To say Christopher Cross landed on the pop music scene with a bang is an understatement of near epic proportions. When the talented singer/songwriter hit the charts in 1980 with his debut album, he scored the kind of jackpot most aspiring musicians dare not even dream about. Yielding four Top 20 singles, including the number two hit “Ride Like the Wind” and the number one smash “Sailing,” the then 29-year old’s self-titled inaugural effort instantly became the stuff of legend. Within a year, Cross was keeping musical company with pop royalty like Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager and making room on his shelves for five Grammy Awards and an Oscar. Though his 1983 sophomore release Another Page, found Cross again in the Top 10 with the single “Think of Laura,” a shift in the 1980s toward a harder-edged, more splintered pop scene locked the soft rock balladeer out of the charts almost as quickly as he’d conquered them. His creative flame, however, continued to burn brighter than ever, and six more records clearly demonstrated that though radio may not have been listening, his fans still were, and Cross was rewarding them with ever more richly crafted melodies and increasingly beautiful guitar work. All in all, it’s been quite a ride, one that’s taken Cross from his unlikely early days in Austin, Texas, where he once bought gear from Jimmy Page and played lead guitar for Deep Purple, to his current role as full time parent, part time touring artist, and ever-evolving musician. Recently we spoke to him from his home in Los Angeles, where he recalled his adventures and brought us up to date on where he is today.
Did you have what you would classify as a musically-oriented childhood?
I’m from a family a five. I’m the next to youngest. My father had played bass in college and really had enjoyed it immensely, but had kind of given it up because of the Depression, and you know how it is with kids… The farther you get down on the queue, the less concerned (parents) seem to be or the more casual they get about it. So they were kind of like “whatever you want to do” But my dad, I have to say, was very supportive of the music thing. Both my parents were. Because I think my dad had played, and he told me those were the best times of his life, although with the Depression it wasn’t practical for him, being the oldest of nine or 10 kids, to really continue with it. So he went to medical school and did that. But he had fond memories of it so he was pretty supportive.
I wasn’t a real academically oriented kid and so I think when you have a situation like that, at some point you try to support your kid’s strengths. And I was definitely completely consumed with music. That was kind of a singular passion for me. So I think that rather than fight that they kind of went, “Hey, you know this is what he wants to do.” I don’t think my dad in his heart of hearts could really blame me because I think had he had his choice, he probably would have stayed in it, but it wasn’t practical for him. You know… would they have liked me to have been a lawyer or something? Sure. Most parents would like their kids to do something safe and dependable so that they know they’re going to be able to make a living. But I’d say overall they were pretty supportive.
When did you first start feeling that passion for music?
Well, my father listened to a lot of jazz, and Glenn Miller and stuff like that. Big band stuff. And I used to listen with him, so I got interested in that type of music and was attracted to Dave Brubeck and the like because I played drums initially. I got into the drums, and the jazz thing drew me in. That was about at age 10, and I had some bands. Played drums and sang. And when I was about 16, I switched to the guitar because I wanted to write, and I wanted a harmonic vehicle to do that with, and also probably I wanted to get out front and get more girls! So I switched to the guitar. From junior high on, I had bands and that was my thing. Like I said, I was never academically oriented. I came out to California from Texas, to the Haight, and the Fillmore and all that stuff, and totally got the bug. I came back with long hair. And in those days you couldn’t have long hair in Texas in high school. We didn’t agree on that so I didn’t go back… I dropped out of high school after my junior year.
Tell us about some of your formative band experiences.
I had this band called Flash, which was an original music band. None of the material that I have out now was part of that material. That’s material that’s fallen by the wayside. But it was pop melodic rock kind of stuff. I was actually very Zappa-influenced so there were a lot of time signature changes and kind of weird approaches to things. My voice is a light-type voice so I certainly couldn’t sing rock. So the material was kind of pop. But I had a friend named Terry Bassett, who was head of Concerts West, and also a guy named Joe Miller in San Antonio who was a promoter. I did a lot of running around and go-fering for them because I was good at logistics and stuff, and I got to be pretty useful for them. I was about 17. In those days you’d have three bands on a bill. And usually the touring acts would have a local band open for about 30 minutes. So Terry and Joe would get me on dates as kind of a payback favor for me for doing all that running around. But I think they saw some spark there. Led Zeppelin came over for their first tour after the first album, with Jethro Tull opening. And I did about a week’s worth of dates opening for them. I also opened for the Airplane, Steppenwolf, a lot of other bands that they put me in front of. My band would play like a 30 minute set. And it was interesting because Page and Plant, after the third or fourth day on the road, they said, “How do you kids follow us around? Do your parents have money or something?” We said, “No. We’re opening the show!” And so the next night, I looked over in the wings, and there were Page and Plant standing there kind of checking us out!
