Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Countdown to Christmas

Christmas is only four days away, but it doesn't seem like Christmas, and hasn't since my parents passed away more than five years ago. There's Christmas music on the radio, including that duet by Bing Crosby and David Bowie (“Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth”), but I’ve found it more of a nuisance than a pleasure. Still, I'm always amused to see the video clip of that musical odd couple standing side-by-side in front of a piano singing that medley on Crosby’s final Christmas special which aired a few months after his death. Broadcast in 1977 and titled A Merry Olde Christmas, it was the subject of much curiosity due to Bowie's appearance. Pop stars had joined Der Bingle on TV shows before, but Bowie was no ordinary hit maker. The fact that he was a bonafide rock and roll star, and, therefore, not the kind of performer then prominent on prime-time television, made his guest shot on a Crosby Christmas special unusual to begin with, but his androgynous, bi-sexual reputation made it downright bizarre.

It’s doubtful Crosby was familiar with Bowie, and the decision to recruit him for the special was made by the producers who enlisted three of the show's musical directors to write a counter melody to "The Little Drummer Boy" after Bowie made it clear he disliked the popular song. The result was "Peace on Earth," which Bowie sang while Crosby handled the more familiar "ba-bump-bump-bump-bum" of the other song.

Bowie was in the midst of his most musically experimental phase at the time, having recorded the cold, melancholy Low and its follow-up Heroes during this period (Bowie also performed the title track from the latter album on the Crosby hour). Bowie’s ethereal music was never more alienated or detached than it was in these striking albums. Singing with lovable old Bing would have shocked his audience at any time but never more so than in 1977 when he was creating some of his darkest music. And here he was, on a Christmas special no less, dueting with Bing Crosby on “The Little Drummer Boy.” Thin, somewhat effeminate, and more than a little other worldly in appearance, Bowie provided a stunning contrast to the rumpled crooner in a comfy sweater. Surprisingly, their joint venture was a success. Their styles did not clash, and the recording, though made strictly for the CBS-TV broadcast and not intended for release on vinyl (the introduction of the compact disc was still five years away), is a memorable one. Five years later, RCA (then Bowie's label) released it as a single. It's now a staple in the season of good cheer.

There's little cheery about “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” the traditional Christmas carol that has no competition as my favorite yuletide song. Its richly melancholic melody has made it a favorite with some jazz musicians, but you do not find it being performed by many popular recording artists. Joan Baez offered a superb rendition on an album of Christmas songs she released in the ‘60s, but other than Peter, Paul, and Mary, I can’t think of any other mainstream performers who have attempted it. It may be too solemn, even a little depressing, certainly in comparison to "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree" and "Grandma Got Run Over By a Reindeer," two songs I positively loathe.

If you don't hear "O Come, O Come Emmanuel" much on the radio, it's still more frequently played than the selections from the Rotary Connection's 1968 album, Peace. Although it includes an electrified version of “Silent Night,” most of the material was original, but it remains one of the finest Christmas albums ever recorded. The songs are moody and contemplative, highlighted by two exceptional pieces: “Sidewalk Santa” and “Shopping Bay Menagerie.” Unfortunately, the album has been long out of print, and is hard to find on CD. If the Rotary Connection is known at all today, it's likely because its lineup included the late Minnie Riperton who had a huge hit with "Lovin' You" ("It's easy 'cause you're beautiful") back in 1975. Her daughter, Maya Rudolph, went on to fame herself on Saturday Night Live.

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


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