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 Bowie, Scott 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 UltimateClassicRock.com, 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: