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October 12, 2022

The Story Behind How It Was Made: Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s Christmas Collaboration

In 1977, “The Little Drummer Boy” was a traditional Christmas carol performed and recorded by countless musicians. Despite its popularity, the song’s structure and sound went largely unchanged until Bing Crosby‘s Merrie Olde Christmas and David Bowie came along. The pair took the song to new heights by incorporating another dusty Christmas song, “Peace On Earth,” that resulted in a carol that sounded both traditional and new at the same time. “The Little Drummer Boy” would never be the same again!


We’ve all heard this charming Christmas carol but what most do not know is the behind-the-scenes account of how the song came to be. Thankfully, the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) has unearthed details about how the song’s creation, and they are actually rather shocking. From Bowie showing up to meet Crosby in full makeup to Crosby’s untimely death following the recording of “The Little Drummer Boy,” you are going to want to learn all about the history of this beloved carol.


The scripted story from the special is that Crosby is invited by a long-lost relative to spend Christmas in England. His relative’s neighbor happens to be David Bowie, who enjoys popping in to play the piano. They make small talk about music and then sing their duet.


Bowie had cultivated a glam rock “Space Oddity” persona that had made him one of the most enigmatic and fascinating performers to watch in the late 1960s through the early 1970s. Despite his offbeat antics that made him visually iconic, he was looking for a change and Bowie insiders believe that’s why he agreed to perform with Cosby for the Christmas duet.


David Buckley in Strange Fascination — David Bowie: the Definitive Story, claims that Bowie was “actively trying to normalize” his career. But in his McSweeney’s essay, cited by CBC, Golden Years and Young Americans: Bing Meets BowieScott D. Elingburg expands on why Bowie needed to rescue his reputation, writing:


“Fresh off a debilitating drug addiction and accusations of Nazi sympathizing, David Bowie was ready to capitalize on the non-chart success of his latest record, Low, by appearing on Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas. On paper, it made sense to no one. But when these two icons met to record a television segment, it made even less sense. It must have been quite chilly on that mocked English castle set; warmer performances occur at Apple board meetings.”


According to Annie Zaleski, writing for, Bowie walked into the taping and asked if there was something else he could sing:


“Ian Fraser, who co-wrote the ‘Peace on Earth’ portion, told The Washington Post in 2006. ‘We didn’t know quite what to do.’ Instead of panicking, he and two other men working on the special — Buz Kohan and Larry Grossman — hunkered down at a piano in the studio basement and spent 75 minutes working up the tune. Ever professionals, Bowie and Crosby perfected the new song in less than an hour.”


Crosby’s children, Nathaniel and Mary, recounted the first meeting between Bowie and their father for Billboard in 2014. Mary Crosby remembered Bowie arriving on set, saying, “The doors opened and David walked in with his wife. They were both wearing full-length mink coats, they have matching full makeup and their hair was bright red,” she told the summer TV critics’ tour. “We were thinking, ‘Oh my god.’”


Nathaniel Crosby 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 in the wings, the Crosby kids noticed a positive transformation between the pair.


“They sat at the piano and David was a little nervous,” Mary remembered. “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.”


Five weeks after recording with Bowie, Crosby died of a massive heart attack after spending the day playing golf. It impacted the release of the Christmas special as the Christmas special aired posthumously in the US at the end of November, and on Christmas Eve in England, CBC notes.


Music journalist John Tobler mentioned Crosby’s death in a conversation with Bowie for ZigZag in January 1978. The line of questioning is unconventional, but it also leads to Bowie’s admission that he was working with an unrecorded American band called Devo…


Bowie opened up about his duet with Crosby in an interview with Q’s David Quantick in October 1999:

QuantickWhat’s it like being the only person ever to work with both Lou Reed and Lulu?
Bowie: Now I am not sure if that’s — opprobrium, or if it’s my apotheosis. I like it. I believe… I’m not sure, but I believe that working with Bing (Crosby, on the unnatural “Little Drummer Boy”) led to Bono working with Frank (Sinatra). I set a precedent there… I think the thing with Bing is the most ludicrous… it’s wonderful to watch. We were so totally out of touch with each other.
QuantickCan you remember what you were thinking when you did it?
Bowie: Yes. I was wondering if he was still alive. He was just… not there. He was not there at all. He had the words in front of him. (Deep Bing voice) “Hi, Dave, nice to see ya here…” And he looked like a little old orange sitting on a stool. ‘Cos he’d been made up very heavily and his skin was a bit pitted, and there was just nobody home at all, you know? It was the most bizarre experience. I didn’t know anything about him. I just knew my mother liked him. Maybe I would have known (sings) “When the mooooon…” No… (hums) “Da da da, da da da, someone waits for me…” That’s about the only song of his I would have actually known.
QuantickWhat about ‘White Christmas?’
Bowie: Oh yeah, of course. I forgot about that. (Kenneth Williams voice) That was his big one, wasn’t it?
The Christmas special’s producers, Gary Smith and Dwight Hemion, were powerhouses behind the camera. According to CBC, the pair produced countless award-winning television programs and specials before Crosby’s Christmas special and would go on to produce countless more.
By 1977 though, their successes included taped concerts for Neil Diamond and Barbra Streisand, as well as Elvis Presley‘s final special, Elvis in Concert.
In an interview with Billboard in 1978, the two producers admitted that the pairing of Crosby and Bowie was more about looking for demographics than anything else, as was the decision to randomly inject Bowie’s solo performance of his new single, “Heroes,” CBC notes.
“Most people, I’m afraid, felt it really stuck out,” Smith explained to Billboard. “All of a sudden David Bowie’s number in the middle of this Christmas show. But you don’t book somebody for what they do and then not let them do what they do. You can’t manipulate talent that much.”
CBC cites Roger Catlin writing for about the song’s rise on MTV:
When MTV launched in 1981, without a wealth of seasonal material come Christmastime, it started playing the duet, leading RCA to issue an official release in 1982 with the arbitrary B-side of “Fantastic Voyage” from The Lodger album. Bowie was annoyed with that move, according to Nicholas Pegg’s 2000 The Complete David Bowie, contributing to his departure from the label soon after. Still, it was a high-charting single for Bowie in the post-Scary Monsters era, reaching No. 3 on both U.K. and German charts (his Let’s Dance juggernaut for EMI would start three months later). And of course, it’s been a seasonal pop staple ever since.
After the taping, Crosby applauded Bowie as a “clean-cut kid.” describes Crosby as speaking highly of Bowie, calling him a “clean-cut kid and a real fine asset to the show. He sings well, has a great voice, and reads lines well.”