Watch Bing Crosby’s Final Christmas Special, Featuring a Famous Duet with Bowie, and Bowie Introducing His New Song, “Heroes” (1977)

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.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

David Bowie & Bing Cros­by Sing “The Lit­tle Drum­mer Boy/Peace on Earth” (1977)

David Bowie Sends a Christ­mas Greet­ing in the Voice of Elvis Pres­ley

John­ny Cash’s Christ­mas Spe­cials, Fea­tur­ing June Carter, Steve Mar­tin, Andy Kauf­man & More (1976–79)

Revis­it Kate Bush’s Pecu­liar Christ­mas Spe­cial, Fea­tur­ing Peter Gabriel (1979)

Why “White Christ­mas,” “Here Comes San­ta Claus,” “Let It Snow,” and Oth­er Clas­sic Christ­mas Songs Come from the 1940s

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.

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