Holmsey is back, all is forgiven at TVNZ and now that we’ve found out the Bay City Rollers never made any money and that the David Cassidy of 2007 owns an unusually tight forehead, it’s time to turn our attention to another potential Whatever Happened To… guest star.
He is a man who won five Grammys all on the one night and will be touching down in New Zealand for his first concert tour in November. One of the biggest soft-rock stars of the early 80s, Christopher Cross has the three prerequisites a “whatever happened to?” kind of celebrity needs: he was massively famous and then wasn’t and has now reemerged with story to tell of fitting “I was never really away” proportions.
So how come he did just disappear? What was it like writing with Burt Bacharach? Why is he so keen to drink beer with New Zealanders? In a half hour chat the affable Cross was to tell me more than enough to consider flicking Paul Holmes a transcript.
Touring with the Beach Boys in November for two New Zealand dates (New Plymouth November 17, Auckland November 18), it turns out Cross is long time family friends with the group who refuse to call him their “opening act.” Beach Boy Bruce Johnston told me a week earlier that this was an equal double-bill, a comment which draws a humble and embarrassed response. “Well that’s very kind of him, I wouldn’t say that’s true, but Bruce is a gentleman,” says Cross. He regards it as a thrill to be sharing the stage with his heroes the Beach Boys, especially because it honours his late buddy Carl Wilson.
“I was very, very close friends with Carl, rest his soul, and I think he was really one of the most real, unassuming people I’ve met in this business,” says Cross before declaring Wilson as his single biggest vocal influence. Like his friends Robert Lamm from Chicago and Gerry Beckley from America, Cross feels a large hole in his life ever since their great mate died nearly ten years ago. Fresh listenings to Cross songs like Arthur’s Theme and Never Be The Same in particular reveal a definite homage to Carl Wilson and the double bill, equal or not, will be particularly fitting.
Another close friend and huge musical influence is the former Steely Dan and Doobie Brothers alumna Michael McDonald. Like Wilson and Cross, McDonald is the owner of one of the best blue-eyed soul voices in the business and will forever be linked with Cross in the way helped kick start his career more than 25 years ago. “He always says that Ride Like The Wind is the most applause he gets for the least amount of work,” explains Cross of the regular joint live performances he and his famous backing vocalist recreate of his debut hit. While McDonald only has to sing the lines “and I’ve got such a long way to go, to make it to the border of Mexico,” many critics argue it was the presence of an established star like McDonald that forced the song onto radio playlists across the globe.
Tripping back into his glory years, Cross correctly points out Ride Like The Wind ultimately peaked at US #2 on the Billboard charts, a fantastic first up position for a new artist. “McDonald was friends with my producer Michael Omartian and we invited him down to hear what we were doing and he liked it enough to say if we needed some backgrounds to let him know. We stuck a mic in his face,” says Cross in mock-casual tone. That incident of mic-sticking undoubtedly changed his life and set him on a path of chart domination that led to number one hits Sailing and Arthur’s Theme (a collaboration with Burt Bacharach), top 10 smashes like Think Of Laura and unprecedented Grammy night domination. So why didn’t it last?
It was a question I put to Burt Bacharach on the eve of his New Zealand concert in July earlier this year. “Christopher Cross was ready,” says Bacharach. “I liken it to horses and not being willing to run the horse,” he explains. Bacharach was thrilled to write with Cross following the success of the first album, but felt his young protégé was unjustly nervous to follow-up his record-breaking debut: “He was ready, but didn’t want to run the horse. In music that may mean you don’t necessarily lose, but it also means you don’t win.” Cross’ second album sold a fraction of its predecessor, a fact Bacharach attributes to a too long a gap between releases (exactly three years). After eight top 40 hits, Cross would never hit the top 100 on the album or singles charts post 1985.
Bacharach’s comments belie the fact his co-write with Cross, Arthur’s Theme, soared to US number one and provided them both with one of the definitive ballads of the 80s. Recalling the night he wrote with the man he regards as “beyond genius”, it’s the nerves more than anything that come to mind for Cross: “I just remember being very, very nervous! I got invited up to his beautiful home in Beverly Hills, he was married to Carole Bayer Sager at the time and I was just incredibly intimidated to be in his presence.” Mentioning again how nervous he was, Cross says he was constantly “pinching myself the whole time, but when you’re writing songs I think you kind of get into a space where it’s working and we got there about midnight and about 5am we’d written the song.”
