Decca Records once issued an album simply titled Bing Crosby: The Voice of Christmas. It was a fitting nickname for the golden-voiced singer whose recording of “White Christmas” is one of the most popular festive songs of all time. During his career, Bing Crosby recorded more than 70 Christmas songs, including his brilliant 1962 version of “The Little Drummer Boy.”
The traditional Czechoslovakian choir-based lullaby “Carol of the Drum,” about a little boy who doesn’t have a present for baby Jesus and honors him instead by playing the drums, came to the attention of 49-year-old American composer Katherine Kennicott Davis in the early 1940s. While she was “trying to take a nap,” the words came to her for a modern Christmas song, inspired by the carol, and she wrote “The Little Drummer Boy,” starting with the memorable opening couplet: “Come, they told me, pa-rum pum pum pum/Our new-born King to see, pa-rum pum pum pum.”
It took a decade, however, for Davis’s song to be recorded, when a version for Decca was cut by The Trapp Family Singers (later immortalized in the movie The Sound of Music), which was issued under the original name “Carol of the Drum.” By the time conductor Harry Simeone recorded it in 1958, the song was totally established as “The Little Drummer Boy.” The popularity of the song spread and, after versions by The Beverley Sisters and Johnny Cash, Bing Crosby became the 10th artist to record the tune with his 1962 release.
Bing Crosby’s version
“We all stole from Bing Crosby,” said Frank Sinatra at the 5th Grammy Awards, when he presented the singer with a Lifetime Achievement Award, an honor that recognized Crosby’s continued success, in 1962. On October 5 that year, Crosby went to Radio Recorders studio on Hollywood’s Santa Monica Boulevard to record his vocals for “The Little Drummer Boy,” which were dubbed over arrangements laid down in July by Bob Thompson and his Orchestra. Thompson, who also worked as a bandleader for Julie London, Mae West, and Mel Tormé, was a regular collaborator with Crosby. He oversaw the choir arrangements for Crosby and Louis Armstrong’s 1960 album Bing & Satchmo.
Crosby’s version of “The Little Drummer Boy” appeared on the album I Wish You A Merry Christmas, which also featured arrangements by Jack Halloran and Peter Matz. Although the liner notes did not credit individual musicians, they praised Crosby’s ability to interpret festive classics: “What makes this album so enchanting is the ease and warmth personified by Bing himself. He sings as if realizing that Christmas is (or should be) a very personal time, a time of fellowship and cheerful rejoicing.”
After recording the album for Crosby’s own Project Records company, the master tapes were sent to England to be manufactured and printed by Decca Record Company Limited. The album was rushed back to America and was on sale by the start of November. Crosby’s velvet voice and relaxed manner proved a hit with the public. On December 8, Billboard reported that the album was doing “good action” in the charts. The three-minute “The Little Drummer Boy” was released as a single, with the album’s title track used as the B-side.
On Christmas Eve 1962, the singer hosted The Bing Crosby Show, a one-hour CBS special that featured special guests Mary Martin and André Previn. The highlight of the show was Crosby singing “The Little Drummer Boy” accompanied by The United Nations Children’s Choir.
The legacy of “The Little Drummer Boy”
“The Little Drummer Boy” has been covered hundreds of times since Bing Crosby’s original recording of the song. It’s an adaptable tune and there have been versions in numerous styles, including soul (Stevie Wonder, Jackson 5), folk (Joan Baez), jazz (Kenny Burrell), blues (Ray Charles), country (Emmylou Harris), rock (Jimi Hendrix, Bob Seger), beatbox (Pentatonix), R&B (The Temptations), reggae (Carlene Davis), and pop (Boney M). There have even been some extraordinary novelty song versions, including by actress Marlene Dietrich, and the cast of The Brady Bunch. The startling version of all, though, is the heavy metal interpretation by horror movie actor Christopher Lee. It’s quite something to hear the voice of Star Wars villain Count Dooku warbling the famous “pa-rum pum pum pum” refrain against a background of pounding drums and thrashing guitars.
The most heart-warming modern version, though, also featured Crosby again, this time in a duet with 30-year-old David Bowie, by then world-famous for his work as Ziggy Stardust. The two musicians performed the song in London in September 1977 for Crosby’s A Merrie Olde Christmas television special, which aired later that year. Bowie’s mother had been a fan of Crosby and there is genuine affection in their duet, which combined “The Little Drummer Boy” with “Peace on Earth,” a song written especially for them by Ian Fraser, Larry Grossman, and Alan Kohan. “They sat at the piano and David was a little nervous,” Mary Crosby recalled. “Dad realized David was this amazing musician, and David realized Dad was an amazing musician. You could see them both collectively relax and then magic was made.”
The Crosby-Bowie performance, which came just a month before Crosby died at the age of 74, remains one the most popular Christmas duets – and a lovely version of a classic that Crosby had made his own back in Los Angeles 15 years earlier.