The standard party line on “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy”—one of the more unlikely Christmas standards to be added to the Christmas canon in the past 50 years, perhaps second only to “Fairytale of New York” by the Pogues and Kirsty MacColl—is that its charm lies in the “opposites attract” pairing of David Bowie and Bing Crosby. And there’s certainly some truth to this oil and water pairing. The song was originally recorded for a 1977 television special titled Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, which sees Crosby riffing on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with Swinging Sixties icon Twiggy and singing the aforementioned duet with Bowie. The latter is typically seen as the “oil” in this formula—“slick” both in the sartorial sense and in his slippery public image, which in the preceding decade had flitted between alter-egos from Ziggy Stardust to the Thin White Duke to the Brian Eno-assisted “Berlin Trilogy” era (still in progress) that saw Bowie renounce some of his previous excesses both in music and lifestyle.
Bing Crosby, on the other hand, was the “water” in this formula—bland, familiar, seemingly safe and comforting to older, more conservative viewers. The two apparently had very little familiarity with one another’s work. David reportedly accepted the musical cameo because of his mother’s affection for Crosby, while Bing and the show’s producers sought to infuse their special—in the hoary variety show format complete with a convoluted overarching “plot”—with some young blood (even though David Bowie was 30 years old by this point in time). The producers intended for the duet to sing “The Little Drummer Boy,” an oddly martial song celebrating the earthly inception of “the newborn king,” composed by classical pianist and pedagogue Katherine Kennicott Davis in 1940 and first recorded by the Trapp Family Singers in 1951—none others than the Nazi-evading inspiration for The Sound of Music.
But Bowie wanted no part of singing one of the more staid tunes in the already-staid Christmas music repertoire and nearly backed out from the special. A last-minute emergency songwriting session with the show’s producer, scriptwriter, and songwriter-for-hire produced the contrapuntal “Peace on Earth,” whose wide-ranging melody and dovish lyrics served as a more passionate and pacifistic counterpoint to “Little Drummer Boy.” About midway through, Bing and Bowie snap into a sudden unison on the refrain: “Every child must be made aware / Every child must be made to care / Care enough for his fellow man / To give all the love that he can.”
An oddly heartwarming moment in the midst of an otherwise stilted television special, legend has it that the newly-penned musical mashup was rehearsed for no more than an hour and captured on tape in only three takes. Following some charmingly awkward scripted banter, the performance proper gets underway with David Bowie’s keening vocals and hopeful lyrics, soaring over the musical anchor of Crosby’s rich baritone—singing the familiar Christmas standard—and a new Christmas classic was born (even if it took years, and really decades, to reach such an exalted status, helped along by a UK single release in 1982 that went to #3 on the charts). After their brief contact during taping, Bing pronounced that Bowie was “a clean-cut kid and a real asset to the show” who “sings well, has a great voice and reads lines well.” With Bowie getting ready to enter the most commercially-successful phase of his career after the song’s 1982 re-release—especially in the States, complete with a newly clean-cut, blue-eyed-soul image and a clutch of Nile Rodgers-produced post-disco pop megahits on the 1983 album Let’s Dance—the song suddenly resonated more deeply than it likely did during Bowie’s experimental Berlin period when the song was original recorded. Adding extra pathos to the broadcast of the original Christmas special, Crosby died before its 1977 airing, turning it into an unintended posthumous tribute.
So far, so familiar—the song’s oil-and-water formula, however accidental, created a magical musical moment. But what’s more intriguing, one could argue, are the unexpected parallels between Bing and Bowie—at least if one goes back to the place Crosby inhabited in the cultural imagination when he was just around 30 years old himself. Just as Bowie was widely praised and/or condemned for kaleidoscopic role-playing and musical ventriloquism, Crosby was likewise viewed as a “master of artifice” in his day. Beginning in the mid-1930s, just as he was entering his late 20s and early 30s, Bing turned himself into one of the first truly multimedia stars—an icon on record, on the radio, on film, and on television—creating a total, medium-spanning image that may not have been equaled until David Bowie came along, especially with the advent of the glam rock era and its emphasis on theatricality and storytelling.
