Why David Bowie nearly refused to sing with Bing Crosby on classic Christmas duet

22 December 2022, 10:28

David Bowie and Bing Crosby&squot;s duet has been called "one of the most successful duets in Christmas music history". But it nearly didn&squot;t happen.
David Bowie and Bing Crosby's duet has been called "one of the most successful duets in Christmas music history". But it nearly didn't happen. Picture: CBS/Getty

By Thomas Curtis-Horsfall

There aren't many musical pairings as unusual as this one.

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On one side there's Bing Crosby - the first ever multimedia star who defined an era of the movies, music, and even radio - whose crooning voice is synonymous with Christmas itself.

We hear 'White Christmas' each and every year and it reminds us immediately of Bing in the golden era of Hollywood.

On the other side, there's David Bowie, the icon who brought glam theatrics to rock 'n' roll during the 1970s and continued to push the boundaries of pop from then onwards.

Young and old very much colliding - even if you don't factor in their respective age at the time they duetted, they couldn't have been any different.

Crosby was a WW2 veteran who represented the traditions of a bygone era, whilst Bowie's visionary exploits made him the gender-bending music star of the future.

Both were incredibly influential throughout their careers and remain to this day, but that seems to be where the similarities end.

For one fateful Christmas in 1977 however, Bowie and Bing would come together for the now-classic Christmas duet 'Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy'.

The song has become an unlikely favourite during the festive season, though it very nearly didn't happen at all.

Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing their classic duet 'Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy' on Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas in 1977. (Photo by Screen Archives/Getty Images)
Bing Crosby and David Bowie singing their classic duet 'Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy' on Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas in 1977. (Photo by Screen Archives/Getty Images). Picture: Getty

In September of 1977, Bing was finalising his CBS Christmas special, Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas due to be aired that December.

Starring Bing and his family, the show would also welcome a roster of guests such as model Twiggy, actor Ron Moody, and Scottish comedian Stanley Baxter.

But the network wanted the Christmas special to appeal to a younger audience, and David Bowie seemed to fit the bill.

He chose not to promote his first album of 1977, Low, at all so went for a different approach for his second album that year, Heroes.

At the time he was "actively trying to normalise his career" and appeared on multiple television programmes to endear himself to the wider public again after disappearing into an experimental phase of his career.

After the show's music supervisors, Ian Fraser and Larry Grossman, suggested he sing a standard rendition of 'Little Drummer Boy' with Bing, Bowie flat out refused.

"I hate this song. Is there something else I could sing?", Fraser recalled Bowie telling him.

The show's scriptwriter Buz Kohan also agreed, saying that the song "wasn't a good showcase for his voice".

Some quick thinking - in retrospect with a stroke of genius - resulted in Fraser, Kohan, and Grossman sourcing a piano in the studio's basement and wrote 'Peace On Earth' as a counterpoint to 'Little Drummer Boy'.

Kohan later recalled that it "all happened rather rapidly. I would say within an hour, we had it written and were able to present it to [Bowie] again."

Knowing that it'd make his mum happy (as well as Bing's family) he swiftly agreed to come on board, later saying that he chose to go ahead with the duet saying: "I just knew my mother liked him".

His initial appearance on the television set at Elstree Studios near London caused a stir amongst the staff however.

Bing's daughter Mary remembered David and then-wife Angie showing up to the studio wearing full matching makeup and bright red hair.

His son Nathaniel 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."

And as the scene together that precedes their duet suggested, they both came from very different walks of life.

It'd be as strange as witnessing Queen Elizabeth II meeting Johnny Rotten for a cup of tea, for instance.

'Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth' wasn't released a single until 1982, five years after it was recorded.
'Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth' wasn't released a single until 1982, five years after it was recorded. Picture: Alamy
Despite their obvious differences, Bing and Bowie both genuinely enjoyed the experience and praised each other afterwards.
Despite their obvious differences, Bing and Bowie both genuinely enjoyed the experience and praised each other afterwards. Picture: Alamy

During their dialogue, David jokes that he enjoys the music of "old-timers" like John Lennon and Harry Nilsson who were only several years older than him.

But Bing was fully aware of who Bowie was and was incredibly kind about him afterwards, supposedly saying 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."

In the spirit of goodwill, David repaid the praise by saying: "He was fantastic. 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."

It was an unlikely match of musical talents, but one that clearly paid dividends as it remains a Christmas favourite to this day.

Sadly only weeks after the encounter, Bing would pass away at the age of 74 before his Christmas special was even aired.

Expected to be lost in the history books, with Kohan later stating: "We never expected to hear about it again."

In 1982 however, 'Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy' was released as a single becoming Bowie's fastest-selling single in the UK until that point.

And just to think, if there was no piano in the studio basement this Christmas classic may never have happened.