In September 1977, Bing Crosby was recording his television special “Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas.” Slated for a guest appearance in the show was a rather unusual choice – Ziggy Stardust himself, Mr. David Bowie.
Bowie was scheduled to sing a duet with Crosby of “The Little Drummer Boy.”
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The pair seemed an odd fit artistically, but commercially it made sense, at least in theory. Bowie was then seeking to somewhat mainstream his career, and the producers of Crosby’s special no doubt hoped that a young, ultra-hip performer like Bowie would bring in a demographic not normally inclined to tune in to a very old-fashioned holiday special.
But Bowie balked at the choice of songs; he thought “Little Drummer Boy” was wrong for him, and asked the producers if he could do something else. So, as The Washington Post described the scene:
Just hours before he was supposed to go before the cameras, though, a team of composers and writers frantically retooled the song. They added another melody and new lyrics as a counterpoint to all those pah-rumpa-pum-pums and called it “Peace on Earth.” Bowie liked it. More important, Bowie sang it.
But before he sang it, the conventions of the form dictated that the two men, who barely knew each other (indeed, there is some dispute whether or not Crosby even knew who Bowie was), engage in some very canned, very stilted banter. And boy, did they ever succeed.
The segment begins with a doorbell ringing. Crosby answers the door and lets in David Bowie, who introduces himself and asks Bing, “You’re the one who sings, right?” Ouch. Crosby answers, ‘Well, right or wrong, I sing either way.” Bowie casually mentions that he, too, is a singer. Bing’s eyes light up: “Good! What kind of singing?”
The whole thing is so cheesy, so painful to watch, that when the piano at last heralds the beginning of the inevitable duet, one cringes at the train wreck about to ensue.
But then something very strange happens: There is no train wreck. The two men slip into perfect, haunting harmony. Bowie looks into the camera and sings his part with a sincere and restrained melancholy, Crosby buoying him softly with the staccato refrain pah-rumpa-pum-pum. It is, frankly, weird. It shouldn’t have worked at all. But it did, in true Christmas miracle fashion.
It was one of Crosby’s finest moments, and also one of his last; one month after recording the special, and one month before it aired, the 73 year-old crooner was dead.
The Crosby/Bowie duet remains one of the most memorable and surreal moments in television history. It is far and away my favorite Christmas song. I hope you like it, too.