Technological shifts in the recording studio were a key aspect of this transition in Crosby’s career, just as David Bowie benefitted from the advent of new sound processing technologies—and the rise of the music studio conceived as a musical instrument in its own right—starting in the late 1960s and coming to full fruition in the 1970s. In the early decades of the 20th century, sound recording was very much built on the established vaudeville norm for popular vocalists, with singers reaching for the “back row seats” of the auditorium even in the recording studio; and in fact, singing forcefully into a megaphone was well-nigh necessary to adequately capture vocals recorded onto a wax cylinder. With the transition from mechanical to electrical sound recording in the 1920s and ‘30s, and the great strides that were made in microphone technology—specifically the condenser microphones that were developed during the same time—the act of singing was transformed in the space of a handful of years.
Suddenly, the era of the vaudeville shouter gave way to the age of the crooner, whose intimate, hushed vocals—with microphones picking up every subtle nuance, every vocal inflection and emotional shading—were criticized by some at the time as overly “feminized” (another parallel with the gender-bending rise of the glamsters). The singer-songwriter and popular music critic Ian Whitcomb describes the controversy generated by the rise of the crooners: “The press had a field day disseminating the attacks on the ‘crooning boom’ by moral authorities. In January 1932 they quoted Cardinal O’Connell of Boston: ‘Crooning is a degenerate form of singing…No true American would practice this base art. I cannot turn the dial without getting these whiners and bleaters defiling the air and crying vapid words to impossible tunes’." The New York Singing Teachers’ Association chimed in, "Crooning corrupts the minds and ideals of the younger generation." Lee de Forest, one of radio’s inventors, regretted that his hopes for the medium as a dispenser of "golden argosies of tome" had become "a continual drivel of sickening crooning by ‘sax’ players interlaced with blatant sales talk."
Still, despite Lee de Forest’s protestations, crooning took over the airwaves. And with radio’s shift from relying on live broadcasting as its sole practice to embracing the opportunities offered by magnetic tape—a technology developed by Nazis to spread propaganda—the new crooner-recordists such as Rudy Vallée and Bing Crosby could further manipulate and theatricalize their music and image. This was accomplished, at least in part, through the use of splicing and other sound editing techniques facilitated by tape (these recorded “performances” no longer needed to be approached as equivalent to a linear live performance, but instead could be edited and otherwise manipulated after the fact). But, much like David Bowie, Bing Crosby was a master of the medium—using the latest in high-technology and cutting-edge aesthetics to create deeply human portraits, aching and hyperemotional one moment, uplifting and utterly transcendent the next (no surprise then that David Bowie’s singing style was strongly influenced by the crooner-throwback style of English actor and singer-songwriter Anthony Newley). With the Christmas season largely perceived and encountered, especially in the modern secular imagination, as a time of new beginnings and personal transformations—all the while returning “home for the holidays”—a period suffused with both nostalgic regression and hopeful projection, it makes a great deal of sense that the duo of Bing Crosby and David Bowie would create a Christmas classic that taps into many of the same psychological dynamics, the tangled jumble of hopes and anxieties that likewise animate the crooner-glam musical continuum and its developments over the decades.
This post was produced through a partnership between Smithsonian Year of Music and RILM with its blog Bibliolore.
Written and compiled by Jason Lee Oakes, Editor, Répertoire International de Littérature Musicale (RILM).
Dempsey, John Mark. “Bing Crosby: Rock 'n' roll godfather”, Going my way: Bing Crosby and American culture, ed. by Ruth Prigozy and Walter Raubicheck. (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2007) 67–78. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2007-26943]
Considers the reputation of Bing Crosby for contemporary audiences, having moved from the "epitome of cool" to being considered somewhat of a relic. This trajectory overlooks how Crosby played a major role in the technological revolution that aided in the development of rock music, specifically when it came to the emotional intimacy and sonic fidelity made possible by (then) modern-day microphones and audio engineering that led to the rise of the "crooners"—an influence that made its way to David Bowie via Anthony Newley. The Bowie/Crosby duet on Peace on Earth/Little drummer boy (1982) has taken on legendary status over the years, marking Crosby's newfound relevance among younger audiences and Bowie's movement into the commercial mainstream leading up to Let's dance in 1983.
