Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Merry Christmas To All

I kind of scrapped a couple of the pieces I thought about working on under the pressure of getting things done for Christmas (on Christmas Eve no less) and besides I decided that one of them wasn't terribly appropriate. I mean did you really want me to write about the PTC's belief that Television is "anti-religion" on Christmas Eve? Well even if you did, I didn't. I'll shoe horn that in during my Twelve Days of Christmas pieces (which I haven't even started getting ideas for – yipes!). In the meantime....

In the meantime I've got what most of you might consider a hoary old chestnut but there's a story attached. Those of us of a certain age remember holiday specials that were full of songs and comedy. That's just one of the reasons why I enjoyed Clash Of The Choirs; even with its reality competition base it was a throwback to that sort of show. But, of course, I digress. There are people in their late teens who probably remember Bob Hope's annual Christmas shows – I'm not talking about the USO tours here (the last of those was 1990 before the start of the Gulf War) because Hope and his crew were on the road for Christmas and the shows would air shortly after he returned. In those specials Hope would sing Silver Bells which he first performed in 1951's Lemon Drop Kid, and there were the usual pretty girls, the All-America College Football team, and comedy sketches. By his last years on the air, what Hope was doing became increasingly irrelevant and really rather sad.

Those of us of an even greater age – like mine – remember someone who was even more associated with Christmas than Bob Hope. That was Bing Crosby. Crosby's association with Christmas probably started with the now rarely seen 1942 movie Holiday Inn. He sang Irving Berlin's iconic White Christmas in that movie, a song which later became the focus of Crosby's most successful film White Christmas. Crosby did numerous Christmas specials for TV starting in 1957, a number of these appeared during the time he was one of the rotating hosts of ABC's Hollywood Palace variety series, which ran from 1964 to 1970.

However it is his last special in 1977 that is particularly memorable. The program was taped in London in September of that year and featured the model and actress Twiggy, and singer David Bowie. Crosby reportedly had never heard of Bowie and was encouraged to have him on the show by his children, while Bowie agreed to do it because he knew his mother liked Crosby's music. Crosby wanted to do a duet with Bowie on the song The Little Drummer Boy, however Bowie apparently had some qualms about doing a pure duet (he hated the song) and asked if there was something else he could sing. Ian Fraser, Larry Grossman and Buz Kohan, who was one of the script writers for the special, wrote an original song, Peace On Earth to be sung as part of a medley. In fact it turned into a bit of a blend so that the two songs actually become one. A month after filming the special Bing Crosby died at age 74, after playing a round of golf in Spain. As a result he never knew just how successful his collaboration with Bowie was. The song first appeared on a bootleg with the Bowie song Heroes. In 1982 RCA gave the song an official release – it rose to #3 on the UK charts that year. The Bowie-Crosby duet was also ranked by TV Guide as one of the 25 most memorable musical moments of 20th Century television.

I remember seeing the special at the time, and the Bowie-Crosby performance was electrifying, once they got down to it. Amazingly the blending of their voices was perfect with Crosby's baritone a perfect complement for Bowie's tenor. They come together beautifully in the segments of the medley where they both are singing the same lines and the orchestration suits the power of the merged songs. Best of all, it takes a song which I otherwise cannot abide (the Little Drummer Boy) and not only makes it work but turns it into something almost magical.

(I'd like to thank my good buddy Sam Johnson for choosing this song as part of his e-card this year. If nothing else it inspired me.)

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