Before the days of microphones, anyone wanting to pursue the career of a singer had to have a big voice. Without a mic, the only way to be heard at the back of a hall was to project. And, if you listen to any Ethel Merman, you know that this did not always result in a lovely sound.
The introduction of the microphone allowed singers to use a softer, more intimate, tone. This gave us the idea of the ‘crooner.’ Crooners rarely gave us the full-voiced drama of the earlier singers. (Or the full range of a classically trained opera singer!) But the style became very popular. And Bing was one of the earliest proponents of the new sound.
Bing Crosby was an American legend. Born in 1903, he was a fixture in early radio and movies, with a very laid-back style. During WWII, Bing was credited with doing more for morale among the GIs than anyone else. He won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his work in Going my Way, playing Father Chuck O’Malley. He also revolutionized how radio shows were produced.
Bing was married twice. His first wife, Dixie, died after 22 of marriage, in 1952 of ovarian cancer. He remarried in 1957, to Kathryn who was 30 years his junior. Things get a little murky here. He had four sons with his first wife and two more sons and a daughter with his second. One of the sons from his first marriage wrote a tell-all book where he discussed the abuse that he had undergone at the hands of Bing. His younger brother called him a liar, while the other two sons agreed with the author. The children from his second marriage also denied any abuse.
Bing had a history of doing Christmas specials dating back to 1936 on the radio. He started his annual TV specials in 1961, always having a star-studded line-up of guests. These specials were always what would now be called “Must See TV.” There would be several musical guests, a comedian, and members of Bing’s family would perform with him.
In 1977, Bing was getting old, and a bit tired. The children from his second marriage were big fans of David Bowie, and asked their dad to put him on the show. Bing did not follow much of what was currently popular and did not follow avant-garde music at all. Producers came into play and Bowie was booked.
Some people know David Bowie best for his role as Jerith, the Goblin King from the Jim Henson classic movie Labyrinth. Bowie had a singing career dating all the way back to 1963. Through the years, he took on many personas as he performed such as Ziggy Stardust, and the Thin White Duke. In 1977, he was aiming for something a little more mainstream than his years as Ziggy. This was when he got the offer to do the Bing Crosby Christmas Special. Bowie had little idea who Bing was, but his mother did. Bowie did the show because it made his mother happy.
Now we come to the day that Bowie came in and found out that he was supposed to sing The Little Drummer Boy with Bing. “I hate that song. Is there something else I could sing?”
The Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth is born
The Little Drummer Boy was written in 1941 by Katherine Kennicott Davis. She originally claimed to have simply transcribed a Czech melody and put English words in place of the originals. But I listened to a lot of Czech melodies (Tluče bubeníček) and could not find anything that sounded at all similar. By 1951, the song was being credited to Davis alone when it was recorded by the Trapp Family Singers. (Yes, as in Maria von Trapp, of The Sound of Music fame. Those were based on real people and real events.)
Ian Fraser, Larry Grossman, and Alan Kohan, the writers/producers for the show, sat down and pounded out the counter-melody Peace on Earth in roughly an hour. The two singers ran through it a few times, and filmed the sequence, also in about an hour.
This gave us one of TV’s most surreal moments: a duet between Bing Crosby and David Bowie. It also gave us a lovely song. After filming, Bing had this to say about Bowie: "clean-cut kid and a real fine asset to the show. He sings well, has a great voice and reads lines well."
This was Bing’s last Christmas special. He died of a heart attack on 14 October 1977, following a golf game in Spain. The special aired in the US on 30 November 1977.
Like Bowie, I was never a fan of The Little Drummer Boy. But I enjoy singing the Peace on Earth part with it. Do you have a favorite version of The Little Drummer Boy? Let me know in the comments below. I’ll be playing this and a few other songs this week on my Minnich Music FaceBook page this week, so be sure to check them out.
Until next time!