October 24, 2019

An Ode to Christopher Cross: Musician Who's Also One of Yacht Rock's Best Crooners

For today's post, it's necessary to properly set the scene: I'll begin in the 1970's. During early-to-late 1970's, disco dominated much of the U.S. popular music scene. At the time, Donna Summer and Gloria Gaynor were all at the top of the charts. In 1978, the "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack was named Album of the Year. An event that has the been inaccurately referred to as the "death of disco" better known as the Disco Demolition which took place in Chicago's Comiskey Park, in reality, the story was always more nuanced than that. Steve Dahl, was then a 24-year-old DJ who was involved with that Disco Demolition event in Comiskey Park, was pissed off about being fired from a radio station that he worked for when it changed formats to all-disco. But even he disputes the importance of the Comiskey Park event, calling those who suggest that event was the official death of disco revisionist history. However, the Chicago Disco Demolition event was also understood to be a not-so-subtle attack against disco's earliest adopters: blacks, Latinos and gays, and each group faced fairly widespread discrimination anyway.

Disco Demolition at Chicago's Comiskey Park Marked a Time of Transition

The Comiskey Park event wasn't the death of disco so much as it was a marker of a period of musical transition.

Think about it: around 1977 when "Saturday Night Fever" finally hit the box office, a group of Baby Boomers were in their mid-to-late twenties, and they still wanted to go out and party. They patronized dance clubs and disco music was one of their favorite genres. But they'd already been doing that for a good number of years, and Hollywood was late to the game when "Saturday Night Fever" was even released. By the end of the decade, going out all night, boozing it up at discos and looking for one-night-stands/hookups was already starting to fall out of favor. Many Boomers were simply getting older, and they now they had families to support. It was hardly a coordinated, nationwide effort to destroy a musical genre. By 1979, disco and funk were starting to fade. At the same time, the Baby Boomers who just a few years earlier were key were also becoming less important to record sales. Their era of dominating popular music was reaching its natural end.

As noted, a shift in musical tastes was happening. Consider the Grammy Award winners in the years before (during) and after. It was never all-disco, before or after. For example, in 1977, Debbie Boone won two Grammys as Best New Artist of the Year, and for Song of the Year for the sappy song "You Light Up My Life". She was joined by Barbra Streisand for the "Theme From A Star Is Born (Evergreen)" that year. Neither artist resembled disco (although Streisand's record label would later push her into disco with several collaborations with Barry Gibb including "Guilty", "What Kind of Fool", the Gibb-written solo "Woman in Love", and another duette with disco diva Donna Summer "No More Tears". Ms. Streisand has gone on the record saying that none of those tracks are ones she is particularly fond of and she rarely performs them in concert, although they were all big [money-making] chart-toppers for her at the time). Beyond those, The Eagles' "Hotel California" won Record of the Year in 1977, while Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" took home the Grammy for 1977 Album of the Year. The following year, Billy Joel won the Grammy for Record of the Year, and he also won several more next year, too. Some, although certainly not all, of these winners could arguably fall into the musical genre now known as Yacht Rock.

What is Yacht Rock?
If you are unfamiliar with the term, the term "Yacht Rock" is a type of soft rock that supposedly emanated from Southern California between 1976 and 1984. In the late 1970's and early 1980's, musical artists like Kenny Loggins, Michael McDonald, the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan, Toto, Hall and Oates, and dozens of others regularly popped up on each other's records, creating a golden era of smooth-music collaboration.

On June 26, 2005, an internet phenomenon was born. In 12 short but memorable episodes — first via the the short-film series Channel 101 and then online — JD Ryznar, Hunter Stair, Dave Lyons, Lane Farnham and their friends redefined an era and coined a term for the sultry croonings of McDonald, Fagen, et al.: "Yacht Rock." http://www.yachtrock.com/ -- now known as the Beyond Yacht Rock podcast.

As "Hollywood" Steve might say, these guys docked a fleet of remarkable hits. This is the story of Yacht Rock, told from stem to stern — a reimagining of a bygone soft-rock renaissance, courtesy of hipsters with fake mustaches, impeccable record collections and a love of smoothness. Long may it sail.

A very short NPR story about Yacht Rock can be listened to below, or by visiting https://www.npr.org/sections/world-cafe/2017/03/15/520254333/that-70s-week-yacht-rock.

The term Yacht Rock was coined to suggest a kind of smooth, mellow "soft rock" music that early yuppies likely enjoyed while sipping champagne and snorting cocaine on their yachts at the time. They have several criteria used for a song classified as such, although the label is more tongue-in-cheek than reality, but it was also a term for a genre which existed but was largely undefined, yet was still taking over the radio airwaves at the time. In my mind (and has been acknowledged by many others, including those guys), perhaps no one is a better representative of that musical genre than Christopher Cross.

Christopher Cross Swept the 1980 Grammy Awards

Christopher Cross in 2014
In 1978, a musician, singer/songwriter from San Antonio, Texas landed a solo contract with Warner Bros. Records. (These days, he calls the funky Texas capital city Austin home). A self-described "Army brat", Cross is the son of a U.S. Army pediatrician stationed at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, DC in the mid-1950's, acting as physician for President Dwight Eisenhower's grandchildren.

The young Mr. Cross managed to land a record with Warner Brothers in 1978. In 1979, Christopher Cross (whose birth name was Christopher Charles Geppert) released his first, self-named solo album. The following year, Cross was nominated for six awards and he walked away with a stunning five (5) Grammy Awards, including each of the "Big Four" awards: album, record and song of the year, plus best new artist. He was the first person (and so far, ever) to win so many awards in a single evening.

