The Sunday Magazine: Peace on Earth/ Little Drummer Boy by David Bowie and Bing Crosby

One of the earliest staples of television was the variety show. None more famous than The Ed Sullivan Show. During the 1960’s as they started to die off they got replaced by Holiday specials hosted by various singing stars in the 1970’s. Perry Como was the most well-known. Joining him were other celebrities like Bob Hope, Andy Williams, and Dean Martin. One of the most popular of these were the specials hosted by Bing Crosby. In many ways these were the last stand for regular television variety and as the end of the 1970’s approached the ratings were dooming these once-a-year versions. Which is why the 1977 Bing Crosby Holiday Special titled, “Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas” would be eventful in so many ways.

By this point with the popularity waning these shows were looking for ways to draw younger viewers. For the 1977 special they wanted to set it in London as if Bing was spending the holidays there. Then famous British performers could drop in and have a little fun with him. One of the guest stars was actor Ron Moody; best known for playing Fagin in “Oliver!” on stage and screen. He was the safe choice. Model Twiggy was the choice for those liberated women who might want to see someone closer to them in age and attitude. The third guest star was David Bowie. I don’t even know how to categorize this. I guess they were going for those rock music aficionados. Whomever had the idea to pair up Mr. White Christmas with The Thin White Duke had to see something that wasn’t obvious to most.

The skit in the show revolved around Bowie stopping by his neighbor’s house and finding Bing staying there. After a bunch of generation gap banter they settle down to sing together. They duet on the classic “Little Drummer Boy’ which gets mashed up with a new song written for the special called “Peace on Earth”.  This should have been a trainwreck of massive proportions. I have to admit I tuned in expecting to see something ridiculously kitschy with Bowie grimacing. The groan inducing banter doesn’t seem as bad nearly forty years later but at the time it felt really forced. Once they start to sing it is a gorgeous harmony as the songs weave together.

When Bowie showed up to tape his part and was told he was going to sing “Little Drummer Boy” he replied “I hate that song.” The producers put their heads together and wrote “Peace on Earth” in a little over an hour. Bowie and Bing rehearsed for an hour then nailed it in one take. That should have been that as this should have just been forgotten. Events conspired to make sure this would never be forgotten.

The special was taped on September 11, 1977. On October 14 Bing died of a heart attack while in Spain. The show now took on a very special significance as this was Bing’s final performance. It also made the duet even more memorable for that reason. After the show aired, by the next Christmas, there were bootlegs out for those who wanted a copy. In 1982 the label, RCA, released it as a single and it has never been out of the Holiday rotation since. I play it a lot because these two very different men found some common ground to create a timeless piece of music. Is there any better message than that for the Holiday season?

Mark Behnke