The Story Behind Bowie and Bing's Unlikely Holiday Duet Sends a Welcome Message in Divided Times | Opinion

There have been odder musical collaborations in the past. In 2001, Elton John performed with Eminem at the 2001 Grammys. In 1984, Spanish pop singer Julio Iglesias and West Texan troubadour Willie Nelson recorded "To All the Girls I've Loved Before."

But of all the unlikely duets dotting pop music history, the one that brought together 73-year-old American crooner Bing Crosby and 30-year-old British glam rocker David Bowie is certainly the best. Their collaboration in the fall of 1977 proved to be one of the most enduring recordings of either man's career. And an instant Christmas classic.

Indeed, the story of how "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy" came to be is itself classic. The two men could not have been more different. They came from different countries and different generations. And the two men had radically different ideas about almost everything, including fashion, sexuality—and music.

So how did the two come to make music history? It turns out that Crosby was on tour in Great Britain at the time, and his management team figured such a duet would be perfect for his upcoming CBS television special, which would come to be "Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas."

Bowie would be one of several popular guests for the special, along with Oliver! star Ron Moody and model Twiggy. The producers used such appearances to help keep the show—and the star himself—relevant. Bowie was a huge international star at the time, so Crosby's team threw in an added incentive to lure him in: They agreed to promote the video of the glam rocker's latest single, "Heroes," during the broadcast.

Bowie ended up agreeing to appear, but not because of the negotiating skills of his management team. It was Bowie's mom who sealed the deal. She was a huge fan of the aging crooner, and Bowie wanted to make mom happy.

Crosby, too, was influenced by family: His teenage children were big Bowie fans and wanted more than anything to be on the set to see the avant-garde rocker singing with their dad.

David Bowie
David Bowie in Paris on June 28, 1977. Christian Simonpietri/Contributor/Getty

On September 11, 1977, they got their wish. But things didn't start off propitiously. "The doors opened and David walked in with his wife," Mary, Crosby's daughter, recalled several years ago. "They were both wearing full-length mink coats, they had matching full makeup, and their hair was bright red. We were thinking, Oh, my God!"

To say there was tension on the set would be an understatement. Crosby's son Nathaniel remembered the producers being shocked by Bowie's appearance. "It almost didn't happen," he recalled. "The producers told him to take the lipstick off and the earring out. It was just incredible to see the contrast."

It didn't take long for Bowie to acquiesce, and soon, the work began. The writers got to work on the script and created a skit that took advantage of the intergenerational differences between the two singers.

The premise was simple: Crosby, playing himself, walks through a London mansion of relatives to find out who just rang the doorbell. The young man at the door is Bowie, also playing himself.

"Are you the new butler?" Bowie asks Crosby as he enters the home, pretending not to recognize him.

"It's been a long time since I've been the new anything," Crosby jokes.

The two continue the shtick, gently poking fun at themselves and the fleeting nature of fame.

"You're not the poor relations from America, are you?" Bowie asks Crosby, knowing his friend had invited family from America to stay in the house.

"News sure travels fast, doesn't it?" Crosby replies. "I'm Bing."

"You're the one that sings, right?" Bowie asks.

"Right or wrong, I sing either way," Crosby replies.

"I sing, too," says Bowie.

"Oh good. What kind of singing?" Crosby asks.

"Mostly contemporary stuff," Bowie replies. "Do you like modern music?"

"Well, I think it's marvelous. Some of it is really fine," Crosby says.

"Tell me, do you ever listen to some of the older fellas?" Crosby asks.

"Oh yeah, sure. I like John Lennon. And the other one. Harry Nilsson," he replies.

"Hmmm, you go back that far," Crosby jokes.

"Yeah, I'm not as young as I look," Bowie jokes back.

"None of us do these days," says Crosby.

Bing Crosby and David Bowie
Bing Crosby and David Bowie shake hands during the taping of the television special "Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas." The two singers, of diverse styles and backgrounds, sang together on "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy." Bettmann/Contributor/Getty

The script then called for the two men to cozy up to a baby grand piano, and begin singing, "Little Drummer Boy." That's when everything turned south. "Is there something else we could sing?'" composer Ian Fraser remembered Bowie asking as they reviewed the script. "We didn't know quite what to do."

With no time to squander, Fraser, along with co-writers Buz Kohan and Larry Grossman, did what artists in a jam have always done: They improvised, creating an original song, "Peace on Earth," and an arrangement that merged the new song with the old Christmas classic. Bowie loved the melody and agreed to perform it.

One problem—the musical one—was solved, and the producers somehow managed to get Bowie to dress in a more subdued manner, abandoning the makeup and colorful clothing for something more subdued. Something more...gulp...traditional.

Soon, it was recording time. The entire set was on edge. What would happen? How would these two very different men react to each other? What would it look like? What on earth would it sound like?

Crosby's daughter recalled the moment the two men sat down to rehearse. "They sat at the piano and David was a little nervous," she explained. "Eventually, 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."

History, too, was made. After only an hour's worth of rehearsal time, Bowie and Crosby nailed their performances. A few days after the taping, Crosby said of Bowie, "He sings well, has a great voice and reads lines well."

Bing Crosby
Bing Crosby, circa 1950. Silver Screen Collection/Hulton Archive/Getty

"Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy" would turn out to be one of the last songs Crosby ever recorded and the last Christmas special he would ever make. Just a month later, he died of a heart attack after playing a round of golf. And a month after that, "Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas" aired on CBS. His widow, Kathryn, did an introduction as the nation wept.

But the story doesn't end there. "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy" arrived as a single five years later, in November 1982. Curiously backed by "Fantastic Voyage" from Bowie's 1979 album Lodger, the single became a massive U.K. chart hit, landing at No. 3 in early 1983. It was one of the best-selling singles of Bowie's career.

Against all odds, "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy" became a Christmas classic. We have a few very talented song doctors to thank for it, along with Bowie's mom and Crosby's kids.

And, of course, Crosby and Bowie too. Their collaboration proved the adage that nothing has the power to bring people together more than music.

It was true then. And it's still true now.

Lee Habeeb is vice president of content for Salem Radio Network and host of Our American Stories. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.