Songwriter Interviews

Christopher Cross

by Greg Prato

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Things you might not know about Christopher Cross:

- He wrote one of his biggest hits on acid.

- He played with Deep Purple.

- He's really a guitar guy, having grown up in Texas around Billy Gibbons and Stevie Ray Vaughan.

- He beat out Pink Floyd, The Pretenders, and Frank Sinatra for Grammy Awards in 1981.

Cross came out of seemingly nowhere with his 1979 self-titled debut, which spawned the hits "Sailing" and "Ride Like the Wind," both of which would later be filed under the "yacht rock" category (more on that below). And although Cross hasn't scored a US top ten hit since 1983 ("Think of Laura"), he still maintains a large fan base - particularly overseas, which his 2013 two-CD/DVD set, A Night in Paris, proves.

The rise of MTV coincided with the decline of Cross' chart success, but there was more to it. His music became more refined, lending itself to a smaller audience (something Cross says his songwriting idol Joni Mitchell did as well). And while Cross admits he would never be confused with a music video star, he never wanted the stories of his songs portrayed on screen. This synchs with his credo that a song should hold up to acoustic scrutiny, unlike so many hits of today that have no substance under their polish.

Is Mr. Cross at all bitter about his career arc? Not at all. His '80s success took him to parties with Liza Minnelli and to a writing session with Burt Bacharach. He befriended Dudley Moore and got a headline in The Onion. And as for the "yacht rock" movement, he sees the humor, which he proved on Jimmy Fallon's stage with The Roots.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): Let's talk about the new live album, A Night In Paris, which is also a DVD.

Christopher Cross: Well, I've only done one other live DVD; it was back in I think '96 or so. So that's the biggest thing is that we're able to showcase some more current material. The Theatre Le Trianon in Paris is this gorgeous historic place, so it was pretty special for us.

Early on, I was using tracks to try to simulate the records perfectly. I've gotten away from that. I use really good players that play totally live. There's a lot more improvisation, so the approaches to the songs are little different.

A lot of things have changed. Hopefully I've gotten more seasoned, but certainly the players that I use have. But the biggest difference is probably the catalogue - collections of songs come from a later catalogue.

Songfacts: Something I didn't really realize until I watched the DVD is how popular you are in Paris.

Cross: Yeah. Europe's always been a good market for me. One of the things about the Europeans and the Japanese and foreign markets is they tend to be very loyal in your career, whereas the States are fickle: they love you for what you've done yesterday or today. In Europe and the foreign market, they're very devoted throughout your career, regardless of what your current success is.

Songfacts: A lot of your big hits are very nicely done studio creations. How does it compare playing live in front of an audience to when you were recording your classic songs in the studio?

Cross: Well, I've gotten a little more comfortable up there than I was initially, so now I'm working with great players and I'm able to hear the songs more stripped-down and not with every whistle and bell. So they're a lot more honest, I suppose, in the presentation. They're different, and a lot of people like to hear the songs done live a different way, because they've got the record. So we don't really concern ourselves with every little synth part and every little thing that happens. We're more about the songs having a life on stage.

And for me, playing electric guitar is nothing that people know I do, really. I'm more known as a songwriter/singer. So that's my time to kind of blow a little bit and have a little bit of fun with that, interacting with the players. Not that many people know that I grew up playing guitar in Texas with Eric Johnson, Billy Gibbons and Stevie Ray Vaughan, so it's part of what I do. But being more known as a singer/songwriter, people don't know that.

Songfacts: Were you friendly with people like Stevie Ray Vaughan and Billy Gibbons?

Cross: Sure. Stevie, rest his soul, and his brother Jimmie [Lee Vaughan]. Billy I still see quite a bit. Eric Johnson has been on almost every record I've made. He'll be on the new one, as well. But Eric and I remain very, very close. I miss Stevie, as everybody does in Austin. But yeah, I see the guys a lot.

