When you read or hear the stories behind most Christmas songs, they are very straight forward and have one definitive version. Maybe it is the "I-can't-believe-it-happened" factor involved or the fact that it happened fairly recently in history, but the details of the recording of Bing Crosby and David Bowie's duet "Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy" is getting more and more convoluted as the years go by. There is a Rashomon effect to what happened at the recording of the Christmas classic.
Here are the facts that are included in every version of the "behind-the-scenes" story:
- This was a segment in Bing Crosby annual Christmas TV special. It was recorded in September of 1977. What nobody knew at the time was that it would be Bing Crosby's last Christmas special, although for a few years after his death there were retrospective "clip" shows aired. Bing Crosby died in November of 1977, before the special aired in December of that year.
- This song was never meant to be a commercial recording. The performance was only for the TV special. Somewhere along the way, a radio station recorded the song off of one of the "clip" shows the aired after between 1978 - 1982. They began playing it on the radio at Christmas. In 1982, RCA released it against David Bowie wishes. He left RCA shortly after that. The version released by RCA was on a 7 inch extended single, ran for 5 minutes and contained the dialog from the TV special.
- By his own admission, David Bowie said, "I hate "The Little Drummer Boy"! Is there something else I can sing?" That was why songwriters Ian Frasier, Larry Grossman and Buz Kohan wrote the song "Peace On Earth" for Bowie too sing.
- Bowie and Crosby performed this with less than a hour rehearsal.
- David Bowie's mother was a Bing Crosby fan.
Remember fact number 3? There have been a few articles which suggest that Bowie threatened to walk off the show if he had to sing "The Little Drummer Boy." However, in an interview Bowie gave a few years back with a British music magazine, and in at least one of Ian Frasier's interviews, they portray this as just a casual comment not a egotistical tirade as some articles have suggested. However, the song was written rather quickly to please Bowie.
However, Bing's children have said the producers almost cancelled Bowie's appearance at the last minute, because he showed up dressed in his Ziggy Stardust makeup and wearing an earring. They insisted he get a make-over from the makeup and wardrobe department (apparently something was used to make Bowie's hair brown).
At the same time, Bowie said, in that interview with a British music magazine, that Crosby had, in his words, been "heavily made up" to make him appear healthy. He went on to say that Crosby seemed despondent during rehearsal and was having a hard time speaking. Then, according to Bowie, Bing collapsed. Bowie says Crosby was carried into another room and emergency personnel were called in. He was heard someone say that Bing "was gone," but a few minutes later, Crosby came in and said "Let's get back to work." This was the version that was used in the TV show and the eventual recording. He said Crosby was more alert this time and sounded great.
Mary Crosby (who later "shot J.R." on Dallas) said in an interview that "David seemed nervous." According to Bowie, the experience was "nerve wracking" after Bing collapsed. He said he had hoped to talk to Crosby and tell him how much his mother loved his music, but he said he felt that he "hadn't really met Bing Crosby. There was a light on, but nobody lived there anymore."
Then there is the on-going question of did Bing Crosby know who David Bowie was or did David Bowie really know who Bing Crosby was? Everyone agrees Bowie did this because his mother was a Bing Crosby fan. He said in that interview that was why he did it. However, some wonder if Crosby knew who Bowie was or anything about him. According to Ian Frasier, "I'm pretty sure he did. Bing was no idiot. If he didn't, his kids sure did." The Crosby kids said, in a recent interview, they vividly remember Bowie's arrival, so they were obviously excited about his.
Hearing the song played in heavy rotation on the radio at Christmas time in the "all Christmas, all the time" has taken part of the novelty away from this. After all, this was not made to be a commercial sold recording. It is essentially a song that was, more or less, taped off of a TV show. Also younger generations do not realize how shocking this was at the time, because to them, this is how David Bowie has always looked. This was the beginning of his "Thin White Duke" era and the end of "Ziggy Stardust." Also, the younger generation doesn't associated Crosby with WWII, but as the "guy who sings all the Christmas songs."
Eventually, all the stories will come together in a definitive "story-behind-the-song" that will be told by DJs, music historians and retro bloggers for generations to come.
NOTE: If I can ever find the magazine with that Bowie interview in it, I will try to scan it and post it on this blog, because so many people question my sanity when I mention reading it.