Ford, Paul. “How Bing Crosby and the Nazis helped to create Silicon Valley”, The New Yorker (May 8, 2013) https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/how-bing-crosby-and-the-nazis-helped-to-create-silicon-valley. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2013-47258]
The nineteen-forties Bing Crosby hit White Christmas is a key part of the national emotional regression that occurs every Christmas. Between Christmases, Crosby is most often remembered as a sometimes-brutal father, thanks to a memoir by his son Gary. Less remarked upon is Crosby’s role as a popularizer of jazz, first with Paul Whiteman's orchestra, and later as a collaborator with, disciple to, and champion of Louis Armstrong. Hardly remarked upon at all is that Crosby, by accident, is a grandfather to the computer hard drive and an angel investor in one of the firms that created Silicon Valley; and that Crosby, quite deliberately, took full advantage of new sound recording technologies that were developed relatively early in his career—from electrical recording to the development of condenser microphones to the advent of magnetic tape. His use of these technologies placed Crosby at the forefront of the crooner movement, which was considered quite daring and controversial at the time.
Giddins, Gary. Bing Crosby: A pocketful of dreams—The early years (1903–1940) (Boston: Little, Brown, 2001). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2001-13056]
Part I of a biography of Bing Crosby (1904–77). The author argues that Crosby was the first white vocalist to appreciate and assimilate the genius of Louis Armstrong: his rhythm, his emotion, his comedy, and his spontaneity. Louis and Bing recorded their first important vocals, respectively, in 1926 (Heebie jeebies) and 1927 (Muddy water) and were the only singers of that era still thriving at the times of their deaths, in the 1970s. When Crosby came of age, most successful male singers were effeminate tenors, and recording artists were encouraged to be bland, the better to sell sheet music. The term pop singer didn't exist; it was coined in large measure to describe a breed he invented. Bing perfected the use of the microphone, which transfigured concerts, records, radio, movies—even the nature of social intercourse. As vocal styles became more intimate and talking pictures replaced pantomime, private discourse itself grew more casual and provocative. Bing was the first to render the lyrics of a modern ballad with purpose, the first to suggest an erotic undercurrent. Part II in this series is abstracted as RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2018-6672. (publisher)
Hoskyns, Barney. Glam! Bowie, Bolan and the glitter rock revolution (New York: Pocket Books, 1998). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1999-35073]
Glam rock was prefab, anti-craft, allied to artifice and the trash aesthetic. From 1970 to 1974 glam rockers such as David Bowie, Marc Bolan and T. Rex, Bryan Ferry and Roxy Music, and Iggy Pop injected life into the pop-cultural landscape. With glitz artistry, they were the gender-bending, trendsetting performers of the music movement that was centered in London but spread around the world. Glam rock's progenitors are discussed, from Oscar Wilde to Liberace, as is the continued influence of glam on diverse artists, including Parliament-Funkadelic, Prince, The Smiths, Adam Ant, the New Romantic movement, glam metal (e.g., Poison), and Suede. (publisher)
Whitcomb, Ian. “The coming of the crooners”, Survey of American popular music, ed. by Frank Hoffmann and Robert Birkline. (Huntsville: Sam Houston State University, 2010) https://www.shsu.edu/~lis_fwh/book/roots_of_rock/support/crooner/EarlyCroonersIntro2.htm. [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 2010-47550]
The apex of the crooner is traced—including the technological transformations they helped usher into the music industry and the criticism they faced in some quarters. In some cases, male crooners were criticized as not being "real men" and for "sapping the national virility". The press had a field day disseminating the attacks on the "crooning boom" by moral authorities. In January 1932, they quoted Cardinal O’Connell of Boston: "Crooning is a degenerate form of singing…No true American would practice this base art. I cannot turn the dial without getting these whiners and bleaters defiling the air and crying vapid words to impossible tunes". The New York Singing Teachers' Association chimed in, "Crooning corrupts the minds and ideals of the younger generation". Lee de Forest, one of radio’s inventors, regretted that his hopes for the medium as a dispenser of "golden argosies of tome" had become "a continual drivel of sickening crooning by ‘sax’ players interlaced with blatant sales talk". The story begins in the 19th century, where the world of drawing rooms and minstrel shows propelled American vernacular singing into the 20th century. Modern technology—most notably, the phonograph, radio, and the cinema—transformed pop music into a commodity, which still retained the musical and lyrical sentiments of the Victorian romantic tradition. With the microphone becoming a totem pole of the early crooners, the crooning phenomenon would become international in scope. The natural American voice, conversational in tone with a touch of gentility, would become lingua franca of popular music.
Jones, David Robert (David Bowie) and Bing Crosby. Peace on earth/Little drummer boy. 45-rpm record (RCA Records JV13400; PH13400, 1982). [RILM Abstracts of Music Literature no. 1982-45536]