Songfacts: I would have been curious to hear if you and Stevie Ray sat down and collaborated on a song, how it would have turned out.

Cross: It would have been interesting. Stevie used to come out to gigs and sit in at the end. But he was younger, so he was sort of like the kid in town, and people were like, "Okay, let the kid sit in at the end." He was so much better than everybody else, so it was amazing to watch him grow as a player. He was always pretty gifted, but it's crazy how good he got. I used to leave my fraternity club gigs where I played cover music and go down to the Rome Inn where Stevie was playing his own stuff... maybe for 50 people. He was always very dedicated to what he wanted to do and didn't ever really sell out.

Songfacts: As far as songwriting, how do you find yourself writing your best songs? Is it you by yourself or do you like collaborating with people? Is it on guitar or piano?

Cross: Well, I only play guitar and write on guitar. People think I play the piano, but I don't. I write everything on guitar. I'm a very solitary writer. I've tried to collaborate with people, but it generally doesn't work very well. I did with "Arthur's Theme" and stuff like that, so I guess I have moments where I can. But in general I style everything I do pretty much after Joni Mitchell - I'm such a Joni fan. But I'm pretty solitary as far as how the songs start and how they're created.

Songfacts: What is it about Joni Mitchell that you admire so much about her songwriting?

Cross: If you really follow her work, she just got better and better and better, and a lot of people missed that. She was not recognized at all for her better work, which is a real tragedy. Which is kind of like my career, since I was inadvertently following Joni's path the whole way. My early work was recognized and then I've made nine records, most of which have gone unnoticed.

Songfacts: Why do you think that happens to some artists and not others?

Cross: Well, in my case, I think when you start that meteorically, it's kind of hard to follow - to go anywhere except down - because it's just so huge. In America, they start building you up and then they want to find a way to tear you down.

With me, too, the music got more sophisticated and I did fewer romantic pop songs. It got more sophisticated and I think that didn't resonate with people as much.

Same with Joni. She met Jaco Pastorius, it got more inspired in the jazz idiom, and her music got more sophisticated. It was a little too much for some people.

But when you can't sustain the kind of success I had, people are like, "Oh, well, it's over for him." And it's funny, because I continue to do good work.

But I'm not complaining. I had a great start to my career, and even today if you walk down the street and ask somebody who Christopher Cross is, most people will say, "He's the 'Sailing' guy." I'm a little bit luckier than a lot of people, so it's great.

Someone like Randy Newman is mostly known for his film scores and the songs from Toy Story, which for me personally are not his most remarkable works by any means. But his albums are incredible. The songs like "I Think It's Gonna Rain Today," if you talk to songwriters like Don Henley, people like that, that's the work that they feel is the real genius of Randy. Same with Brian Wilson. You know, "Surf's Up" and the later stuff. A lot of it becomes obscure.

Songfacts: Would you say that back in the early to mid '80s that the emergence of MTV may have had something to do with it? I actually wrote a book about this era of the channel [MTV Ruled the World: The Early Years of Music Video], and at that point they focused more on bands like Duran Duran, where you had to be a hot-looking model type to get your video played. Do you think that may have also played into it, as opposed to back in the '70s where it was really just focusing on radio play?

Cross: Sure. The Buggles, they were this English band and they had this song called "Video Killed the Radio Star," and it was very prophetic. I always joke with people and say if I looked like David Beckham, can you imagine how famous I'd be?

So it's very much about that and about the stylized thing. The thing I hated most about that whole thing, Greg, was that it really obscured the lyrical landscape of someone like Joni Mitchell. Because songs should be self-interpretive, where you hear the song and you kind of imagine it - you do the video in your head. MTV got to where it just made these videos that were very one-dimensional, and then it got to where the videos were just a bunch of T&A.

Not that there weren't creative videos. There were cool ones like Robert Palmer ["Addicted to Love"] and stuff like that, but I think it obscured the lyrical landscape. I was not a huge fan. But I was also never a visual guy and very self-conscious and uncomfortable doing that stuff. I did a couple of videos, but it's not my thing.