Jimmy was playing Hiwatts. They were very rare in the States. Only Townshend and Page were really playing them. I wanted one really bad. And Jimmy actually got his roadie Clive to get me one. I gave him $750 of my hard-earned paper boy money, and a lot of people thought it was crazy to just hand money over to Jimmy Page’s tech, but they were sort of the elite amp. And sure enough about two and a half months later I came home from school and there sitting in the living room were two big cardboard boxes. And it was a Hiwatt head and cabinet, and I was the coolest guy in town. Not only because I had a Hiwatt but because Jimmy Page sent it to me. And then years later, I was out on the road with the Beach Boys, and Jimmy was on the show, and I was relating the story to him, and he was very touched. I told him how nice he was and how kind he was, and I think it made him feel good to think that he had been nice to some kid in Texas.
One night Deep Purple came to San Antonio. First night of the tour again. Richie Blackmore got sick from a flu shot and couldn’t perform. But the show was sold out at a place called the Pussycat Club, which was a big club that I’d played. Eric Johnson played there as well with his original band called Mariani. And Billy Gibbons used to have a band called Moving Sidewalk, and before they were ZZ they used to play there. But I subbed for Blackmore. They didn’t want to cancel the show so they told people Blackmore wasn’t going to be there, but I was kind of a local hero, and I was going to sit in in his place and if people wanted to stay, they could stay. About 80% of the people stayed. And so I played guitar for Deep Purple. Then when they were leaving at the airport I got to meet Richie, and he gave me his pick.
What’s it like to be 17 or 18 and suddenly on stage as
Deep Purple’s guitarist?
It was exciting but almost embarrassing. I realized I had no business being up there sitting in for Richie Blackmore, but the guy who owned the club wanted the show to go on. John Lord and the band wanted the show to go on. The singer wasn’t happy about it as I remember, but you know… I was just jumping in there, and I realized how ridiculous it was that I would be subbing for Richie. But it was exciting. I was a big fan of Richie’s, a huge fan of his playing so I knew the hits, and I knew a lot of the big things, but then we just jammed some blues and stuff like that. And the guys just tried to have a good time with it. It was their very first tour in the states and they didn’t want to cancel (the gig) and have that be the way they started. It’s hard to remember but it was pretty heady. It was just real exciting to meet, as a guitarist, artists who were these huge heroes of mine.
Let’s talk about that. Who were some of the musicians that you idolized
in the beginning?
I’m going to be 54 here pretty quick, so initially I would have to say the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Ray Charles, people like that early on. Richie Valens. But certainly the main staples of my influences would be Brian and Carl Wilson. Brian for writing. Carl for singing. I tried to style my voice and singing after Carl. I did a poor job of imitating him, but he’s a big vocal hero. Brian. John & Paul obviously. Dylan. Joni Mitchell. Randy Newman. Paul Simon. If I had to pick one single influence that stands out it would probably be Joni. Sailing is done in a modal, and I do a lot of things in modal tunings, and that all came from Joni.
Your first album broke with a number two hit and then “Sailing” took you from obscurity to international super stardom virtually overnight. What was that ride like?
Well I was in my early 30s, so I was on the edge of giving myself six more months, and I was going to give it up. Because I’d beaten the bushes for quite awhile. I had sent tapes to Warners and had gotten interest, but no one had been committal. I had a son who was pretty young at that point, and (I was) newly married. And I started looking at the realities of it. I played cover music to make a living. I didn’t really ever play my original music out too much. But when it all happened it was so overnight… I was just amazed to get a deal, and we were hoping to have an album that could maybe do well enough to where Warners would keep us around and maybe at the third record, we’d have a single. So when all that happened it was very overwhelming.
You had no idea that things would get that big?
No. When the record popped, no idea at all. I was amazed at that success. And then some of the things that happened like the awards and stuff. I was completely blown away because I would have never imagined that a new artist could get that kind of favor from the Academy. So it was a bit of an out of body thing. Granted, if I had a choice, would I have rather had a career like Peter Gabriel’s or Sting’s or somebody that grows over a long period of years and sustains like they have? I’d prefer that as opposed to the sort of meteoric curve of my career. But I’ll take it as it comes. That first album gave me a launching pad where at least most people know my name. I was able to make more records and continue doing what I love to do, and you know, for the most part, I hear my music in grocery stores and people do know who I am, and I continue to tour so it’s great. Given the options, I wouldn’t change a thing.
You co-wrote “Arthur’s Theme” with Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager, and Peter Allen, fairly soon after your debut album came out. Tell us about suddenly being in the middle of that much talent.
That was Phase 2 of just being swept along. The whole thing is almost like being at Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. I had been asked to do (Arthur) by the picture company, to actually score it and everything, and then the director Steven Gordon who wrote the script as well, said, “Well look, you know, he’s never done any scoring or anything.” So they took it away from me and gave it to Burt, which is totally understandable because I hadn’t scored anything. But it didn’t bother me that they took it away because it was something I wasn’t expecting anyway. So then Burt and Carole called me about working on the title. It wasn’t that unusual. I was the new kid in town. I’d just won a Grammy. So I mean who else would they have? It was still an incredible honor to sit at the table with Burt Bacharach, and Carole as well, but certainly Burt is the greatest pop song writer of the century. He’s an unbelievably talented guy. And a huge hero of mine. I love (Bacharach and Hal David’s) material because the lyrics hold up to the music as well. So it was very heady and exciting to sit with him. I went to his house at like midnight, this fancy place in Beverly Hills… It was just being in the chocolate factory. Just overwhelming, and I was trying to just take it all in and keep my wits about me as we wrote because I’m not a big collaborator. I’ve never really collaborated very much on my material. It’s always been material that I’ve written and then people have come and collaborated with me, but in the case of Burt, when you work with somebody that strong, you’re the understudy, and you’re just trying to hang on for dear life. But it was a really wonderful thing, and we wrote another tune for the Olympics, a swimming theme. It’s interesting because “Arthur” has much more of a Burt Bacharach kind of feel so Burt certainly deserves most of the credit for that. Whereas “Chance for Heaven,” the swimming theme we wrote, was more of a “Sailing”-ish kind of thing. But to anybody who studies my material and knows the body of my work, “Arthur” is really a fish out of water. It’s not typically what I do.
Do you remember the very first song you wrote?
Yeah. It was called “Weird Street”. It was sort of a “Walk Don’t Run” progression. And it was about a Haunted House or something. Somewhere about 14 or something I wrote it. You know, I was talking to my daughter the other day about writing because she’s starting to write songs. I said, “You just need to do it and do it a lot because the first songs I wrote weren’t very good, but you gotta start somewhere.” I wrote another song called “Littleton Bluebird”. I think melodically they’re actually okay. But lyrically, they’re just fairly inane. They just don’t really make much sense. Music is easier to do. Lyrics are very hard to do well.
When you’re writing a song does melody lead the lyrics or do the lyrics lead the melody?
For me, melody always leads first. I don’t really write all the time. But because I’m a singer, I’m always singing along and the melodies are always fairly quickly and easily established. Sometimes a lyric will jump out, or a piece of a lyric, so you can get an idea for the song, but very, very rarely do I get a lyric first and write music to it.
You’ve written some incredibly melodic music over the last 25 years. What’s your take on what some would say is pop music’s harsher turn toward rhythm and away from melody?