Despite his quest during the 1970's to be signed with a major record label, Christopher Cross began with rather modest ambitions. He hoped his first album would sell 50,000 copies, enough for Warner Bros. to let him make a second album.

"I was hoping, maybe three albums down the stream, I could get something on the radio," Cross said. "So, when all that Grammy stuff happened, it took everybody by surprise."

Catching a Wave

Christopher Cross says that he caught a wave of change in pop music at the perfect time. Lightning struck again for him the following year, in 1981. Cross' bittersweet theme song for the hit movie "Arthur" reached No 1. "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)" (from the movie "Arthur" which starred the late British actor Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli) also won an Oscar and a Golden Globe that year. Cross deserved all of the awards, too.

Although not by design, Christopher Cross arguably embodied (and pioneered) a musical genre now popularly referred to as Yacht Rock, and he and his music was decidedly not disco. But it was very popular and was a very refreshing change from the types of music that dominated the airwaves just a few years earlier, so people bought it -- lots of it. But, not surprisingly, it didn't last forever. It seldom does.

As The Advocate (see HERE) wrote about him (I should acknowledge that Christopher Cross is definitely not gay, but his music attracted a very widespread audience, including many gays and lesbians), he thought he had good odds of winning one Grammy.

He said: "I'd been told that I had a good shot at winning best new artist," Cross said. "Harry Belafonte and Herb Alpert presented that award to me. That was surreal. I went back to my seat, feeling content for the evening, ready to watch the show. And then, bang."

Cross won four more Grammys that night, including song of the year and album of the year.

"It was an out-of-body experience," he said. "We never imagined beating Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra and all these big artists."

Billboard magazine suggested (see the article at https://www.billboard.com/articles/news/awards/8527732/christopher-cross-grammy-sweep-billie-eilish for more) that his 1980 sweep at the Grammys may have triggered a backlash. Billboard wrote:

"It just may have been the worst thing that could have happened to Cross. If he had just won one or two awards, few would have paid much notice. If he'd won best new artist, he would have beaten critics' faves Pretenders, but critics were used to having their favorites lose in that category. Elvis Costello had lost to A Taste of Honey two years earlier. John Prine and Eagles lost to America in 1972. Elton John lost to Carpenters in 1970.

But Cross' undoing won everything. His eponymous debut album beat Pink Floyd's The Wall and Barbra Streisand's Guilty for album of the year. His serene ballad "Sailing" beat Frank Sinatra's "Theme from New York New York" in three categories -- record and song of the year and best arrangement accompanying vocalist(s).

The sweep practically invited people to say, "Oh, he's not that good." Instead of bringing people to his side, the sweep turned many people off. Cross was a talented pop artist -- not a groundbreaking artist, but a skilled hit-maker, the kind who might have had a solid, five-year run of hits.

The Grammy sweep may have actually shortened his [music] career. "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do," which he co-wrote with Burt Bacharach, Carole Bayer Sager and Peter Allen, topped the Hot 100 eight months after the Grammy sweep. It won an Oscar and brought Cross three more Grammy nominations (but no wins). Cross had two more top 20 hits, "All Right" and "Think of Laura," from his sophomore album, Another Page. But even a reunion with Bacharach and Sager to co-write the song "A Chance for Heaven," the swimming theme from the 1984 Summer Olympics in L.A., didn't reverse his flagging momentum. He hasn't appeared on the Hot 100 since 1985.

On August 31, 2014, CBS Sunday Morning (see https://www.cbsnews.com/news/christopher-cross-sails-back-with-a-new-album/ for more) offered this about Christopher Cross:

Remember Christopher Cross? In the early 1980's, his brand of silky-soft rock sailed up the charts. His songs were unavoidable on FM radio (as a side note: that soft-rock genre was commonly played in dentists' offices, and I vividly recall hearing it under the influence of nitrous oxide) -- and then as quickly as he burst on the scene, he seemed to vanish from it.

CBS Sunday Morning also let him share a funny story about an interaction he had with a TSA agent.

"I was going through TSA -- this has been a year, or maybe two years ago," Cross recalled. "And a woman took my boarding pass. And she said, 'Oh, Christopher Cross, there used to be a singer named that! He passed away! But he was a great singer.'

You can catch that entertaining video interview below, or by visiting https://www.cbs.com/shows/video/673jsTFk37BBHoWT1dxSWrdkuV8tWquy/:

In the end, and with the benefit of hindsight, there's nothing Christopher Cross would do differently. He's continued to release music since 1980, and while none have swept the Grammy's since then, he still believes he's been very lucky.

Christopher Cross credits a lot of his incredible success to timing.

"There were many great artists back then who didn’t get a chance to be heard," he said. "I worked hard and I was talented, but I also was lucky. People were ready for some pop music. It was a perfect storm."

He also seems very humble, and not bitter he did not enjoy decades more commercial success in music. Now at age 68, he is content. As noted, today he lives in the eclectic capital city of Texas, Austin. Just as the Austin Independent Business Alliance adopted the slogan "Keep Austin Weird" to promote small businesses in Austin, Mr. Cross has no regrets about how his career has gone. Instead, he seems grateful he's had the opportunity. If that perspective doesn't deserve to enjoy sailing on a yacht, perhaps nothing does!

Christopher Cross' own website has a Spotify playlist of his hits which can be listened to at https://www.christophercross.com/ -- I won't try to embed it here, since it seems to come and go, but the link to the Spotify playlist can be visited at https://open.spotify.com/playlist/7y60oSM7fpOM1zLeO6upo6. His classic, Grammy-winning song "Sailing" can be listened to here, or by visiting https://youtu.be/MEO6gYCFbr0:


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