Songfacts: I understand.

Cross: Joni and Graham [Nash] and all those guys - David Crosby and Neil Young - they could get up in a T-shirt and jeans and just play great.

Songfacts: Back when you were recording your first album, the self-titled album, did you have any idea that you were onto something and that album had the potential to be as hugely popular as it was?

Cross: Not at all. I felt like I had some good songs there and was certainly excited, but I was just hoping to sell enough records where Warners wouldn't lose confidence and they'd let me keep making records. I thought maybe after about the third album I could get a hit or something. Those guys, they really stuck with you and developed you. That's not the case anymore. So I was hoping I could do well enough, sell 50,000 or something, where they'd let me make another record. I was completely shocked.

And actually when Warner Brothers signed me, they signed me because of my voice - they thought it was radio-friendly and unique. The original plan was for me to record other people's songs. Michael Omartian was the producer of that record and my first four albums. He was a staff producer, and he really fought hard to let me record my own songs. So I was shocked as anybody.

Christopher won five Grammy awards at the 1981 ceremony:

Record Of The Year - "Sailing"
Album Of The Year - Christopher Cross
Song Of The Year - "Sailing"
Best New Artist (over The Pretenders)
Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist(s) - "Sailing"

As producer/arranger, Michael Omartian shared in the Record, Album and Arrangement awards.
Songfacts: Your album won the Grammy over Pink Floyd's The Wall.

Cross: You know, it beat Sinatra, too [Sinatra was nominated for Record Of The Year for "New York, New York" and Album of the Year for Trilogy: Past Present Future]. The whole thing's kind of surreal. What I love about the Grammys is that they're voted on by your peers. I always thought the Oscars and Tonys and Grammys, those original shows were the most valid because you're voted on by your peers. But it's a little uncomfortable. When I met David Gilmour [Pink Floyd's guitarist], the first thing he said to me was something like, "I'll never forgive you for beating us out for the Grammy." He was teasing, but...

And then someone joked that I beat Sinatra, so I'd better watch my back.

The whole thing was just unbelievably surreal. At the Grammys when I won Best New Artist, I felt if there was ever something I might have a chance at winning, it was that, and so when I won that award, I was thrilled, I was happy, I was done for the night. I was thrilled to just get that award.

So when we started to win this other stuff, it was like out-of-body. It doesn't even seem possible. I was standing next to Barbra Streisand backstage when we won, because we beat them for Guilty [he also beat her for Record Of The Year - she was nominated for "Woman in Love"]. I don't think she was too happy.

Songfacts: Let's discuss some of your songs. If you want to start with "Sailing," what do you remember about the writing and recording of that particular song?

Cross: Well, I was just at home sitting in this cheap apartment, sitting at the table. I remember coming up with the verse and chorus, and the lyrics to the first verse of the chorus all came out. These tunings, like Joni used to say, they get you in this sort of trance, so all that came out at once: "It's not far down to paradise..." The chorus just sort of came out.

So I got up and wandered around the apartment just thinking, "Wow, that's pretty fuckin' great." I just thought, "That's really cool." So then I sat down and had to try to come up with other stuff to make the rest of the song, but I thought I had something there.

Then it took about two years before I had a bridge to that song, because the modality of the modal tuning thing, it gets pretty linear, and you've got to be careful. There are writers - I won't mention who - whose songs can get kind of boring because everything's this modality. So I knew I needed to lift the song out of that modality in the bridge and make key changes.

It took about two years before I came up with the bridge that changes all the keys to where it lifts, but it was a pretty special moment. They released the single after "Ride Like the Wind." When Mo Ostin with Warner Brothers wanted to release it as a single, I thought he was out of his mind because I thought the song was way too introspective to be a hit.

But subsequently, over the years, writers have been very gracious to say to me that the cool thing about "Sailing" is that it's an artistic song that was a hit. And writers that I've talked to say that's hard to do: write a song that has credibility that's also popular. So that was one of the really cool moments.

