When Bing Met Bowie

It’s the holiday standard that remains surreal over three decades after its debut: Bing Crosby and David Bowie duet? On a Christmas song?

At a tribute to the legendary Crosby’s enduring television legacy at the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills, the crooner’s daughter Mary (also famous on the tube as the femme fatale who shot J.R. Ewing on “Dallas”) revealed some behind-the-scenes details of Bowie’s unexpected appearance on Der Bingle’s final holiday special, 1977’s “Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas,” filmed just a month before the icon’s death.

“The David Bowie experience – I remember being on the set,” recalled Mary, who was 18 at the time and, along with her mother and brothers, a regular fixture on her father’s annual specials. “We didn't know that much about Bowie, so the jury was out. We're on the set and David walks in – and this was during his androgynous phase, so he was wearing a full-length mink coat with an incredibly short haircut. And his wife was wearing a matching mink coat with a matching haircut. And you kind of looked and were thinking, 'Who's' who?'”

According to legend, Bowie, then 30, made the appearance on the special opposite the 74-year-old star in part to begin to change his out-there Ziggy Stardust image, and in part because his mother was an avowed Crosby fan. The gender-bending pop star balked a bit at the producers’ notion of pairing him with Bing on the Christmas standard “Little Drummer Boy,” a song he never warmed to, so a second tune, “Peace On Earth,” was quickly crafted for Bowie to sing, overlapping Crosby’s traditional take.

The red-hot glam rock star was a bit intimidated by Crosby, who’d been one of the most beloved entertainers in show business for nearly a half-century by that point, but Bing put Bowie at ease, said Mary.

“I didn't know David, but you can always tell when someone's just a little nervous, and he was a little nervous. And I think Dad was kind of thinking, 'Who is this creature?'” she laughs. “Because you really couldn't define David at that point in time. And then he sat down at the piano and he said, 'You know, Bing, I kind of need to sing the melody because I can't do that key.' And Dad just said, 'Don't worry. I'll find a way to get in there somehow.'

“And that's really how Dad was,” said Mary, who recently opened up her father’s archive to release a slew of seasonal treats, including the Bowie guest spot, on home video with “Bing Crosby: The Television Specials Vol. 2 – The Christmas Specials.” “It was totally genuine. He wasn't worried. And even if he was worried he didn’t show it, he just wanted to make him comfortable. And you could see them both just kind of going, 'Oh, this is gonna be fine.' Because they realized that they were both really great musicians. And so then they made music. And they made magic.”

“It's because music of the kind that my dad did – and I think that David did – transcends all generations and all cultures and countries,” said Mary.

For an updated take on the famous duet, this time starring Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly, check out this clip:

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