January 2, 2015

Pa-Rum-Pa-Pa-Pum: Ziggy and Der Bingle’s Holiday Oddity

What compelled two of the biggest generational icons to join together in a London studio in 1977 and spread holiday cheer over the airwaves? The world may never really know the true motivations either performer, David Bowie or Bing Crosby, had for sharing the screen in a duet of “The Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth.” What pop history does know is that the moment was a symbolic snapshot. One which seemed to cauterize the wounds inflicted by the generation gap polarities of the 1960s and early ‘70s, primarily those parent and child disparate views on Vietnam, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Bing and Bowie calmly, yet somewhat warily, seemed to symbolize a peace accord between the generation camps, a coming to terms and respect of each other, all rolled up in a chestnut-roasting, goodwill Christmas video. Above all else, as many a journalist has mentioned since, it was the oddest pairing of singers up to that point in history.

Sure, everyone from The Beatles and the Stones, even The Doors, had succumbed to the “establishment” over the years and been introduced by the clueless, older generation symbol, Ed Sullivan. Many ‘hip’ acts of the time had appeared on shows hosted by Dean Martin, Johnny Carson, and Joey Bishop. But this moment, with the alien who fell to earth and the pipe-smoking crooner, was the most recognized landmark in television history where two artists with nothing in common but their love of music happened to hook up for a song. “I’m not sure, but I believe that working with Bing led to Bono working with Frank (Sinatra),” Bowie related to Q Magazine in 1999. “I set a precedent there.” The generation divide was so blurred by the time The Chairman and Bono joined creatively that the U2 frontman told 2CR-FM that before Sinatra died, Frank asked Bono if he wanted to be the president of the Frank Sinatra Golf Classic in Palm Springs. “I wrote back saying, of course, I would be greatly honored,” Bono observed, “but I have never played golf.”

Indeed, after Bing and Bowie there seemed to be no turning back. Natalie Cole raised her dad from the Great Beyond to forge new “Unforgettable” territory. John Tesh coaxed Dweezil Zappa into his New Age tinklings. Elvis Costello jumped at the chance to compose with Burt Bacharach. Stevie Wonder lent his amazing talents to those of Babyface. Gloria Estefan surrounded herself with N’Sync. Tiffany hung with Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. Tom Jones sang a little Prince. Tony Bennett and Luciano Pavarotti sang with just about everyone. And Cher somehow felt the need to work with Beavis.

It was originally Bing’s idea to showcase a guest that would reflect a star of the new generation. Crosby had always delivered his annual Christmas specials, first for radio, then for television, over forty-two years. Along with his family members, Bing had invited people like Carol Burnett, Jackie Gleason, Michael Landon, Roy Clark, and Fred Astaire to share in the eggnog on camera over the previous outings. Crosby and his rendition of “White Christmas” virtually defined the season and its cheery tidings.

Having spent over half a century performing for audiences around the globe, Bing Crosby was perceived as a mild-mannered, peaceful man. Unfortunately, life at home was revealed to be anything but. Three of his four children from his first marriage to Dixie Lee, a 1930s actress, turned out bitter and despondent in their latter years. Gary Crosby, the eldest, wrote a scathing book, “Going My Own Way,” which detailed the abuse and beatings he suffered at the hands of America’s favorite crooner. Gary subsequently succumbed to lung cancer, while his brothers Lindsay and Dennis both committed suicide, in 1989 and 1991 respectively, via shotgun blasts to the head. When Bing remarried after Dixie died of cancer in the mid-50s, he settled on a woman 30 years his junior, Kathryn Grant, who gave up her acting career and raised the three children they had together. Bing seemed to mellow in the 1960s. His new brood appeared with him on the TV specials and seemed to enjoy his company.

By the late ‘60s, Crosby’s work regimen (he had released close to 200 albums at this point) seemed to sputter. From 1969 to 1974, he recorded only two albums. His health was declining, and he had a small tumor removed from one of his lungs. The operation actually seemed to rejuvenate him, because during the next three years into 1977, Bing recorded and released ten albums. He worked the concert circuit again, something he hadn’t done since the 1950s. Crosby was on the rebound.