Earlier on we talked about the songs being complete. That's the song that I feel I wrote by myself that's really good. But there were songs on the record that I don't think really hold up. And that's why, over the years, I've started to work with Rob and work with other collaborators, because I wanted to get everything at that level.

Songfacts: What are some of the songs that you're not particularly happy with now from that album?

Cross: Well, "Say You'll Be Mine" I think is pretty disposable. It's not a particularly interesting song. So many of the songs, like "Minstrel Gigolo" and "Light is On," I think they're cool. "The Light is On" is pretty much stream-of-consciousness. I really have no idea what it means. It's about something, probably. And "Minstrel Gigolo" I wish had more words. It doesn't have a lot of words - I sort of repeat the verse. Now we work much harder and try to say more than that.

"Say You'll Be Mine" is one that I don't think is particularly good, as much as I love Nicolette Larson and it was a great thing to do the duet with her. It's funny, because Warners was really on the fence about signing me and they still didn't think the song was very hip. Then I heard Boz Scaggs on the radio with a song that started with the chorus: "Cameras, action, do it again" [his song "Hollywood"]. I realized, "Well, maybe that's what I need to do." So I wrote "Say You'll Be Mine" and started it with the chorus. Warners actually thought that was going to be the single, and Omartian convinced them to release "Ride Like the Wind."

But that's one I can pick out that I just don't think is particularly good. There are some strong things on that record, but clearly "Sailing" and "Ride Like the Wind" were the anchors in the ground that made it what it was.

Songfacts: You mentioned the song "Ride Like the Wind." What do you remember about the writing and recording of that?

Cross: Well, the interesting thing about that tune is that we had a band and we'd play every night. We were doing this Paul McCartney tune called "Nineteen Hundred And Eighty Five," and we'd get into this big jam in the middle of it. It's funny, I just saw McCartney and I didn't tell him this, but in this big jam on "Nineteen Hundred And Eighty Five," in the middle of it I did that "ba da da da, da da, da da." I did that part.

So I thought that felt really cool. I thought it felt like it had something, some magic, so I built the song around that. That was the first part of the song, and then I built the rest around it.

It didn't have any words. We were living in Houston at the time, and on the way down to Austin to record the songs, it was just a beautiful Texas day. I took acid. So I wrote the words on the way down from Houston to Austin on acid.

And I grew up with a lot of cowboy movies. Serials and stuff, like The Lone Ranger and these cowboy serials where they were always chasing the bad guy. And I lived in San Antonio near Mexico, so there was always this anarchistic allure about if you could get to Mexico, you could escape the authority. Also, Mexico was a place where you could go down there and drink and do all this debauchery that as a kid, you think sounds really cool. So getting to the border in Mexico was a fascinating thing to me.

Do you know what The Onion is?

Songfacts: Yes. [A satirical newspaper famous for its pithy headlines.]

Cross: On the cover, the headline they printed was "Christopher Cross Finally Reaches Mexican Border." [Laughs] I thought that was pretty cool.

Songfacts: How and when did you first cross paths with Michael McDonald, and what do you think he brought to that song vocally?

Cross: Well, Michael Omartian, who produced the first album, was sort of in Steely Dan - as much as anybody was - and so was McDonald. So he knew Mike McDonald from that, and he invited him to come down to the studio to hear what he was doing with this kid from Texas, which is strange, because I'm a year older than Mike.

So Michael came down and listened to the stuff we were doing, and he liked it a lot. He said, "Hey, if you want some backgrounds, let me know." We had him sing on "I Really Don't Know Anymore" first, and then a couple of weeks later working on "Ride Like the Wind," we came up with the answer part. We thought Mike would be great on that, so we called him in.

