The collaboration defied musical logic. But in 1977, art-rock icon David Bowie and smooth crooner Bing Crosby came together for a now-infamous duet of the holiday staple “Little Drummer Boy” for Crosby’s TV special Bing Crosby’s A Merrie Olde Christmas. It’s a fascinating moment in pop history – one examined in detail on PBS’ upcoming documentary, American Masters: Bing Crosby Rediscovered, which premieres Tuesday, December 2nd at 8 p.m. Check out Rolling Stone‘s exclusive behind-the-scenes clip, which features commentary from Merrie Olde Christmas writers Larry Grossman and Buz Kohan.
“We had decided that we wanted them to do a duet of ‘Little Drummer Boy,’ and when we told Bowie about the number, he said, ‘I won’t sing that song,'” Grossman says. “And we said, ‘Why?’ And he said, ‘I hate that song. If I have to sing that song, I can’t do the show.”
Despite his initial reluctance, Bowie was eventually swayed by the writers after they wrote a counter-melody and a new bridge for the song. (It didn’t hurt their chances that Bowie’s mother was a Crosby fan.) “It all happened rather rapidly,” says Kohan. “I would say within an hour, we had it written and were able to present it to him again.”
Kohan adds that “Bing loved the challenge” of the song, emphasizing that the singer “was able to transform himself without losing any of the Crosby-isms.”
The Bowie-Crosby duet has been a YouTube staple for years, but the performance became further ingrained in the pop consciousness in 2010, when Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly filmed a hilarious shot-for-shot remake, even sticking to the original dialogue.