At the time, it was about the most unlikely pairing imaginable: gender-bending glam rocker David Bowie and stodgy crooner Bing Crosby. And yet, when the two got together to sing a duet on the 1977 TV special Bing Crosby's Merrie Olde Christmas, they made holiday magic.
In the clip above from PBS's American Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered (debuting Dec. 2), Merrie Olde Christmas writers Larry Grossman and Buz Kohan recount the tale of how Bowie balked at singing the traditional Christmas carol "The Little Drummer Boy" on the special. Grossman recalls, "He said, 'I won't sing that song. I hate that song… I'm doing this show because my mother loves Bing Crosby.'"
Scrambling to find a solution, Grossman and Kohan hit upon the idea of introducing a counter melody to "Drummer Boy" that Bowie could sing while Crosby sang the traditional arrangement. "It all happened rather rapidly. I would say within an hour, we had it written and were able to present it him again," Kohan remembers.
The result: "Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy," a tune that pleased both Bowie and Crosby and went on to become a holiday-music standard right alongside the original "Little Drummer Boy." It was a win-win: Bowie toned down his outrageous theatrics to sing with a legend, Crosby widened his palette to collaborate with a hip young artist, and the two produced an enduring holiday staple we're all still enjoying 37 years later. Not bad for an hour's work.
American Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered premieres Tuesday, Dec. 2 at 8 p.m. on PBS.