It was a huge boost for us, because the album was sent to radio, and to see names on the album like Mike McDonald and Don Henley was big. I had known Don from Texas, and he was nice enough to sing. Certainly Mike and Don were tremendous helps at radio as far as credibility and notice for the record. And as a Steely Dan fan, I was thrilled.

Songfacts: Did you ever hear the cover version of "Ride Like the Wind" that the heavy metal band Saxon did?

Cross: Sure. I've heard it. It was cool and I'm always flattered when people do covers. I like covers generally that are different. In other words, Saxon's was cool, but it was pretty much like the record. It was harder edge, but it sounded like the record. I like it, but I prefer ones that are real different. Like there was this dance group called East Side Beat that did a dance version. I tend to gravitate more toward people who interpret the song another way, which I think is always cool.

I don't get a lot of covers. I don't know why. Steely's the same way - they don't get a lot of covers. Someone tells me every once in a while - which sounds very flattering - that people don't want to test those songs, because I did the definitive version. Which is very flattering.

There's this kid, PJ Pacifico, who did a version of "Sailing" that's very cool. It's kind of different, and somebody who interprets it different is more interesting to me.

"Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)" was a #1 hit for Christopher in 1981. It was written for the box office blockbuster Arthur, which was the fourth highest-grossing film of that year, taking in over $95 million in America. The movie starred Dudley Moore as a wealthy, drunken eccentric, and Liza Minnelli as his love interest. The song was composed by Cross, Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager and Peter Allen (who, in an odd twist, was once married to Minnelli).

Bacharach and Bayer Sager were a couple and would get married the following year (they divorced in 1991). Allen's contribution was a line Bayer Sager recalled him writing when they were working together years earlier: "When you get caught between the moon and New York City."
Songfacts: You said earlier that "Arthur's Theme" was one of the few songs that you've written with others. You wrote that with Burt Bacharach, which must have been pretty cool.

Cross: Yeah. I actually sat down and wrote the song, which is unusual for me. I was the new kid in town and everything was happening. The picture company asked me to score Arthur, but Steven Gordon, who wrote and directed the film - he's since passed away - he felt I was kind of new to the scoring thing. He was a first-time director, and he didn't want another first-time element involved in the movie, so they gave it to Burt Bacharach. I was not disappointed, because I was amazed they asked me, anyway.

They called up and said, "Listen, Burt got the scoring job for the movie, as we're sure you know. But we'd love to do the theme with you." So I was, of course, blown away. Certainly Burt is a massive influence.

So I went over to his house about midnight. He lived in a fabulous place in Beverly Hills. I walked in and Burt had two Oscars on the mantel, so it was pretty out-of-body.

It's was one of those nights - about five in the morning we finished the song. And of course, Burt's genius. And certainly stylistically "Arthur" is much more in a Burt Bacharach vein than a Christopher Cross vein. I think Burt, out of all four of us that wrote it, was certainly the most responsible for the track. Peter and Carole came up with the words, Burt and I put the music together.

Burt and I wrote one other song together called "A Chance For Heaven" for the Olympic album. It was an amazing experience to sit with him and watch him do what he does. He's one of the most amazingly brilliant harmonic writers of the last 100 years, so it was really, really cool. And so great to meet them [Bacharach and Bayer Sager]. They're both lovely, and Burt is very unassuming and unegotistical and just accessible. So it was pretty wild. When I left there I was certainly walking on air.

Songfacts: Back in the day did you get any opportunity to meet Dudley Moore or Liza Minnelli?

Cross: Yes, of course. I got to know Dudley very well. Dudley and I did a lot of performances of the song where Dudley would play piano, because he was quite an accomplished classical pianist. We would do a lot of things where he'd play the piano and I would sing. Then I went to England, and he had a big television special and he asked me to come. So I did spend a lot of time with Dudley, and I did with Liza. Dudley invited me to a party at Liza's and so I went. It was pretty surreal. Lauren Bacall was there, and all these movie stars.

