When I was growing up on Cape Breton Island as a young boy, my parents had a fairly extensive record collection. It was quite common for me to listen to singers such as Dean Martin, Burl Ives, Frank Sinatra and Julie Andrews. On television, we were regular viewers of specials hosted by Bob Hope and shows that starred the likes of Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball or Don Rickles. Many people in the Baby Boomer generation refer to the entertainment industry of the 1950-70s as the Golden Age of show business. Well, one of the biggest names associated with this age was a singer/actor named Bing Crosby. With his close cropped hair, tidy cardigan sweaters and deep, rich voice, Bing Crosby seemed like the epitome of what a father-figure should be. He exuded an air of trust and authority and security. If you followed Bing Crosby’s example, then your life would probably turn out well. In my home growing up, there were many stars that my parents enjoyed watching, but none was bigger than Bing.
However, like all things in life, the golden age of entertainment had a shelf life. As the 1970s were beginning, many of the stars of the past were aging and had stopped producing new material and were starting to settle into roles that saw them take up residency in places like Las Vegas, where they trotted out their greatest hits night after night, morphing into being nostalgia acts in the process. In the vacuum that this transition created, new stars began to make their voices heard. One of the fastest rising stars of the early seventies was a singer from England named David Bowie. Bowie’s career started off slowly with a couple of albums that didn’t sell or chart well. His career really took off with “Space Oddity”, which was a song that many critics viewed as being more akin to a novelty song than “real” music. The song that really brought attention to David Bowie was called “Starman”. This was the song he played while making a television appearance on the Top of the Pops show in England. It was during this appearance that David Bowie donned colourful makeup and clothing, while dancing provocatively with guitarist Mick Ronson. This television appearance helped launch David Bowie as a champion of androgyny and helped break the stuffy world of music wide open. Future stars, such as Noel Gallagher (Oasis), Robert Smith (The Cure) and Bono (U2), all point to this particular TV show appearance as being one of the most galvanizing moments for them in all of Pop history. *(I wrote a post about this that you can read here). In any case, David Bowie exploded into superstardom with a series of hits that followed, such as “Ziggy Stardust”, “Heroes”, “Young Americans” and many more. All the while, he mastered the art of being a chameleon of sorts with regard to the public image he portrayed. David Bowie was a star in ascendancy, a style influencer and a role model for many young people who felt under-represented by the current slate of the entertainment world’s biggest stars.
So, when the announcement was made that David Bowie was to appear on a Christmas special hosted by America’s Dad, Bing Crosby, many people were surprised. The pairing seemed odd on the surface, but with the hindsight of history to guide us, it makes commercial sense that one star whose career is winding down would wish to remain relevant just a little longer by appearing with the hot, new star on the scene. From Bowie’s perspective, gaining access to the demographic audience that typically followed a singer like Bing Crosby helped open up a huge untapped market to which Bowie could tailor future songs and albums if he opted to do so. So, on paper, the pairing of Bing Crosby and David Bowie made sense in a way. However, when they met in person to record Bowie’s guest spot, the gulf between the generations was laid bare for all to see.
David Bowie arrived for the taping in full concert regalia. He and his wife wore matching facial makeup. His hair was dyed orange and spiked high. His clothes were festooned with every colour of the rainbow. Bing Crosby’s assistants met David Bowie at the door and escorted him directly into his dressing room without Crosby ever having seen what he looked like when he arrived. David Bowie was sent to get his make-up and wardrobe for the show, which, in reality, was a purposeful attempt to de-Glam Bowie and tone down his look before ever meeting Crosby. There are many, Bowie included, who contend that Bing Crosby actually had no idea who David Bowie was. Those folks contend that to Bing, Bowie was just another performer doing a professional gig with him and that,in fact, Bing had not heard any of Bowie’s songs, nor did he know of how culturally-significant Bowie’s onstage flamboyant persona was. After the duet was completed, Crosby was said to remark that he thought David Bowie was a fine young man with an excellent singing voice. David Bowie remarked that he didn’t feel as though BIng was intellectually present during the taping and that Crosby was merely singing and interacting by rote reflex.
Initially, the plan was for Bowie and Crosby to both sing “Little Drummer Boy” together as a pure duet. However, upon arrival, Bowie informed the assistants who had met him at the door that he was not a fan of the song and wanted something else to sing. The assistants, not wanting to inform Bing of this news, instead hurriedly wrote a completely new song on the spot. While David Bowie was going through the de-Glamming process, a song called “Peace On Earth” was created out of thin air for the Thin White Duke. The idea behind “Peace On Earth” was that, instead of a traditional duet that features harmonies at its core, these two songs would fill in the blank spaces created whenever one or the other of them would pause at the end of a line. In a sense, the performance went from being a pure duet to being a lyrical dance in which the words of the two songs waltzed in and out from each other. Luckily, the deep rich timbre contained in both voices meant that the effect of this vocal dance was striking to all who heard it. The story goes that from the start of their first rehearsal together to the end of the song being taped was less than one hour.
“Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth” was never intended to be released as a single. In fact, no one even thought to save the master tape of the performance, which was recorded over for a subsequent scene in the TV special. However, once the show aired in the UK, demand for the song soared. As often happens, word of mouth reaction created a demand for a song and left the television show’s producers scrambling to record and officially release the song. Luckily for all concerned, a track recorded by the boom microphone that loomed over Bowie and Crosby’s heads as they sang still existed. It was not a full, rich recording that would normally have been obtained from the standard multi-mic set-up that exists in a traditional recording studio. But, there was enough sound quality there to rescue the song. When the song was finally released, it became a Top Five hit and has gone on to become one of the most popular and interesting modern Christmas songs of all time.
Shortly after the Bing Crosby television special aired, Crosby suffered a cardiac arrest while golfing and passed away. Around the same time that he had recorded the special with Bing Crosby, David Bowie had also appeared on another TV show with fellow singer Marc Bolan of T-Rex fame. Shortly after Bolan’s special aired, he, too, passed away unexpectedly. For a while afterwards, David Bowie refused to appear with anyone else on stage for fear that the old adage of bad things happening in threes would be realized with the death of someone else. Fortunately, the next person who came into David Bowie’s professional life was Iggy Pop, who, as we have become aware, is impervious to death and was as safe a choice for a musical partner as Bowie could have asked for. It is amazing to me that such a beautiful song and memorable performance should have such a checkered history, but, I suppose, that is to be expected when the generations are asked to meld in ways that they were never intended to do. Thankfully, the professionalism of both men shone through, and the result was this magical gift of song for us all to enjoy.
The link to the video for the song “Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth” by Bing Crosby and David Bowie can be found here.
The link to the official website for Bing Crosby can be found here.
The link to the official website for David Bowie can be found here.
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