Bowie & Bing: The Little-Known Story of the "Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth" Duet, 1977
David Bowie and Bing Crosby: Two generational legends converge for a rare, magical Christmas TV moment in 1977, mere weeks before Bing's death.
It was recorded on Sunday, September 11, 1977 for a US CBS-TV special, “Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas,” and was originally meant to be a David Bowie/Bing Crosby duet on the Yuletide classic “The Little Drummer Boy.”
The producers’ brilliant idea quickly went south for the winter when Bowie discovered the song they were meant to duet on was a song he absolutely detested.
Agreeing to appear with Bing because “I just knew my mother liked him,” Bowie was between the January, 1977 release of his Low LP, and the October, '77 release of “Heroes,” the second installment of what came to be called Bowie's "Berlin Trilogy."
Inside Bowie’s Bicentennial Datebook, 1976
Bowie and good friend, Iggy Pop, the godfather of punk and an RCA label-mate, had roomed together in Berlin for nearly two years, both using the storied city for inspiration for their respective recording careers. Bowie produced, and wrote most of the music for Iggy’s The Idiot, which they recorded in the summer of 1976. Bowie commenced recording Low immediately thereafter, in the fall.
Low was released first, in January 1977, on RCA Records, Bowie’s label since 1971. The label actually delayed the album’s release for several weeks, fearing poor sales (one more reason for Bowie’s growing dissatisfaction with the label…RCA’s flagging confidence in the superstar they helped build).
Nevertheless, the album started moving up the charts, prompting RCA to rush (at Bowie’s urging) The Idiot into stores for early spring release on March 18, 1977.
Iggy hit the road touring to support his album. Bowie, seeing no need to promote an album RCA didn’t believe in, toured with him providing keyboards (half onstage/half-off!), and performing no songs himself.
After the Iggy tour wrapped, the duo returned to Hansa Studio in West Berlin in May 1977 for the two months it took to lay down tracks for Iggy’s Lust For Life album, sharing production chores, this time, with Iggy and Colin Thurston. RCA released the album two days before the Bing/Bowie TV taping, with the label, unsurprisingly, offering little promotion for it.
Bowie immediately took to recording his “Heroes” album in July and August, also at Hansa, bringing in longtime collaborator, Tony Visconti to share production chores. RCA released the album on October 14, 1977, the very day Crosby died at 74 of a heart attack after a round of golf in Spain.
Back to Elstree, London (From Sound to Vision)
Bowie, 30 at the time, wondered, just prior to taping, if the 74-year-old Crosby even knew who he was. “I'm pretty sure he did. Bing was no idiot. If he didn't, his kids sure did,” Ian Fraser claimed (more on him shortly).
“We didn't know quite what to do," upon hearing of Bowie's marked dislike of the 1941 Holiday classic.
Upon hearing that Bowie’s 6-year-old son Joey (then known as "Zowie," the name Bowie gave him at birth--he’s now known as Duncan Jones, a film director) actually dug "The Little Drummer Boy" song, Ian Fraser said, "We didn't know quite what to do," upon hearing of Bowie's marked dislike of the 1941 Holiday classic, written by composer and teacher, Katherine Kennicott Davis.
Fraser (a British 11-time Emmy winning composer/arranger), Alan "Buz" Kohan and Larry Grossman left the set, and found a piano in the studio’s basement. In just about an hour, they wrote "Peace on Earth," an original tune, and worked out an arrangement that seamlessly wove together the two songs.
From the December 20, 2006 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 the special’s musical director, Ian Fraser, who co-wrote (with Larry Grossman, the special’s other musical director, and a Chicago-born TV, theatre, and film composer) the ‘Peace on Earth’ music and arranged it [along with “Buz” Kohan].”
Hemion is renowned for his TV productions of specials by Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, and with Smith, produced the entertainment for Democratic and nomination conventions for Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, and others.
Crosby was in Great Britain on a concert tour, leading to the song recording and TV special taping at that time and place. The theme of the TV special was Christmas in England. Bowie was one of several British guest stars booked (the model Twiggy and Oliver! star Ron Moody also appeared).
Booking Bowie made logistical sense, since the special was taped near his London home, at ATV’s Elstree Studios. As perhaps an added inducement, Smith and Hemion agreed to air the relatively stark, but safe-for-network music video of Bowie's then-current single, “Heroes” (with Bing introducing it).
This is the “Heroes” video as aired that night (it’s not the official RCA-produced promo video for the song that made the rounds to record stores and TV stations in the days before MTV…in fact, this sounds like a completely different take and arrangement), with rumored audio enhancements confirmed by his official website: “Bowie sings an emotional live vocal over a backing track, with some not so subtle phasing and echo effects on his voice that may well have been added after the event.”
Watch for his mime moves, learned years before from noted mime, Lindsay Kemp, who passed away at 80 in August 2018, 2 1/2 years after Bowie’s passing:
The Crosby Kids Remember
Harry, Mary and Nathaniel Crosby were on set when Bowie arrived to tape his appearance with Bing, according to Billboard in 2014.
Actress Mary Crosby, three days shy of her 18th birthday, remembered Bowie arriving on set: “The doors opened and David walked in with his wife [Angie]. They were both wearing full-length mink coats, they have matching full makeup, and their hair was bright red. We were thinking, ‘Oh my god.’”
Nathaniel Crosby, 15, and soon to be an amateur golfer, added, “It almost didn't happen. I think the producers told him to take the lipstick off and take the earring out. It was just incredible to see the contrast.”
Watching from the wings, the Crosby kids witnessed a distinct transformation: “They sat at the piano and David was a little nervous,” Mary recalled. “Dad realized David was this amazing musician, and David realized Dad was an amazing musician. You could see them both collectively relax and then magic was made.”
Bowie and Crosby nailed the performance with less than an hour of rehearsal time!
Brief excerpt including interviews with the songwriters, Kohan and Grossman:
And that was almost that. "We never expected to hear about it again," Kohan, a longtime TV and Broadway producer told the Washington Post in 2006.
As a personal aside, I was working at a Houston record store at the time of the TV special's airing. All my friends and I were Bowie freaks, and stunned at the announcement of the announced duet, and were glued to our TVs.
With no YouTube or other way to record and replay it at the time, the image and duet were indelible in our memories for the 5 years it took RCA to finally issue it on record.
But after the recording circulated as a bootleg for several years, RCA Records decided to issue it as a single in 1982. It has since been packaged and repackaged in Christmas compilation albums and released as a DVD.
The performance as it aired on CBS, Wednesday, November 30, 1977:
"Funny or Die" duet parody from 2010 with Will Ferrell as Bowie, and John C. Reilly as Bing. Really more of a tribute, played pretty straight (and frame-by-frame…that’s commitment and respect), but there’s a satiric wink here and there:
An obvious fan of both legends, here’s a heartfelt, but far-too-short duet tribute by ventriloquist Terry Fator, from 2016:
And, here, a mixed Canadian Chorus with children takes a turn: