By Kip Hill / The Spokesman-Review
SPOKANE — Forty years ago, a flamboyant rocker from London picked up the sheet music for “Little Drummer Boy” and kick-started a strange seasonal duet with Spokane’s most famous crooner.
“This one, this is my son’s favorite. Do you know this one?” David Bowie asked, in a scripted exchange with Bing Crosby on what became the radio age superstar’s final Christmas TV special.
“Oh, I do indeed. It’s a lovely thing,” the sweater-clad septuagenarian replied.
The staged collaboration between a then-30-year-old Bowie and Crosby, filmed in the final weeks of the 73-year-old’s life, hit the airwaves in 1977. It was the career punctuation mark for Crosby, whose Christmas catalog included the greatest-selling single of all time, “White Christmas,” and a marked departure for Bowie, who’d risen to fame in the mid-70s with the hits “Rebel Rebel,” “Fame” and “Golden Years.”
In that holiday moment, introduced with a dash of Christmas schmaltz, the two music giants separated by generations combined to record what fans of both men call today one of the oddest musical team-ups of all time: A version of the classic Czech carol, complete with a counter-melody piece called “Peace on Earth” written for the notoriously stubborn Bowie.
“It’s a very nice song, and obviously generations have enjoyed it now,” said Howard Crosby, nephew of the late singer who established his own music career in the years following, from his home in Walla Walla. “It was interesting how the two of them, who were from completely different worlds, were able to come together and create something really magical in that space of time.”
Howard Kaufman, a Spokane native and collector of Bowie’s recordings, called the pairing “one of the most unusual collaborations on a pop song.”
“But it’s a classic, and it worked really well,” Kaufman said, though he prefers the other staples of Bowie’s legendary career that ended up spanning just as long as Crosby’s 50-plus years in show business.
Kaufman, 56, remembered first seeing the music video in the early 1980s on MTV, around the same time he began collecting Bowie’s records. He’s since visited several European studios where Bowie recorded and said he considered writing a book about Hansa Tonstudio, the famed Berlin-based site where the artist was recording at the same time as the Crosby collaboration.
“I was really into that type of music,” Kaufman said. “I realized this guy wasn’t as weird as the mainstream media made him out to be.”
The TV special that spawned the duet has Bowie, sans the makeup or jewelry of his Ziggy Stardust days, playing an up-the-street neighbor who frequently pops in on Crosby’s long-lost London-based relation named “Sir Percival” to use the piano while he’s away. The Crosby family has accepted an invitation to spend the holidays at the estate.
Crosby, ever the genial host, invites the young man in and the two gather, as the Tacoma-born and Spokane-bred singer puts it, “to work out on the pine.”
The breezy, cheesy banter between Bowie and Crosby and the smooth blending of the elder’s iconic brass baritone with the younger’s triumphantly boisterous verses hid the now-infamous discord on the set, which has been documented in subsequent interviews published by PBS and the Washington Post. Bowie didn’t want to record “Little Drummer Boy” and later said he was only performing on the special because of his mother’s affinity for Crosby.
The rocker also didn’t have the kindest words about his elder, who had tumbled from a California soundstage that March while filming a CBS special and spent the summer recuperating in a hospital before traveling to England, where the Christmas special was filmed Sept. 11, 1977, along with Crosby’s final album, “Seasons.”
“He looked like a little old orange sitting there on a stool,” Bowie told the British music magazine Q in 1999. “He’d been made up very heavily and his skin was a bit pitted, and there was just nobody home at all, you know? It was the most bizarre experience.”
A month later, Crosby died of a heart attack on a golf course in Spain. The singer never saw his last duet air. The death prompted Bowie, who’d also recorded a special with English rocker Marc Bolan that September before he died in a car crash at age 29, to wonder aloud in the press whether he should collaborate on any further TV specials, lest he doom another collaborator to the grave.
Bowie’s part was written feverishly by the three-member songwriting team of Ian Fraser, Larry Grossman and Alan “Buz” Kohan, who received credit when the recording was released as a single in 1982. The trio said later it took a little more than an hour to compose a new part for Bowie that met his liking. It became one of Bowie’s fastest-selling songs and reached No. 3 on the charts in England on Christmas Day that year.
Bill Stimson, a historian with the nonprofit Bing Crosby Advocates of Spokane, noted Crosby had an affinity for duets, sometimes with partners that might seemed strange to his fan base. He teamed with the Mills Brothers, a black quartet, for the recording of “Dinah” in 1931, and he later recorded with Louis Armstrong, Rosemary Clooney and Bob Hope.
“That was Bing’s thing,” Stimson said of the Bowie pairing. “He loved being part of a group.”
Stimson’s wife, Kris, said the recording is one of her favorite Christmas songs, though she doesn’t care much for Bowie’s other work.
“I just think that the part David Bowie sings makes ‘Little Drummer Boy’ a prettier song,” Kris Stimson said. “It makes it that much more beautiful.”
Though the single has charted several times around the holidays, it doesn’t have quite the same staying power as his earlier Christmas recordings, said nephew Harold Crosby.
“It’s a very nice recording, and I like it at lot,” Harold Crosby said. “It doesn’t touch the same emotional heartstrings or have the same meaning as ‘White Christmas’ or even ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas.’ “
You’re more likely to hear those songs on the radio during the holiday season, said Brad Miller, the afternoon DJ and programming director for KISS 98.1 FM, which has been playing seasonal hits since the day before Thanksgiving.
“White Christmas” has been played an average of five times a day in that span this year, said Miller. “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy” has aired about four times a week. The station looks at how songs are performing with audiences and tries to match broadcasts with listener response, Miller said.
“It’s an amazing version of the song,” Miller said. “Really, there’s not anything else like it. It’s hard to compare with anything else.”
The song was in heavier rotation several years ago, but has been displaced by more contemporary tracks, Miller said. Bowie’s death of liver cancer in January 2016, at age 69, didn’t prompt any additional spins last Christmas season.
Though Bowie showed his own affinity for team-ups, recording with the likes of Queen and Mick Jagger in the 1980s, Kaufman said he believed the motivation was purely financial. Earlier in 1977, Bowie released “Low,” the beginning of a trilogy of albums recorded in Berlin that was received poorly by critics and fans for its departure from traditional lyrics and instrumentation.
“He didn’t do any promotion on that album, and I think RCA Records, his label, wasn’t too happy about that,” Kaufman said.
Kaufman said the special has a kitschy quality that can be seen in that stilted banter between Crosby and Bowie. In particular, he’s dubious of the claim Bowie’s 6-year-old son, now accomplished film director Duncan Jones, enjoyed “Little Drummer Boy” that much.
“He and his wife were going through a big divorce, and they were moving into Switzerland,” Kaufman said. “I think it was just part of that cheesy intro.”
Jones, whose credits include 2009’s “Moon” and the 2016 film adaptation of the Warcraft video game franchise, responded to a Twitter interrogation of his memories of that day.
“I remember being there. I was about … 15 feet to the left of Bing, off the small set we were on,” Jones wrote back.
Was “Little Drummer Boy” really his favorite?
“You’ve had your lot! ;)” Jones responded.