In March 1977, he was taping a TV special in Pasadena, California, taking a bow before a standing ovation, when he suddenly fell through a hole in the stage near the orchestra pit. He ruptured a disk in his lower back. Singer Pearl Bailey held Bing’s head, as his old “Road” buddy, Bob Hope, rushed out from the dressing room to see what had happened to his friend. “Bing opened his eyes and looked up at me,” Hope related in his 1985 book, “Confessions of a Hooker.” “Then he smiled weakly and said, ‘Jimmy Dundee couldn’t have done it any better.’ Dundee was our stuntman at Paramount.”

While Crosby spent the next few months recuperating, singer David Bowie was coming off a period of self-imposed recuperation himself. Holed up in an apartment in a Turkish district of Berlin, West Germany, both Bowie and his friend Iggy Pop set out to kick a nasty cocaine habit. By this period of his career, David had shucked himself of his Ziggy persona and together with musician Brian Eno, had entered his experimental phase. The album “Low” was released on January 14, 1977 and confounded many of his fans with its dark, mostly-instrumental, synthesized fragments of songs. He then toured with Iggy and his Stooges, performing punk ditties throughout Europe and America. It was at the end of this tour on April 5th that Bowie made for a kooky appearance on The Dinah Shore Show in Los Angeles with Iggy. Both boys behaved themselves, as the sweet, southern-talking hostess queried Pop with concern about his tendency to slice himself with broken bottles. Perhaps this moment instilled in David a willingness to appear alongside personalities perceived as the ‘establishment’ and not cause an outrage with any overt antics.

During the summer of 1977, Bowie finished work on his “Heroes” album with Eno and guitarist Robert Fripp. Again, the release was mostly an avant-garde-sounding venture with the title tune being the only radio-friendly single in its offering. In New York, Bowie recorded a voiceover narration to a children’s audio presentation of Prokofiev’s “Peter And The Wolf.” Meanwhile, Bing Crosby was headed to Europe, having finally weathered a substantial recovery from his fall. On August 27th he gave an open-air performance to benefit the Norwegian Red Cross in Oslo, Norway. He returned to England, gearing up for the taping of his Christmas special and playing a fair share of his beloved pastime, golf.

Back in Britain, himself, Bowie was contacted by fellow glam rocker, Marc Bolan, formerly of T-Rex, the monster metal band that once toured with Ziggy and his Spiders. Bolan had a show on England’s ITV called “Marc” that featured acts which appealed to the teen audience. On September 9, 1977, Bowie entered the Granada TV studio up north in Manchester and performed his latest song, “Heroes.” Bolan’s other guests on the show that day were Generation X, featuring a then-relatively-unknown sneering punker by the name of Billy Idol. Bolan had Bowie accompany him on an improvised song called “Standing Next To You,” and during the performance, David received an electric shock from a nearby microphone. Bolan then proceeded to fall off the stage. At 7:00, union television crew members shut the performance down at regulation hour, and any further jamming on-camera was effectively terminated for the evening. Afterwards, Bolan and Bowie laid down a few demos. The two made a commitment to work on a future collaboration. One week later, however, on September 16th, Marc was suddenly killed in an auto accident in London. The demos the two worked on were never officially released.

Bing Crosby was wrapping up the taping of his latest annual special, entitled “Bing Crosby’s Merry Olde Christmas.” The formerly anorexic-looking ‘60s supermodel Twiggy was already featured on the program. Crosby’s idea for bringing in a current rock star resulted in Bowie’s name being brought up, allegedly by Bing’s teenage daughter Mary Frances. Bing had never heard of the British pop provocateur, but his kids certainly were aware of him. Bing was no slouch, however, to covering the popular tunes of the day, having recorded The Beatles “Hey Jude” in 1968 for his album, “Hey Jude, Hey Bing!” Paul McCartney once revealed that The Beatles’ first huge hit, “Please Please Me” was inspired by Crosby’s 1932 song “Please.” In fact, the king of Rock, Elvis himself, had a close tie with the Bingster, having covered the tune “Blue Hawaii” in his film of the same name. Crosby had first warbled the song in his 1937 feature film “Waikiki Wedding.”

In answer to whatever fancy it was that struck him, David Bowie accepted the invitation to appear with Bing Crosby on the TV show. On the morning of September 11, 1977, Bowie and Bing met each other for the first time in the Elstree Studios outside of London. “It was the most bizarre experience,” Bowie later recounted for Q magazine. “I didn’t know anything about him. I just knew my mother liked him.”

