The world first heard of Christopher Cross back in 1980. His debut album sold 6 million copies!
In 1981 Mr. Cross walked away with 4 Grammy Awards including Best Album, Best Single, Best Song, and Best New Artist. And if all that wasn't enough, Christopher Cross, along with Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager and Peter Allen wrote the "Arthur" movie theme which won an Academy Award for Best Original Song.
We spoke with Christopher Cross about a variety of subjects.
Q - You're not what we would call an "overnight success" in the music business are you? Weren't you in your late 20's before you were signed to Warner Brothers Records?
A - I was probably around 30. I was 30 when the album came out in 1980. Well, you know, I was and wasn't successful. Once the album came out, it immediately went to the top. From that standpoint, I was (an overnight success). Prior to that I lived pretty much the musician's life. Nothing remarkable about my musical life, I worked hard as a street musician as all of us in the music business have. I paid my dues. When I finally got a deal I was an overnight success in that I didn't make 2 or 3 albums that were sort of O.K. and marginally successful and then finally had something pop. I pretty much put my first album out and there it went.
Q - Before that, weren't you in a Top-40, cover band?
A - Yeah and I pretty much made my living that way in Texas and kept my own material sequestered. I really didn't play it around locally much, 'cause I didn't see much point. I made a lot more money being in a cover band and keeping my artistry to itself. Then, I just sent tapes away and finally got a deal and released my album. It was really a surprise to the people in Austin, Texas 'cause they kind of thought of me just as a cover band and really didn't think I had my songs, you know.
Q - Were you playing the Holiday Inn circuit, 4-5 sets a night, 6 days a week?
A - You could say that. Austin is a big college town. I was playing a lot of
fraternities, clubs, proms; yeah, four sets a night lugging equipment upstairs. Pretty gruesome.
Q - What kind of material were you playing?
A - You name it. America. Eagles. Foreigner. Beatles. Beach Boys. Boz Scaggs. Whatever was hot. We'd learn whatever was current.
Q - Now, how did you find the time and energy to write your own material?
A - Well, it certainly was a singular passion. That's all I wanted to do. When you get into the copy band thing you pretty much got a van, the equipment and learning the songs is not that hard. You just basically rehearse maybe once every couple of weeks with the guys and pick up a few new tunes. You just get up and do it. It's pretty automatic. Still being young and not having a lot of distractions of adulthood, I didn't have a regular job, so I worked at night. I did have a young son. During the day I'd sit around and when he was napping - bang out tunes. I remember writing "Sailing" at the kitchen table while my son was about 2. He was napping. My ex-wife was at Beauty School. I had a lot of time during the day, frankly. I might've slept in a little bit, but I didn't have a regular job.
Q - You were rather fortunate in that regard.
A - Yeah, but a lot of my musician friends like Stevie Ray Vaughan, who were so incredibly talented, who played only their own music and were true only to their own art - were starving. I used to go hear him play and be blown away and think how great it was that he was being an artist and willing to suffer for it. I had a child and felt I was better off making $200 - $300 a week, working hard, playing 6 nights a week and bringing home the paycheck. So, I might've been pulling down $300 - $350 a week steady and Stevie was probably making $50. But he was playing to his own audience, doing his own music, so he was being more of a true artist.
Q - Did that result in some resentment toward you?
A - Well, I know that when I'd go into the musie store to buy guitar strings I certainly didn't get waited on right away. I wasn't considered local folk hero. I was kind of disregarded. Of course, when the album came out, boom there I was, I was the biggest star in town. So, it was kind of an irony. So, I wouldn't say that people like Stevie were disrespectful. They saw me for what I was. I was kind of a local copy musician. I only picked Stevie 'cause he was someone I really regarded when I was in Texas. He was always courteous and nice. But, I did what I did and he did what he did.
Q - What I was referring to was the possible resentment coming your way from the big music publications, like Rolling Stone.
