As oddball collaborations go, it takes some beating: veteran crooner with a penchant for cardigans and golf throws his lot in with one of the edgiest and most innovative artists of the age. Neither cared little for each other’s work and the latter reportedly hadn’t even heard of the former. Yet four decades on from its inception, Bing Crosby and David Bowie’s duet on Peace On Earth / Little Drummer Boy remains a curiously affecting recording and one of the most enduring Christmas songs released.
Perhaps not surprisingly, these two iconic singers had absolutely nothing to do with the idea. It was all engineered by Ian Fraser and Larry Grossman, the two music supervisors on Crosby's A Merrie Olde Christmas special, which aired on CBS in the US, and ITV in the UK.
It was September 1977 and Bowie was still smarting from the mixed critical reception to his eleventh album Low and on a fierce promotional drive for his new album, Heroes.
Bowie had chosen not to promote Low, a decision which seemed to have backfired, so for the follow-up album Heroes, set for an October 1977 release date, he decided to “normalise” his career, targeting the mainstream via appearances on multiple television programmes to expand his reach to the wider public once again.
Bowie was at the height of his Berlin era, and hipper than ever, one of the few older artists still namechecked and revered by the nascent UK punk scene. So when Fraser and Grossman approached his management with the idea of appearing on Crosby’s festive special to perform a sentimental duet, it seemed the very antithesis of everything Bowie represented, the kind of thing that could kill his credibility in an instant.
In an interview with The Sun in December 2019, Crosby’s daughter Mary is quoted as saying that it was Bowie’s mother Peggy Jones who finally convinced her son to do the Crosby Christmas special. “David wasn’t going to do the show,” said Mary, “and his mum said, ‘No, you have to work with Bing Crosby!’. She was a fan. She was like, ‘You have do this’.”
Yet on the day of the recording of the show on 11 September 1977, Mary and her older brother Harry also had doubts over whether this format was a good move for either Bowie or their father. “When David walked into the studio with his wife [Angie], they were both wearing full-length mink coats, full make-up and had short, bright-red hair. Harry and I looked at each other and we were like, ‘Oh wow! How is this going to work?’”
In 2014, Crosby's youngest son Nathaniel told Billboard magazine that the show’s producers had balked at Bowie’s appearance. "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."
Bowie was already well into his promotional drive. Two days earlier, he had travelled to Manchester to appear with Marc Bolan on the Marc Show performing the title track from the Heroes album, just weeks before Bolan’s tragic death in a car crash.
Two days later, Bowie was at Elstree Studios, just north-west of London, the setting for the shooting of A Merrie Olde Christmas. Things did not get off to a good start. Ian Fraser and Larry Grossman’s plan was for Bowie and Crosby to sing a straightforward rendition of Little Drummer Boy, a popular Christmas song, written by American composer Katherine Kennicott Davis in 1941. But Bowie refused point blank to sing it. "I hate this song. Is there something else I could sing?" he reportedly said, adding that it wasn’t a good showcase for his voice.
Fraser, Grossman and the show’s scriptwriter Alan ‘Buz’ Kohan had not anticipated this worrying turn of events. But all three were talented and resourceful. They tracked down a piano in the studio’s basement and quickly wrote Peace On Earth, as a counterpoint arrangement to Little Drummer Boy.
"It all happened rather rapidly,” Kohan told Rolling Stone magazine in 2014. “I would say within an hour, we had it written and were able to present it to [Bowie] again."
The song proved far more palatable for Bowie. They quickly taught it to him and he recorded it in three takes. Crosby performed Little Drummer Boy, while Bowie sang Peace On Earth, which they reportedly performed after less than an hour of rehearsal. "Bing loved the challenge," recalled Kohan, adding that Crosby "was able to transform himself without losing any of the Crosby-isms".[
The results were impressive. For all the schmaltz of the show itself, in the space of only three hours, Fraser and Grossman had created a haunting counterpoint song, and Bowie and Crosby delivered emotive and memorable vocal performances.
The track begins with both singing the first few bars of The Little Drummer Boy, before Bowie picks up the counterpoint refrain of Peace On Earth. There’s an easy, natural feel to both vocal performances. Both men were baritones yet Crosby’s register is distinctly deeper here. But while Crosby is the legendary crooner, Bowie’s sonorous timbre is almost as warm and rounded as he weaves his refrain within the more rigid top-line melody of Little Drummer Boy.
By complete contrast, the sketch that precedes it is toe-curlingly awkward. “Allo, are you the new butler?” begins Bowie in a pronounced cockney drawl as Crosby opens the door and invites him into the mocked-up entrance hall of an English stately home. “I’m David Bowie, I live down the road… Sir Percival usually lets me use his piano.” And so it goes on, painfully forced, with jokes built around the generational divide, although Crosby, a veteran of numerous Hollywood movies, not surprisingly seems far more at ease with the hokey nature of the sketch.”
But it’s the song that this collaboration is most remembered for. With such a strong performance and the two A-list names it should have been full steam ahead for a major Christmas single release. But according to Bowie biographer Chris O’Leary in his 2019 book Ashes to Ashes: The Songs of David Bowie 1976–2016, there was never a plan to release Peace On Earth / Little Drummer Boy in the US and so, in keeping with the common practice at the time, the original 16-track master tape was erased. "We never expected to hear about it again,” Kohan said.
Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas aired on 30 November 1977 on CBS on 24 December 1977 in the UK on ITV. The song was available for some years as a bootleg single backed with Heroes. But Peace On Earth / The Little Drummer Boy looked destined to be a song committed to the collective consciousness of those who had witnessed the show when it aired.
Then, in the early 80s, RCA unearthed a recording of the song that had been picked up by one of the show’s boom microphones. Engineers managed to manipulate this raw two-track audio into a workable mix and master and in 1982, the song was released as a Christmas single, five years after it had been recorded.
Surprisingly, the song failed to chart in the US but it climbed to No. 3 in the UK in November 1982. Peace On Earth / Little Drummer Boy went on to become one of Bowie's most successful and fastest-selling singles, with sales of over 250,000 within its first month, which led to it being certified silver by the British Phonographic Industry (BPI).
The single went on to sell 445,424 copies in the UK and has since become a perennial on British Christmas compilation albums, with the TV sequence also a regular on UK nostalgia shows. Despite little initial Stateside interest, Peace On Earth / Little Drummer Boy eventually went on to become a staple on US and Canadian radio stations during the Christmas season.
It remains unclear whether Crosby actually knew who Bowie was. According to The Telegraph, Buz Kohan suspected not although Ian Fraser felt differently. “I’m pretty sure he did,” Fraser told the Washington Post in 2006. Either way, Crosby was seemingly complimentary about his duetting partner, reflecting that he was a "clean-cut kid and a real fine asset to the show. He sings well, has a great voice and reads lines well."
The song turned out to be Crosby’s final recording, made just weeks before his death from a heart attack. He did not live to see the Christmas show being aired.
In a US television interview Bowie alluded to Crosby’s ill-health at the time, stating that Crosby introduced himself numerous times. When asked about the collaboration on The Jonathan Ross Show, he said:
“I don’t think he knew he’d sung it with me, and he wasn’t kind of reacting to very much around him.
But in response to Crosby’s kind comments about him, Bowie repaid the compliment. "He was fantastic,” said Bowie. “That old man knew everything about everything. He knew rock and roll backwards, even if he didn't know the music… I'm glad I met him."