But Liza's very sweet. I saw her not too long ago. I opened for her in Brooklyn for a show and I went into her dressing room and we visited for about an hour, it was very nice. She's this legend, but she's just really fun and nice.

I miss Dudley very much [Moore died in 2002 at age 66]. I did a tribute to him before he died at Carnegie Hall, and he was very ill. It was lovely to see him, but we didn't really talk because he couldn't speak too much. But yeah, I knew Dudley well.

Songfacts: Did you play a show once with the band Deep Purple, on guitar?

Cross: Yeah. I had a promoter friend named Joe Miller who I did a lot of gopher work for and stuff like that. I had a local band, and he was kind of managing me at the time. Joe was promoting the Deep Purple show at a place called the Jam Factory. It was their very first show in the United States ever, and someone advised them to get flu shots. They did, and Ritchie Blackmore got very sick.

They didn't want to cancel the show if they could help it, and Joe said, "You know, there's this guitarist in town who's a big fan of Ritchie's and he could probably step in."

The singer was in favor of it, I remember, but Joe pretty much ran the band and was the one that made the decision that it was better to play than not play. So I came down. I had a Flying V and long hair, and I'm this big Ritchie fan. We played the songs that I knew and then we jammed some blues. They told the crowd Ritchie wouldn't be there. It was a great moment for me.

Then when they left town I went to the airport and got to meet Ritchie and he thanked me for covering for him. He was cool. But what's funny is, Eagle Rock Records, which released Doctor Faith, my last album in 2011, they have Deep Purple on the label. So I asked Max Vaccaro, who runs the label, if he mentioned the story to Jon Lord [Deep Purple organist]. He did, and Jon Lord said that never happened, ever.

So Max Vaccaro was kind of like, "I think you're bullshitting." There's a guitarist in Austin named Eric Johnson. Do you know who he is?

Songfacts: Yeah. He had the hit with "Cliffs of Dover" in the early '90s.

Cross: And he's played on some of my records. He's a big guitarist. Anyway, Eric had a band called Mariani at the time, and they opened the show. So when Max said Jon Lord said it didn't happen, I called up Eric, and I said, "Man, is this a flashback or something? Am I imagining this?" He goes, "No way, I was there. We opened and you played with them." He said, "Jon Lord's lying."

But it's like I told Max later. I said, "This is something that Jon Lord wanted to forget and I wanted to remember." Because it was a nightmare for them. It was just horrible. Their very first show and then their star, Ritchie, wasn't part of it. But it's a very cool thing. Somebody sent me a thing from the Web recently, it's a picture of the ticket. It doesn't have my name on it, but it says "Deep Purple" from that show. So those things are really cool memories for me in the business that also allowed me to be exposed to the inner workings of the business at that level.

My band opened for Zeppelin and we got a lot of great opportunities from this guy, Joe Miller, in San Antonio. So it all inspired me in one way or another.

Songfacts: Cool. You should try to find a photographer that may have been at that show. Maybe there's pictures that exist of you playing with Deep Purple.

Cross: Yeah, I should probably do that at some point. You know, it's so funny with the whole thing with that. The photography thing is so weird. I was friendly with Michael Jackson, who was a lovely person, and Michael told me he was going to be singing with McCartney. I told Michael, "You've got to let me meet him." So I went down when they did "The Girl is Mine," and got to meet McCartney, who I subsequently see occasionally.

But there was a group picture taken of Michael and Paul and I, and I never got a copy of the picture. I subsequently learned that the key to that is to go over to the photographer, give him your number, and say, "I'll pay for the picture." But if you don't do that, it just disappears into the archives somewhere.

Songfacts: That's true.

Cross: I've learned that now. You've got to go up and slip the guy $100 or something and say, "Please get me that picture."

Songfacts: While we're talking about bands that may be based in heavy metal or hard rock, are there any hard rock or heavy metal bands that you're a fan of that may surprise some of your fans?