A - Oh, they wouldn't touch me with a pole. They always hated me, I think partly because they didn't have to discover me. I wasn't some cult band they discovered under a rock. I kind of sprung up on 'em when they weren't looking. But, they've never regarded me. They never reviewed my album or taken me seriously. When they put out the Top 200 Albums of the 80s, I wasn't even in there, which is ridiculous, whether they liked the style of my music or not. I was certainly in the Top 200 albums of the 80s. That kind of critical acclaim is certainly elusive for some like myself. I've had the commer success, but the critical acclaim eludes me. But then, there's people like Leon Cohen who are brilliant and on the Top of my list as far as songwriters go, yet commercial aspect has eluded him. He couldn't be more highly regarded Sometimes, it's a double-edged sword. Then you've got guys like (Don) Henley who managed to do both. He's got critical acclaim and he's got commer success. My hat's off to him for that.
Q - What did it do to you when you won those Grammy Awards?
A - Well, it just kind of overwhelms you. I lost perspective. I was barely staying afloat. I was just gasping for air the whole time, trying to deal with all the requests and demands on my time. I wasn't used to it. I wasn't used to the limelight. I wasnt used to the power. It creates a lot of charactor tests, some of which I failed and some which I handled O.K. Looking back on it, I can see my mistakes and I've be through periods where I've been very rough on myself and had a lot of anxiety about what I could've done differently. Now, I'm at the place where, hey, most people in the same situation would fail just the same way. It's just a to hot to handle. But it was wonderful. The Grammy's have gone from being on a lighted pedestal in my corner like some kind of Monet to the boxes in closets. You know, sort resenting them, and now they're out on the family room shelves, with my son's soccer trophies and that's kind of where they belong. I'm proud of 'em. I did do good work that year. I won them. They we presented to me by my peers, but, at the same time, if I let them run my life they'll get the best of me.
Q - How different would it have been if you hadn't had all those famous musicians lending a helping hand on that first album
A - Well, I think it would've made tremendous difference in terms of radio paying attention. Certainly back in those days when DJs played what they want they'd flip it (the record) over and see Michael McDonald (Doobie Bros.) and Henley (Eagles). Those names certainly got their curiosity going and they spun it. To this day I certainly credit Michael with a lot my success, 'cause his voice on there really gave the record a lot of notoriety. So, it's undeniable. I think Disco and Rock was fading. I think Pop was ready to make resurgence. I think I was in the right place at the right time. I think I had talent and style and worked real hard, but I think I was also very lucky.
Q - And the star players on your album must've liked you as a person as well as respecting your talent.
A - Well, I think Michael Omartian, who produced me for Warners, was in Steely Dan and knew a lot of musicians like Larry Cartton and Michael McDonald and invited them down when he was working with me, 'cause it was one of the first projects for Warners and made the introductions. But certainly, I'm a likeable guy. They found me likeable enough and I think they liked the music. When McDonald came down one evening at Omartian's invitation, he just liked what he heard and said if you want me to sing something just let me know. So, we stuck him up there with a mic. Henley was from Texas and I knew him from my days in the Texas band circuit. A lot of the California people were exposed through the label. I think they're not gonna sing on something they don't like, but I think they genuinely liked the music and that's a compliment.
Q - What part of "Arthur's Theme" did you write, the music, the lyrics, or both?
A - Well, both. But you know the song was just commonly penned. In other words, we didn't split it up. We just didn't bother crediting things. Burt is not a lyricist. Hal David wrote all the lyrics for Burt's songs, and Carole's a lyricist not a music writer. So, I sort of played Devil's Advocate for both. I was originally given the picture, and it was taken away from me because I hadn't scored a picture before and they gave the score to Burt. Burt called me and said, "Listen, I know you had the picture and they took it away, but we're gonna do a theme and we'd love to have you work on it with us." So, I said, "well, great." I went over to Burt's house and he and Carole were together at the time, but not married. Burt had a real good seed for the song, the seed for the song musically. So, what I did is I sat and collaborated with him, musically on the basis of the song he had. Carole and I worked on the lyric after we got the music done. But, we were all sitting there together. I would say Burt is responsible for the basis of the song with me. Then Carole and I wrote the lyric. Burt was more responsible for the majority of the music than I was. I came in later after the fact. See, I had my own version of the song that I was working on when I had the picture, but we ended up using the seed of the song that Burt had, 'cause he's so brilliant. Peter was actually in Australia at the time and he and Carole had an unfinished song that had the line "When you get caught between the moon and New York City" and they'd never finished it. When Carole and I were discussing the moon and trying to work it into the song, she said, "You know, there's this great line." She called up Peter in Australia and asked him if he found any problem with us just using the line, since they never finished the song. He said no, it sounds like a great idea. So, we plugged the line in and of course it became the catch line of the song. But, Peter wasn't actually there when the song was written. I personally don't take anything away from him, 'cause I think it's the most important lyrical line in the song. I think it's a good collaborative effort. One of the songwriter's codes is you generally don't dissect a song and say he put in that word, and I put in that word. It doesn't really matter. The song came out great in the end and I think without the collective sum of the parts it wouldn't have.