I think everything’s cyclical to a degree. I think you know the youth music has always tried to express a certain bit of angst with their situation, and certainly the youth situation, at this point, is a lot more dismal than it was when we were dealing with the Vietnam War and all that. The world’s in a pretty f----- up place. I have kids with Jan who are 15 and 13?and I worry greatly for them. Because we’re not handing them a world that’s a very secure place. I think they try to express their angst, and it’s a more angst-filled time. But you know… when (my parents) heard Hendrix coming out of my bedroom it sounded pretty angry and pretty violent and pretty aggressive. So I guess to a degree it’s relative.
There’s been so many changes with technology allowing people to make music who haven’t really taken the time to learn an instrument. There’s a technological facility there where people can create and be creative without really having much facility on an instrument. And I’m still one these guys who says, “If you can’t play it on an acoustic guitar or a grand piano then it’s not a song.” But that’s kind of old school. I sound like a bitter fart! But there’s that and then also MTV I think really destroyed the culture because when you’ve got a video telling kids what the song’s about and painting the image in their head rather than them just going to a place and having the music and lyrics take them there, then you’ve got problems. And I think it basically destroyed the culture. I think MTV put a huge dent in the songwriting craft. I’m just glad that MTV wasn’t around to obscure the lyrical landscape of Joni Mitchell because I learned and grew so much from listening to her lyrics and the pictures and the stories they painted for me, the continual discovery and self-discovery within her lyrics. The same is true of Dylan. I still listen to Dylan’s music now, and I’ll stumble onto something, a little twist or something, that I didn’t realize before. Kind of a new awakening. I think if you’re really a fan, you follow that journey wherever it leads, and that’s one of the things I miss now about the business. I bought every Steely Dan record, every Jackson Browne record, every Joni Mitchell record, and people don’t do that anymore. My daughter is 13. She’s a big Avril Lavigne fan one day and then Avril Lavigne is out of favor and she’s on to Jessica Simpson or Ashlee Simpson or whatever. So MTV teaches them this instant gratification, and they don’t stay with artists for a whole period, and that’s why I think it’s very hard now for an artist to sustain. In fact, I’m so pleased to see Green Day (doing well). They made a great record. It’s an amazing accomplishment that they had this huge initial success and then they disappeared, and then they’re back. It’s hard to do.
Do you see the shift to MP3 and their focus on single songs vs. albums
as part of that?
Sure. One of the things I feel bad about the whole thing with MP3s is the quality. We were at 16-bit 44.1 on CDs, and I expected to go forward not backward. Even at 360 kbps, you’re not at the quality of CDs. So I think we’re going to see that jump up again. Obviously, they’re going to come up with some type of higher speed downloading and we’ll hopefully get something that’s even better than a CD. But you’re right: the whole album concept has gone by the wayside. For someone like me, it’s kind of good because I have seven albums, four of which are out of print. So I’m in the process of working with i-Tunes to get my entire catalog on-line. And that will be great because I can’t sell enough records to justify myself or the labels that own the record to print up all these CDs and get them out there and try to distribute them. For me, I can get all my music up on Napster and Rhapsody and i-Tunes, and maybe do some business. And I’m actually comfortable with people doing their own discography and collections because I don’t have any concept albums per se. But for things like The Wall and Dark Side of the Moon. Sgt. Pepper. It’s a little weird.
Some artists tend to insulate themselves from current music. They almost don’t want the influences or don’t want to know what’s going on out there. Some do. Where do you fall on that spectrum?
Probably kind of more in the middle. I listen to a lot of NPR and talk radio. But I also listen to (KCRW’s adult album alternative program) Morning Becomes Eclectic. I do listen to a lot of the current radio stations because my kids do. Although my daughter will listen to oldies as much as she listens to other things. But I do because you’ll hear things that are interesting. I hear hits on the radio that sometimes are just ear candy, but sometimes there’s substance, and there’s good stuff.
Who do you like that you’ve heard recently?
Well, I think the new Green Day record definitely has some interesting things on it. Some of it’s kind of raucous for me. Darkness is a really interesting rock band. I think they’re pretty honest.
Which of your songs is the one are your most proud of?
