Peace On Earth written by: Larry Grossman, Ian Fraser, Alan ‘Buz’ Kohan
Little Drummer Boy written by: Katherine K Davis, Harry Simeone, Henry Onorati
Recorded: 11 September 1977
Producer: Frank Konigsberg
Released: 27 November 1982
David Bowie: vocals
Bing Crosby: vocals
A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982)
David Bowie performed ‘Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy’ on the 1977 television special Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas.
The unlikely duet with Crosby was part of Bowie’s extensive promotional campaign for the “Heroes” album. It was filmed at ATV’s Elstree Studios in England on 11 September 1977, two days after Bowie’s appearance on Marc Bolan’s show Marc. Bolan died on 16 September, while Crosby died on 14 October.
Poor old Bing copped it as well just after I’d done this with him. I was getting seriously worried about whether I should appear on TV because everyone I was going on with was kicking it the following week.
Bowie also performed the song “Heroes” on Crosby’s show, singing a new vocal over the single’s backing track, and took part in a somewhat awkward exchange with the host.
I believe… I’m not sure, but I believe that working with Bing led to Bono working with Frank (Sinatra). I set a precedent there… I think the thing with Bing is the most ludicrous… it’s wonderful to watch. We were so totally out of touch with each other.
Can you remember what you were thinking when you did it?
Yes. I was wondering if he was still alive. He was just… not there. He was not there at all. He had the words in front of him. (Deep Bing voice) “Hi, Dave, nice to see ya here…” 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? It was the most bizarre experience. I didn’t know anything about him. I just knew my mother liked him. Maybe I would have known (sings) “When the mooooon…” No… (hums) “Dada da, da dada, someone waits for me…” That’s about the only song of his I would have actually known.
Q magazine, October 1999
The initial plan for Bowie’s appearance was to have been a performance of ‘Little Drummer Boy’, written in 1941 by Katherine Kennicott Davis, and first recorded in 1951 by the Trapp Family Singers. Seven years later Henry Onorati produced a recording by Harry Simeone, and the pair claimed joint composition credits for their arrangement.
In the TV studio, Bowie reportedly expressed a dislike for the song, and asked if there was another he might sing. The show’s music supervisors, Ian Fraser and Larry Grossman, and scriptwriter Alan ‘Buz’ Kohan, hastily wrote a new piece of music, ‘Peace On Earth’, which was performed as one with ‘Little Drummer Boy’.
I was a studio PA out at ATV Elstree, where a lot of these US shows at the time were recorded. We worked for Gary Smith and Dwight Hemion, who were US producers/directors. They came over and did lots of specials with Barbra Streisand and Julie Andrews – not so much for the UK market as for the US.
Crosby’s Christmas show was very traditional, like Andy Williams with all the family involved. For Bowie it was all about the US market and the exposure there for “Heroes”. Mary Crosby [Bing’s daughter] later said that Bing was a little uncertain about this, but once they met they got on very well. ‘Little Drummer Boy’ was one thing, but “Heroes” was quite a departure.
I remember Bowie arrived in a long fur coat, and would that have been his wife with him? They were both very quiet, but I remember he asked for a bottle of water. This was 1977, so there were no little bottles – we had to send somebody to Sainsbury’s. We were terribly impressed; we’d possibly expected him to want something else. The crew knew who he was even if Bing Crosby didn’t.
All the production numbers were done separately on the ‘baronial hall’ set. We had pre-recorded the band parts, which would have been Jack Parnell’s band. They would have recorded that without the vocals and done a mixdown of that.
Bing didn’t come to a lot of rehearsals and I’m not sure David Bowie came down, but I do recall we played it through a couple of times on set and they sang live with a boom microphone moving between the two voices – which is where Ted [Scott, ATV audio supervisor] came in.
We were shooting 10am till 8pm and recording onto 2″ quad tape, videotape. The two voices would be mixed live onto a track of the quad tape. When it became known that the record company wanted to get the original 16 tracks out to remix, it became clear there was nothing available. The only thing that was there was Ted’s of-the-moment mix for TV and that was the one that got sent to the record company.
When we saw “Heroes” being shot and the mime he did, it was a bit unusual for a Christmas show, but that was the deal. There were a lot of deals being done. We didn’t record that – Ted just had to play it. There was a bit of phasing on it – I think Ted asked Bowie if he would mind. He was very approachable – I’m not sure if he would want that known or not. We loved him.
David Bowie: Ultimate Record Collection (Uncut)
Since there were no plans in 1977 to release the audio of the performance, the 16-track master tape was wiped. An on-line mix was used for the 1982 single, which had captured the vocals with a boom microphone.
I remember being on the set for this shoot, meeting Mr.Crosby and then the two of them singing and thinking "oh! They're singing that song dad was practicing in the kitchen!" 😂 https://t.co/Pv5xaO8M7d
— Duncan Jones (@ManMadeMoon) December 6, 2020
Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas was broadcast on CBS in America on 30 November 1977, and by ITV in the UK on 24 December 1977.
The single came out on 27 November 1982, when RCA – in the final months of Bowie’s contract – opted to issue it as a Christmas release, with the Lodger track ‘Fantastic Voyage’ on the b-side.
‘Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy’ reached number three on the UK singles chart, selling over 250,000 copies in the first month, and was certified silver by the end of 1982.
In the US it failed to chart, but subsequently became widely played on radio stations during the festive season.
On 14 November 1995, a multimedia CD single of ‘Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy’ was released by Oglio Records. It contained the audio version and the footage of Bowie and Crosby’s performance, accessible via CD-ROM drives. It was reissued in 1998 and 2003.
A red vinyl 7″ was released on 9 November 2010 by Collector’s Choice Music, limited to 2,000 copies, on which it was retitled ‘The Little Drummer Boy/Peace On Earth’. The b-side was a 1953 duet of ‘White Christmas’ by Crosby and Ella Fitzgerald.
‘Peace On Earth/Little Drummer Boy’ was included on Re:Call 3, part of the 2017 Bowie box set A New Career In A New Town (1977-1982).