Peace on Earth: When Bowie Met Bing

David Bowie and Bing Crosby
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RCA Records

You've probably seen enough Christmas specials to recognize the premise: a doorbell rings, the host answers the call, and an unexpected guest star shows up. But no matter how familiar you are with the concept, there's still something wild about when Bing Crosby did so in his Merrie Olde Christmas feature, and greeted a nervous-looking but still charming David Bowie.

In the show - which aired on CBS Nov. 30, 1977 - Crosby and his family journey to England at the behest of a long-lost relative, "Sir Percival." Bowie, a neighbor of the mostly-absent Percy, stops by to play a piano and trade some jokes about the holiday season - warmly referencing his six-year-old son Duncan and joking about his love of "older" singers like John Lennon and Harry Nilsson.

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Then, as only holiday magic can conjure, Crosby and Bowie join together in song: a spirited rendition of beloved carol "Little Drummer Boy." Bowie then segues into an original, "Peace on Earth," sung in counterpoint to Bing's "pa-rum-pum-pum-pum"s. It's a kitschy TV moment for sure - but one that sparks sentimental joy even to this day.

For Bowie, whose "Heroes" hit record stores a month before the special aired, it was certainly an unusual way to promote an album - in exchange for an appearance, a music video of "Heroes" would feature in the special as well - and it was seemingly an inch from disaster at all times. Crosby's son Nathaniel recalls the rocker showing up in much more garish make-up, and balked at singing "Little Drummer Boy," thinking it was a poor showcase for his voice. (Songwriters Buz Kohan and Larry Grossman dashed off the "Peace on Earth" portion in the middle of the recording session.) Nonetheless, both singers were good sports at the time; Crosby called Bowie "a clean-cut kid...he sings well, has a great voice and reads lines well." (Bowie, for his part, changed his tune over the years, calling the experience "fantastic" in 1978 and "bizarre" more than two decades later.)

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"Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth" became a fitting button on the end of Crosby's career; he died of a heart attack within a month of recording the track. Together with his majestic rendition of "White Christmas" - by many accounts, the bestselling single ever - it established him as a Yuletide paragon. The song wouldn't become officially available until it was released as a single in 1982 (a move that broke Bowie's strained relationship with then-label RCA Records); today, it can be found as the closing track of Bowie's 2017 box set A New Career in a New Town (1977-1982).

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