The Story Behind David Bowie's Unlikely Christmas Duet with Bing Crosby

"I think the producers told [Bowie] to take the lipstick off and take the earring out," Crosby's son Nathaniel recalled

Photo: ITV/REX/Shutterstock

In the long list of David Bowie‘s collaborators – Lou Reed, Iggy Pop, Queen, Trent Reznor, TV on the Radio – there’s one slightly odd standout: Bing Crosby.

And the pair’s duet on “Little Drummer Boy” for the 1977 TV special Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas has indeed become something of an outlier in Bowie’s career, landing as it did in the middle of Bowie’s particularly strange – even for him – late ’70s run, that found him making stark, groundbreaking albums like Low while sequestered in Berlin. The clip usually pops up around Christmas every year as part of All-Things-Bowie Internet round-ups, and that’s that.

But what sparked this collaboration? In a roundabout way, Bowie’s mom.

In 2014, Merrie Olde Christmas writers Larry Grossman and Buz Kohan remembered the circumstances behind the collaboration. The pitch was originally to have the pair duet on “Little Drummer Boy,” but Grossman told PBS that Bowie put his foot down.

“He said, ‘I won’t sing that song. I hate that song I’m doing this show because my mother loves Bing Crosby.’ ”

The writers found a solution: Craft a counter-melody that Bowie could sing while Crosby proceeded with “Little Drummer Boy.” “It all happened rather rapidly. I would say within an hour, we had it written and were able to present it him again,” Kohan explained to PBS. Bowie loved the resulting melody, called “Peace on Earth,” and the rest was history.

Bowie was 30 when the collaboration happened; Crosby, who would die a month later, was 73. Crosby’s daughter Mary remembered Bowie’s arrival on-set very clearly.

“The doors opened and David walked in with his wife,” she told the Associated Press in 2014. “They were both wearing full-length mink coats, they have matching full makeup and their hair was bright red,” she told the summer TV critics’ tour Wednesday. “We were thinking, ‘Oh my God.’ ”

“They sat at the piano and David was a little nervous,” she continued, but eventually, “Dad realized David was this amazing musician, and David realized Dad was an amazing musician. You could see them both collectively relax and then magic was made.”

Nathaniel Crosby suspected some strings were pulled behind the scenes to ease the transition. “It almost didn’t happen,” he told the AP. “I think the producers told him to take the lipstick off and take the earring out.”

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