Bing Crosby died in October of 1977, but that didn’t stop him from appearing in living rooms all over America for Christmas. He’d already completed the shoot for his final CBS television special Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, along with such collaborators as Ron Moody, Stanley Baxter, the Trinity Boys Choir, Twiggy, and a young fellow by the name of David Bowie. Of course, Bowie had long since achieved his own dream of fame, at least to the younger generation; it was viewers who’d grown up listening to Crosby who needed an introduction. And they received a memorable one indeed, in the form of the Bowie-Crosby duet “Peace on Earth/Little Drummer Boy,” previously featured here on Open Culture.
This year you can watch Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas in its hourlong entirety, which includes performances of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” and “Side by Side by Side” (from the late Stephen Sondheim’s Company), a (perhaps embellished) musical delineation of the extended Crosby family, and a session of literary reminiscence with none other than Charles Dickens.
The setup for all this is that Crosby, his wife, and children have all been brought to England by the invitation of the previously unknown Sir Percival Crosby, who desires to extend a hand to his “poor American relations” — and who happens to live next door to Bowie, that most English of all 1970s rock stars.
The search for Sir Crosby proceeds merrily, at one point prompting his famous relative to chat with Twiggy about the nature of love and loneliness, emotions “just as painful and just as beautiful as they ever were. Whether you’re a novelist, poet, or even a songwriter, it’s all in the way you sing.” These reflections lead into a stark music video for the title track of Bowie’s “‘Heroes'”, which had come out just weeks before (coincidentally, on the very day of Crosby’s death). Though a somewhat incongruous addition to such an old-fashioned production, it does vividly reflect a certain changing of the transatlantic pop-cultural guard.
In their scene together, Crosby and Bowie do exude an undeniable mutual respect, the younger man admitting even to have tried his hand at the older man’s signature holiday song, “White Christmas.” Having set off the 1940s Christmas-music boom by recording it 35 years before, Crosby sings it one last time himself to close out this special. Before doing so, he describes the Christmas season as “a time to look back with gratitude at being able to come this far, and a time to look ahead with hope and optimism.” Like all the elements of Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas not involving David Bowie, these words were nothing new even then, but somehow they still manage to stoke our Christmas spirit all these decades later.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.