I suppose “Sailing” is. Someone was kind enough to point out that “Sailing” was a song that was interesting because it was kind of an artistic song that was also a hit. And they were being very complimentary in saying that that’s hard to do. And I think that’s probably true. It’s not a song I would guess would be a hit. In fact, when Warners wanted to bring it as a single, I was kind of against that because I thought it was too dark and moody. But the song is an introspective artistic song, and it did seem to touch people on a large scale so I’m pretty pleased with it. It’s a song that goes a lot of places. I had the original part of the song for two years before I came up with the bridge. Since the song is in such a linear modality, I knew it needed to lift and go somewhere else. It just took me a long time to come up a bridge that goes through a bunch of key changes. You know, I’ve made seven albums and the later ones like “Rocking in Avalon,” my last album, they’re like my littlest kids. When you have kids the baby is always going to get the most attention and the most pats on the head, so I’m kind of closest and most drawn to those songs, and I play a lot of those songs currently in the show.
How did you find out about Elixir Strings?
Through Tom Anderson. I’m a Tom Anderson endorsee. I’ve played Tom’s guitars for years and years. And so Tom originally was using SITs, and I was working with SIT. Tom changed to Elixirs and hooked me up, and it was great. Tom is such a fastidious artisan that I would follow his lead anywhere. He does a lot of research so if he says they’re great, they’re great. And they are. Then of course, I’m also a Taylor endorsee, and they use Elixirs as well. There are a lot of good strings out there, but the thing that Elixirs have going for them is they tend to stay very even. You put them on the guitar and they tend to stay that way for ten days to two weeks, which, when you’re on the road a lot like I am, is kind of nice. I used to have to change strings every night. These usually go four or five shows for me. They’re pretty much taking over the world. I feel sorry for everyone else! It used to be Ernie Ball or GHS had the electric thing together and then Dean Markely or other people would have the acoustic thing together, and that’s the thing about Elixir: They’re doing both things well. So everybody else is going to be screwed. They’re kind of like Microsoft. I think they’ll probably just end up taking over. They’ve got a good thing going. Their reputation is very solid. They’ve got all these real serious guitar builders endorsing them so I don’t see that anybody else can really survive. They’re making a great product. It’s very consistent. When I used to use other strings a lot of the time you’d put on a set, and you’d find a dead one here or there. You’d have to pull out another set to get a full active live set of strings. I don’t find that with Elixirs. The quality control is real good.
What are your guitars of choice these days?
I have a lot of Taylors that I use primarily to play live because they’re really stable guitars, and they’re really really well made. For recording, I do use the Taylors some, but I have an old Martin MC28, which is kind of a strange cutaway egg-shaped sound hole guitar that I’ve just had for years and years. One of those old guitars that sounds great. Electric guitar-wise, I play Andersons. As I’ve said, I’ve got a lot of Tom’s guitars. But I’m still looking for that elusive acoustic guitar of my dreams. I’ve had a lot of Martins over the years that have been wonderful, but because they were pre-truss rod, I had too many problems with the action going south. I had to sell them. The action would get so hot I’d have to shave bridges and reset necks. I bought an Olsen recently, which a friend of mine said James Taylor had spoken real strongly of, and it was an amazing guitar, but the neck was wide and thin, which for James’ hands is great, but I have short fingers and a big palm so it didn’t work well for me. But I’m still looking for something.
You were pretty busy in the 90s, releasing three records. Are you planning a return to that kind of output or are you taking it easier these days?
I’m working on songs slowly. It takes me four or five years to actually do a record, especially the lyrics. But I’m working slowly on that. I’m trying to work on a Christmas record. I’ve been threatening to do that for years! I’m also working on some tracks with my daughter. She’s 13, and she’s got a great voice. So we’re trying to work on a few tracks to maybe see about shopping a deal for her. And I’m also working with my son, getting him into Pro Tools and guitar. For a long time, I kind of segregated the duality of my life, but I’m letting it cross over now and get more involved in my kids. Anything is possible. But I’ve made seven records and the last three or four have not done very well financially. So you have to make them purely for your soul. Not that that’s not a good enough reason, but right now I’m (mostly) touring. I do about 70 dates a year. And I enjoy that. I’m spending time with the kids, and I’m going to slowly make another record, but there are other things on the burner in front. I couldn’t be happier. I’ve been so blessed to have had the success that I’ve had, that it’s enabled me to do what I do, and sustain it. I’m having a lot of fun with it.