In truth, the lack of lasting chart success for Cross may have as much to do with Bacharach’s “running the horse” analogy as it does with the obvious chasm between who and what he is and our established ideals of celebrity. His was a chubby, balding face that couldn’t have been further removed from the pinup looks of other 80s stars like Wham and Duran Duran. But nor was he massively overweight like a Meatloaf or oddly charismatic like a Joe Cocker. His complete lack of headlining-grabbing scandal didn’t help either. He was nice man singing nice songs in a nice voice in an era that celebrated the gentle, polished pop song-craft of himself, Air Supply and Lionel Richie. And while Richie had a decade of hits behind him and many more years of hits ahead, like Air Supply, Cross never recaptured the appeal he had with those early 80s ballads.
Cross’ website tells a slightly different story. According to the suitably praise-filled web bio, it wasn’t Cross who deserted radio but radio who deserted him. His post-glory days albums would explore other musical genres, including an allegedly non-soft version of rock, but would not garner the support his die-hard fans felt he deserved. “While my early records are the most well known, I’ve made seven over the years, so I continue to tour the world and try and promote my overall discography and I love doing it,” he says, adding he performs up to 100 concert dates every year. While still busy in the recording studio, he’s also spent the last couple of decades raising his three children, the eldest being a son of 30 and two younger kids from his more recent marriage (a son of 18 and a daughter who’s 15). Album number eight will be a Christmas recording out in the next few weeks.
So with proof enough Christopher Cross was never really away, I turn attention back to his days as a chart regular and ask him about a story I’d heard years before: he never wanted Sailing to be released as a single. Refreshingly, Cross isn’t too cool to admit Sailing is his best song. The handful of fanatics who visit his website daily for updates may nominate obscure album tracks, but the man himself appears quietly proud of the song he knows to be his finest artistic achievement. The only catch is he is still mystified it was such a commercial success.
“I would have never picked it,” says Cross revisiting his disbelief. Conscious that Ride Like The Wind had been an uptempo hit, he feared Sailing was “way too introspective and dark.” It was only at the insistence of Warner Brothers chairman Michael Ostin that the song was released – a move Cross felt certain was career suicide. Ostin turned out to be on the money in more ways than one and Cross knows he wouldn’t be finding himself in places like New Zealand all these years later if his timeless, introspective, dark piece had stayed hidden as an album track midway through the original vinyl’s side two.
He also knows he wouldn’t have swept the board at the Grammy’s in 1981 if Sailing had stayed unreleased. Recalling the night he won all five of his Grammy’s, Cross is typically humble. He explains the night:
“Well I think that ‘Best New Artist’ was an award that people had kind of convinced me I would probably have a pretty good shot at winning, so I guess in my heart I was probably I hoping I would win that. When I won that award I was very satisfied, I felt it was a tremendous honour to be voted best new artist by my peers and so I sat down and was perfectly happy. And then when I went up to play Sailing and we were standing backstage as the bigger awards were announced we were just completely in shock. As they went on and we won album and song and all that stuff, I was in just an out of body experience because in my wildest dreams I would never imagined we’d win all of that.”
For the shy boy from Texas who suddenly found himself in the presence of the music legends he was still yet to meet in person, one legend in particular stood out. Cross can remember seeing faces like Diana Ross and Aretha Franklin and just being in awe, but it was Billy Joel who defined the night for him. “The last award I think I got was ‘Album of the Year’ and when I walked out on stage to get it I saw Billy Joel was in the front row. He stood up and started applauding and then the entire audience stood up and gave me a standing ovation. I think that was the moment I remember most: Billy Joel standing up and applauding for me and my music, that’s a life changing thing right there.”
With our allotted interview time over 20 minutes ago I quickly shift things into the present and Cross shocks me with a confession: he’s a passionate scuba-diver and can’t wait to dive a couple of sites if there’s time while in New Zealand. Much less shocking for my preconceived notions of Cross’ pastimes is his desire to “tip a few with the locals.” Portly photos suggest he’s not adverse to “tipping a few” and thankfully for his fans it’s not cooped up in a hotel room where he likes to do it but down at the local pub.
“We really want to try and get out and see as much as we can and meet as many people as we can,” says Cross. This is no prima-donna stuck in the past of his former glories, more-so a musician acutely aware how fortunate he is that his former glories are glorious enough to still fill auditoriums. And any thoughts his lines about meeting the people are hollow throwaways are well and truly put to bed when he goes on to say, “the people who come to my shows, they’re the people who make you who you are. Without them you’re really nothing.” Cross sounds entirely genuine when he speaks of relishing the “opportunity” to shake hands with the people who’ve sustained a career for him. And no doubt if Paul Holmes and his camera crew ask nicely, he’ll be willing to shake hands with them too.