I watched a documentary on Bing Crosby the other night, “American Masters” on PBS, and it was really interesting. As a child in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, Bing Crosby’s music and television specials plays in the background of my memories, not only at Christmas, but the memories of his voice are sharp and clear when it comes this time of year. I know I’m not unique in that experience. And his duet with David Bowie, the Christmas carol “The Little Drummer Boy”, has proved to be a clear favorite in the past 40 years since it was released.
David Bowie didn’t really want to go on Bing Crosby’s Christmas special. It was kind of hokey, and old-fashioned, with its production numbers and canned studio applause. But David Bowie’s mother loved Bing Crosby. And like the saying around our house goes, “You do for family.” So Bowie agreed to perform on the Crosby Christmas special. But then they asked him to sing “The Little Drummer Boy” and that was just too much. Wasn’t digging it and didn’t want to sing it. And they were taping his song with Bing soon. What to do?
The songwriters on set scrambled around and re-wrote “The Little Drummer Boy” in about an hour, presented it to Bowie and Crosby, and as they stood behind a set piano, with television cameras rolling and lights shining, sang a 2.0 version of the classic, not realizing they were creating a new classic.
A great, behind-the-scenes show business story. But what I was thinking while watching that part of the documentary was how completely different these two men were and yet they were able to come to together and make something so beautiful. A song that a lot of different people love. Bing Crosby was a silent symbol of conservatism, while David Bowie was the loud prince of glam rock. Crosby was a Catholic with 7 children and Bowie had a son named Zowie. One wore a bucket hat and carried a golf club everywhere he went, while the other wore make-up and platform shoes. Bing Crosby had the reputation of supporting other singers, having them on his programs, spotlighting them. In regards to David Bowie, that Crosby character trait proved true. Two very different men in so many different ways.
In a crazy way, they were modeling bipartisanship. The Crooner and the Starman coming together to bring to pass a little Christmas joy, regardless of who they were politically, spiritually, even musically. Creating a song that generations would enjoy, singing together about “peace and goodwill” for all men, even those on other side of the spectrum. A small but lasting example of what can happen when we work together.
Bing Crosby died a month after his last Christmas special aired on television in 1977. He would never know that 40 years later people would still be listening to his music, especially this treasure. But you can hear Bing say after he and David Bowie finish singing together, “That’s a pretty thing, isn’t it?” He knew it was good, and perhaps he might have thought that it was valuable to work with someone different than himself. A bipartisan Christmas carol we all can enjoy, watch for yourself :)