“The Little Drummer Boy” – The Story of One of the Oddest Pairings In Music History [Video]
When David Bowie was asked to appear on Bing Crosby's 1977 Christmas special, the "glam rocker" thought a proposed duet of "The Little Drummer Boy" was all wrong for him. So politely, he refused to sing the holiday classic on the show.
In the years passed, the Bowie-Crosby, "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy," has been transformed from an oddity, into a holiday chestnut. You can hear it in heavy rotation on Christmas-music radio stations or see the performance on Internet video sites. First released as a single in 1982, it still sells today, adding to its quirky afterlife. But how did this surreal pairing of the mainstream and the avant-garde, oft cardigan-clad crooner and glam rocker, happen?
It almost didn't. Bowie, who was 30 at the time, and Crosby, then 73, recorded the duet Sept. 11, 1977, for Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas TV special. A month later, Crosby died of a heart attack, with the special broadcast on CBS about a month after his death. The idea of pairing the resolute Crosby with the incredibly offbeat Bowie was the brainchild of the TV special's producers, Gary Smith and Dwight Hemion.
Crosby was in Great Britain on a concert tour, and the theme of the TV special was Christmas in England. Booking Bowie made logistical sense, since the special was taped near his home in London, at the Elstree Studios. As perhaps an added incentive, the producers agreed to air the video of Bowie's then-current single, "Heroes" and even had Crosby introduce it.
It's unclear, however, whether Crosby had any idea who Bowie was. Buz Kohan, who wrote the special and worked with Ian Fraser and Larry Grossman on the music, worked some of the intergenerational awkwardness into his script. In a little skit that precedes the singing, Crosby greets Bowie at the door of what is supposed to be Crosby's rented London home. The concept is that Bowie is dropping by a friend's house, but instead finds Crosby at home one snowy afternoon. They banter for a bit and then get around to a piano; Bowie picks out a piece of sheet music for "The Little Drummer Boy", declaring, "This is my son's favorite."
After Bowie balked at performing the song, 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.
Fraser, Kohan and Grossman figured at that point, that was that. And it was...well, almost...
After the recording circulated as a bootleg for several years, RCA 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. It's still the most played Christmas duet on many stations, airing once or twice a day while they play nothing but holiday music. It will always remain on my play list as both a memory (I remember seeing the original airing of Crosby's special in 1977, myself at the time having no idea who David Bowie was) and a staple. I have passed it on to my children and my grand children, and today, I am happy to pass it on to you.
Merry Christmas and happy holidays to one and all. May we all experience peace on earth and goodwill towards men.