A cozy set with a Christmas tree and a piano had been fashioned for them to interact in. Holiday cards were strewn on top of the closed keyboard along with a weak-looking floral arrangement. Both men dressed in blue: Bowie in a blue sport jacket and open shirt; Bing in a blue cardigan and white shirt. The director took them through a rehearsal for an hour that morning. Bing had chosen the song “The Little Drummer Boy” for their proposed duet. Once they started rehearsing, Bowie realized his voice wasn’t being used very effectively in the lower registers of the tune. He suggested he sing a counterpoint vocal. The show’s writers quickly fashioned the “Peace On Earth” verses for David to dramatically offset Bing’s “pa-rum-pa-pa-pum’s.”

The scripted dialogue preceding their song was cheesy to say the least. Both men relied heavily on the carefully-positioned cue card men just off the set to help them with delivering their lines. The premise behind Bing’s special is that he’d been staying in England at a quaint old mansion with his family. The two singers appeared primed and ready to go, so Bowie stood outside the set’s fake front door, and the director called for “action.”

Bing opened the door.
David Bowie: Hello…you’re the new butler?
Bing Crosby: (laughs) Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve been the new anything!
Bowie: What’s happened to Hudson?
Bing: I guess he’s changing.
Bowie: Yeah, he does that a lot, doesn’t he? Um, oh, I’m David Bowie, I live down the road.
Bing: Oh!
Bowie: Sir Percival let’s me use his piano if he’s not around. He’s not around, is he?
Bing: I can honestly say I haven’t seen him, but come on in! Come in!
Bowie: But, I…
Bing: Come on in!
(Bowie enters and they crossed slowly over to the piano)
Bowie: Are you related to Sir Percival?
Bing: Well, distantly…
Bowie: Oh, you’re not the poor relation from America, right?
Bing: Ha! Gee, news sure travels fast, doesn’t it? I’m Bing.
Bowie: Oh, I’m pleased to meet you. (the two shake hands) You’re the one that sings, right?
Bing: Well, right or wrong. I sing either way.
Bowie: Oh well, I sing too.
Bing: Oh good! What kind of singing?
Bowie: Mostly the contemporary stuff. Do you…do you like modern music?
Bing: Oh, I think it’s marvelous! Some of it’s really fine. But tell me, have you ever listened to any of the older fellows?
Bowie: Oh yeah, sure. I like, uh, John Lennon and the other one with…Harry Nilsson.
Bing: Hmm…you go back that far, huh?
Bowie: Yeah, I’m not as young as I look.
Bing: (laughs) None of us is these days!
Bowie: In fact I’ve got a six year old son. And he really gets excited around the Christmas holiday thing.
Bing: Do you go in for anything of the traditional things in the Bowie household, at Christmastime?
Bowie: Oh yeah. Most of them really. Presents, tree, decorations, agents sliding down the chimney.
Bing: What?
Bowie: Oh, I was just seeing if you were paying attention.
Bing: (laughs)
Bowie: Actually, our family does most of the things that other families do. We sing the same songs.
Bing: Do you?
Bowie: Oh, I even have a go at “White Christmas.”
Bing: You do, eh?
Bowie: And this one. This is my son’s favorite. Do you know this one?
(The instrumental track begins for “The Little Drummer Boy”)
Bing: Oh, I do indeed. It’s a lovely theme.

And so began a broadcast moment which has been designated as sacred a holiday video nugget as “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and “It’s A Wonderful Life.” Since it is truly one of the first, if not the first, music video heralding a ‘hip’ pop singer covering a Christmas tune, music channels like MTV and VH-1 never fail to air it during the month of December. The June 5, 1999 issue of TV Guide magazine chose the duet as one of television’s 25 best musical moments. It was subsequently released as a single and went to number 3 on the U.K.’s chart in 1983. The song was included on a Bowie compilation in 1995. Recently, both the single and the video were issued on a CD by Oglio Records in 1999.

The performance itself is rather stiff. Bing and David don’t even look at each other during the song. Bing’s eyes are fixed off-camera, and Bowie, probably not too familiar with his “Peace On Earth” substitution, constantly checks the printed verses laying on the piano before him. Bowie later told Q magazine what he was thinking during the grand moment. “I was wondering if he (Bing) was still alive. He was just…not there. He was not there at all. He had the words in front of him.” Bowie mimicked Bing’s deep voice, “Hi, Dave, nice to see ya here…” Bowie continued, “And he looked like a little old orange sitting on a stool. ‘Cos he’d been made up very heavily and his skin was a bit pitted, and there was just nobody home at all, you know?” However, stilted he felt the proceedings were executed, the moment has become a slightly warped, yet very nostalgic event in the lives of many boomers.