Cross: Well, Zeppelin was the last hard rock band that I really, really followed and liked. I didn't ever get into AC/DC and Mötley Crüe and that kind of stuff. I kind of had moved on by then to Brian Wilson and the more harmonic music.

But I was a big Zeppelin fan. And somebody that I listened to a lot early on and who was a big influence was Zappa. Frank I listened to a lot, all that music. Frank asked me to sing "Ride Like the Wind" in a show with him, and I wasn't able to do it, but he did it, and he sent me a cassette copy of it. It's a very cool thing for me to have - it's Frank doing "Ride Like the Wind."

So I listened to more of the Zeppelin bag and Deep Purple, too. Certainly Ritchie and people like Spooky Tooth and The Stones. Jeff Beck, of course. So more of that stuff. But the real heavy metal stuff, like AC/DC and Aerosmith, I respect all of it, but I moved on to people like Beck and then later on I got more into people like Larry Carlton and more of the jazz thing.

Songfacts: Why do you think a lot of the music from the late '70s, early '80s, such as yourself, the Doobie Brothers, and also Hall & Oates, are experiencing a resurgence with younger listeners?

Cross: Well, it's hard to not sound kind of pompous when you say it, but I think that there's quality of songwriting there. There are melodies and great hooks, so those songs endure. Daryl's a great, great, writer. There's some great new stuff out that the kids are doing, but there's so much music now because the music business has been democratized by the Web. There's a lot of it, but I find I'm underwhelmed.

I think that kids look for quality stuff and it's tough to beat The Stones and that catalogue, and people like Hall & Oates. So a lot of the younger bands that come up, they'll have a moment or two, but it's hard. I'm 62, and when I ask younger people, Who are the new Stones, who's the new guard? Who's going to take over? They'll say Coldplay or U2. I'm an old fart, I guess. But just between you and me and the public, I don't see the catalogue there. I don't see the Beatle catalogue or the Stones catalogue or the Beach Boys catalogue. In U2's case, possibly. Coldplay I like, but I just don't think they've gotten there yet. I was curious to watch and see who will be the new guard, because The Stones are still playing.

Songfacts: I think a big difference is people like you and Hall & Oates actually wrote their own music and also played it and sang it, whereas now it seems like a lot of the pop-type singers and artists, they have to hire a professional songwriter, and they also have to use Auto-Tune and all that stuff.

Cross: Who's the kid... Robin Thicke. He's Alan Thicke's son. Not to pick on him, but this video that's so hot right now ["Blurred Lines"], he's a super good-looking kid and I guess he sings okay. But it's all just a manufactured track and then he has all these hot girls in his video and there's actually a version of the video online now where the girls are pretty much naked. So, you know, when in doubt, get naked girls.

But yeah, you're right. Mike McDonald said a long time ago to me, "If you can't play it on acoustic piano or acoustic guitar, it's not a song." And there's something to be said for that. When you go see Randy Newman, Randy just plays by himself, and every one of the songs holds up.

Early in the '80s I used the tracks and stuff like that, but I don't do that anymore. Now we just play. If you get good players and people that can actually play, it's a lot of fun. That's probably a lot of it, but I think also it has to do with the song quality. Like Jackson Browne, going back to my era, "Fountain of Sorrow," I don't hear a lot of songs being written like that.

Yacht Rock gained notoriety as a mockumentary video series that re-enacted goof versions of what supposedly happened behind-the-scenes to help create some of the top soft rock (or as its title states, "yacht rock") hits of the late '70s and early '80s. Its twelve episodes were originally shown between 2005-2010 at the monthly, non-profit film festival, Channel 101. Some of the artists that the series spoofs include Hall & Oates, Michael McDonald, Kenny Loggins, Toto, and of course, Christopher Cross, whose song "Sailing" gave rise to the "Yacht Rock" label. All twelve episodes can be viewed at the Channel 101 website.
Songfacts: Are you familiar with the Web series called Yacht Rock?

Cross: Yeah, I am.

Songfacts: What are your thoughts on that?

