peace on Earth” counterpoint is what makes the piece so powerful.
The original plan had been for Bowie and Crosby to sing just “Little Drummer Boy.” But “David came in and said: ‘I hate this song. Is there something else I could sing?’ ” Fraser said. “We didn’t know quite what to do.”
Fraser, Kohan and Grossman left the set and found a piano in the studios’ basement. In about 75 minutes, they wrote “Peace on Earth,” an original tune, and worked out an arrangement that weaved together the two songs. Bowie and Crosby nailed the performance with less than an hour of rehearsal.
I don’t know if I saw this particular Christmas special when it aired. The reason I love this bit is not just because of the song itself (with its gorgeous, very 70s arrangement), but because it evokes memories of old-school Christmas specials—the kind that died sometime in the 80s. Sure, they still do specials like Christmas at Rockefeller Center, but these seem more like concerts than anything else. Back in the 70s—the heyday of primetime variety shows—Christmas specials were gaudy, whimsical affairs, with bad comedy sketches and questionable production values. The awkward banter between Bing and Bowie is a good example of the cheese factor inherent in old-school specials.