Bing, ever the professional, was not so catty about his take on the Thin White Duke. A few days later after the taping, he told a reporter that Bowie was a “clean-cut kid and a real fine asset to the show. He sings well, has a great voice and reads lines well. He could be a good actor if he wanted.” (Bowie had already performed in Nicholas Roeg’s film “The Man Who Fell To Earth” by this time). Crosby even graciously gave Bowie his home phone number at the end of taping, encouraging him to call sometime.

As soon as the historical moment got underway, it was over quite quickly. It took them only 3 takes to complete their segment together. Later reports indicated that Bowie had sang his song “Heroes” for the show, but the footage was never aired that year. The next day, Bing went into the recording studio to churn out his final album, “Seasons.” The project had been one he’d desired to do for a long time, that of compiling tunes referring to seasons in their title and lyrics, like “In The Good Old Summer Time,” “June is Bustin’ Out All Over,” and “April Showers.” As Bing went on to perform a two-week stint at the London Palladium, Bowie received news of his friend, Marc Bolan’s death. On September 20th, he attended Bolan’s funeral at Golders Green in London.

Crosby gave his final concert in Brighton, England on October 10, 1977. The next day he sang for the BBC radio program “The Alan Dell Show.” On October 12th, he flew to Spain, to get in a little golf. It was late in the afternoon of October 14th, as Bing finished swinging through 18 holes at the La Moraleja Club golf course in Madrid that the final curtain dropped. Many say he passed away having done the one thing he always enjoyed, playing golf. He putted in his shot in the 18th and turned to bow to a few fans observing and clapping nearby. “It was a great game,” he remarked. Bob Hope later wrote in his 1985 book, “Sometime after his death, I heard that a doctor in England told him to play only 9 holes because of his heart. Bing had finished 18 that day, and was walking up the hill to the clubhouse, when he collapsed and died.” Bing Crosby, the man his friends affectionately addressed as “Der Bingle,” passed away from a massive heart attack at the age of 73.

CBS-TV ran “Bing Crosby’s Merry Olde Christmas” on November 30, 1977. It was broadcast in the U.K. on December 24th of that year. Since Bing’s show aired posthumously, there were several rumors that the duet between Crosby and Bowie had somehow been enhanced or generated through computer technique. This special effect, so common to our times, and used in the case of Natalie Cole’s “duet” with her father, was something mysterious and insidious in its connotations during the ‘70s. Of course, those conspiracy theorists obviously didn’t know about tape delay.

Musically-speaking, David Bowie and Bing Crosby couldn’t have been farther apart in their sensibilities. Bing came from an era in which the only demands put on song were whether it had a catchy ‘hook’ and was it pleasing to the ear. David was more intellectual about his use of lyrics and messages. He expressed the differences between crooners of Bing’s era and the rock vocalists of our times with Seconds magazine in 1995. “I can’t really speak for them (the crooners). I think for them, the idea of singing was a means to an end. It’s a way of becoming famous. I’m not sure that they ever felt that what they were doing was pertinent sociologically. We’ve taken on the mantle of all that in Rock – that we actually believe what we’re singing about has something to do with society. I think there was a period in the Eighties where I noticed a lot of younger artists looked at the whole industry…and the idea of career opportunity was a flag that a lot of them were saluting at the time. I think that’s receded a little now. In the Eighties, it probably approached the Bing/Sinatra feeling more than any other time since the Fifties. ‘Hey, you sing the right song, you get to the top of the pile.” With the resurgence of ‘catchy,’ undemanding tunes through the likes of Britneys, N’Syncs, and Rickys, one could argue we’re back in a ‘crooner’ phase.

Over the years, the image of the two icons on a corny TV stage, singing a lovely Christmas piece, has seemed less cynical and more in the heartfelt vein in which Bing obviously intended it to be. Just a moment for young and old to share, with no posturing or theatrics. “I think the thing with Bing is the most ludicrous…,” Bowie let the thought trail off in talking with Q magazine. “It’s wonderful to watch. We were so totally out of touch with each other.” Yes, Mr. Bowie, but that’s what has made the fabled event so enduringly endearing.

© 2001 Ned Truslow

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