Cross: Somebody sent me the original one a long time ago. The original one, one of the guys they parodied were myself and Mike and Daryl and John and Kenny [Loggins]. And I thought it was pretty stupid. It seemed silly at the time. But it's grown in popularity and I think the 12th one that came out has Mike and me in it. They parodied a lot of guys, and it got really popular. It's very popular in Japan.

And then what's funny is about two years ago, Jimmy Fallon called me. I know Jimmy a little bit. He said, "Hey, man, I'm really into this 'Yacht Rock' thing. Would you and Mike come on and play with The Roots and do 'Ride Like the Wind' and 'Sailing,' because I'm totally into this 'Yacht Rock' thing."

So we went on and it was fun, but at one point Jimmy asked me to put on the captain's hat to do "Sailing." My manager and I said, "I don't think so, man. It's a pretty classic song and it seems pretty silly." Jimmy was cool and said, "Oh, that's fine, don't worry about it." So then when I walked out to do "Sailing," The Roots all had those hats on. They were all bobby-pinned into their 'fros. Questlove especially looked so crazy, because it was just sitting on top of his head like a muffin or something, because he had a giant 'fro.

I looked at them and I said, "You know what, if you guys can humiliate yourselves, I can too!" So I put it on and Jimmy put one on and we did the song. It's gotten to be real popular, and people have talked about doing a Yacht Rock tour, which I think would be a lot of fun. The problem is not so much in my case, but if you get Mike and Daryl and John and all these people on one cover, it would be so expensive you'd never be able to afford it.

I've only seen the first one, but it was pretty funny. The guy they had that played Loggins I thought was classic. This guy's standing by the fire and it's all pretty silly. I don't think Mike McDonald or any of us take them very seriously, but it's funny how they've gotten very popular.

Songfacts: I guess a possibility is to round up all those bands and maybe do a cruise.

Cross: The amount of money they'd have to charge to get all of us on one boat would be crazy. Mike and Boz [Scaggs] and Donald did this tour called The Dukes of September, so it's possible. I heard some rumor that back when Zeppelin did the reunion show and then Cream did their reunion shows, some guy in Japan was going to put up a bunch of money for a Cream/Zeppelin tour. I don't know how much money that was, but probably a lot.

Meantime, I just do what I do. I'm finishing a new album now - it'll come out in the fall with 12 new songs. I'm really happy with it. I don't know how I'm going to release it or market it, but it's what I do.

October 18, 2013. Get more at
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Comments: 8

  • Matt J from Blue Ridge, GaPer Yacht Rock, I can see how it would have been somewhat insulting at first and then grow on you as a musician. I mean, you put all your heart and soul into your music, and someone, even if it's meaningful and honest to the music, is making fun of your work. But I'm glad that most of the Yacht Rock musicians have realized that it's brought them a great deal of attention from a new generation.
  • Tara from Tuscaloosa, AlI never get tired of Christopher Cross. I played his duet with Frances Ruffelle at my wedding 6 years ago. That was the bride and groom "first dance". I loved it.
  • Et from Richmond, VaI read once Mr. Cross sold Duane Allman the Gibson SG he used on a lot of Allman Bros. Tunes. Who would've thought?!
  • Jim from North Billerica, MaA very Interesting man, shame he was typecast and pigeonholed so early in his life. NIce to know he is enjoying life.
  • Doug from SocalWas lucky to see Christopher Cross with Michael McDonald play the Coach House on a benefit gig. In addition to his obvious writing skills he absolutely tears in up on guitar! We were blown away - what a great talent.
  • Jeff from AtlantaExcellent interview.. reminds me of the great old days with Musician magazine
  • Zhivko from Bourgas, BulgariaAnother great interview! Thanks Greg!

    Cross is right about Europeans. We never judge an artist by his latest success or fail. Nice that he recognizes that!

    Keep them coming Songfacts!
  • Rod from Pleasant HillGreat Article!
see more comments

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