When Bing Crosby met David Bowie

The popular music of the 20th century is bookended by Bing Crosby and David Bowie. These master vocalists, whose careers collectively spanned half a century, each had a profound impact on their own eras and were at the forefront of musical innovation in their own right.

Yet, back in 1977, when they first worked together on Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas TV show, few people would have guessed that it would become the cherished cultural relic that it is today.

© Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

They made an unlikely couple on paper. Singing carols alongside the foremost rock star of the Space Age, who had risen to become the artistic driving force behind Western popular music, was the easy-going singer, whose smooth soothing voice helped to shepherd Americans through the Depression and the Second World War into peacetime prosperity. When Bowie’s cockneyfied coo joined with Bing’s bass-baritone though, all concerns were dispelled.

“Peace on Earth” and “Little Drummer Boy”

“Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” sounds like it has been around since Jesus was born, but it was written much more recently. A mix of parts from different songs; in the counterpoint, Bing sings “The Little Drummer Boy” and Bowie sings “Peace on Earth.”

Katherine Kennicott Davis, an American composer and music teacher, wrote “Little Drummer Boy” in 1941. At the time, she called it “Carol of the Drum.” She said it was based on an old Czech carol, but it’s more likely that she got the idea from a French song called “Patapan.”

In 1957, when Jack Holleran recorded it with The Jack Halloran Singers, he changed the way it was put together. The next year, producer Henry Oronati took the song and gave it to Harry Simeone, who made a version that was very similar. Both Oronati and Simeone shared song writing credit (but not, to his annoyance, Halloran).

“Peace on Earth” was written in a very short amount of time. It was put together in about an hour by Alan Kohan, who wrote the script, and Ian Fraser and Larry Grossman, who were in charge of the music.

What was the hurry?

Iconic song broadcast on television

The song was recorded on September 11, 1977, for what was to be Bing Crosby’s last TV special, Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas. The plot of the sketch was that David Bowie’s friend Hudson lets him use his piano and that Crosby is the “poor American cousin.” They then talk about what they do with their families at Christmas, what it’s like to be a parent, and what the latest music trends are.

After looking at some sheet music on the piano, they choose “Little Drummer Boy” and a new song called “Peace on Earth” that was written for the special, which was shown on CBS in the US on November 30, 1977, and on ITV in the UK on December 24, 1977.

What happened after the show?

This song would have been one of the last Crosby ever recorded, and the Christmas special it was part of would be the last one he ever made. A month later, after playing a round of golf, he had a heart attack and died. Another 4 weeks on, CBS showed “Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas.” Kathryn, his widow, gave a speech as the whole country wept.

Five years later, in November 1982, “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” came out as a single. The strange thing is that the song “Fantastic Voyage” from Bowie’s 1979 album Lodger was on the flip side. The single was a huge hit in the U.K., reaching No. 3 on the charts in early 1983. It was one of the singles that sold the most copies during Bowie’s career. If you want to meet great people the way this famous pair did, &Meetings can help. We have a variety of event spaces and meeting rooms that are well-placed and fully equipped, so you can hold those important gatherings in an appropriate setting.

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