Q - How long did it take you to write Sailing?
A - Well, I actually write very quickly. It didn't take me too long. The basis of that song probably came out in 10 to 15 minutes. The basis is the first verse and chorus. Then of course once I have the chorus and the basis of the song, then the craftsman part comes in. The first part is more inspirational. Then you sit down with the yellow pad and really knock out a lyric. I had the whole song, less the piano bridge, for two years. Then I finally discovered after about two years how the bridge should go, because the song tends to be a little monotonous in the way the verses and choruses go. I knew I needed the bridge to do a big harmonic change and so I finally came up with something. It actually changes keys three times in the middle of the bridge and then returns to the key of D, but, it took me awhile to come up with that.
Q - And how long did it take you to write "Ride Like The Wind"?
A - Quick, in the pieces that came. It's funny it came in pieces over a period of years. I had the bridge first, then I came up with the verse and chorus. I had all the music. Then, on a 3-hour drive from Houston to Austin to record the song I wrote the lyric in the van on the way down. Sometimes they all come at once, but a lot of the time they're piece meal over time.
Q - It's a gift isn't it?
A - I think the initial inspiration of songwriting for myself or Paul Simon or any of the songwriters that I regard, you would call inspirational. They sort of come out of the sky and you don't know why or where they come from. I feel they're regurgitations of influences from your past. Your own emotion influences lyrically. Your own emotion influences musically. Somebody like myself, I started out being influenced by Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Joni Mitchell. So, all that stuff is going to melt together in my style, but, it's really responsible to them. Lyrically, I think you express emotions of your own life in your own way. How you judge the art is a real personal perspective. In other words someone might regard someone like myself as being very gifted. Some may discount my gift as not being very important. Someone may regard someone else as being very gifted and I wouldn't. Someone like Randy Newman is almost a god to me. But, to some people they think he sings weird and don't like his songs. To say Barry Manilow isn't as gifted or as talented as Randy Newman, or his art isn't as valid, is very subjective. I like Randy Newman better than Barry Manilow, but, they each do what they do.
Q - Why didn't you re-sign with Warners?
A - I got dropped. I did four albums for Warners and one for Reprise. The first two albums were very successful, those I did in 1980 and 1983. They probably sold about 10 million records. There's a long story in between the second record and the third and fourth and I won't bore you with it. But there were management things, just different things that happened that really hurt my momentum and also hurt the relationship with Warners. A lot of it was my fault too, I'm sure. I didn't make the records I should have, but regardless, things started to falter. Warners lost interest. In 1986, I did my third album, "Return of The World", which performed poorly. I felt at that point that I should leave the label. But, they didn't let me go. I made another record for them in 1988 called "Back of My Mind", which I feel was a real good record. But, by that time, the loving feel was gone and they did let me out. I'm not really angered by things falling apart in '86 as much as I am by the fact that they wouldn't let me go. There were certain people at the company that felt it was OK for me to go and certain people that didn't, but I feel like I wasted that record in 1988. Regardless, I did get out. I left my management at the time and just took a big break. I just felt disillusioned by the big success I had and the fall from grace. I just felt that I needed some time to get some perspective.
Q - When you take a break from the grind of recording and touring, where then does the money come from to live on?
A - I made a tremendous amount of money over the first couple of albums. I was married prior to that first record, and divorced shortly thereafter. The divorce cost me dearly, especially in taxes. So, I lost a good deal of money, let's say half of it. I managed to sustain pretty well and still have good income from "Sailing", "Arthur" and those songs from the publishing, but not like it would've been had I not gotten divorced and nothing like if I'd been able to sustain the career a bit better. I got away from everything in '88. I got married again, started a family. I took some time and got back into myself. I'm at a point now where I'm re-inthused about my work. I'm feeling good about it again. I'm past the stigma of my own success, if you will. I'm excited about the music again.