Christopher Cross at the 1981 GRAMMY Awards
Photo by Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images
Soon I Will Be Free: Christopher Cross' Self-Titled Album Hits 40 & Gains A New Legion Of Fans
Coming up on the outskirts of the music scene in Austin, Tex., GRAMMY winner Christopher Cross spent the '70s gigging around locally in cover bands, playing the music of the Eagles, the Beatles and Billy Joel on a nightly basis on the bar circuit.
By day, however, this young father would use naptime for his son as an opportunity to pen songs like "Sailing," a song that helped Cross rocket up the pop charts as at the turn of the decade 40 years ago as one of the four Top 20 hit singles contained within the scope of his classic eponymous debut, released during the holiday season of '79.
"I think disco and rock was fading," Cross told music journalist Gary James in an interview for ClassicBands.com. "I think pop was ready to make a 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."
Indeed it was a bit of kismet that led Cross to session cat Michael Omartian, who had been cutting his own teeth as a producer in the '70s working on everything from the soundtrack to "Young Frankenstein" to the seriously underrated Dion studio LP Streetheart to albums by Cher and Dionne Warwick and employing a who's who of session musicians at the time. Reading the liner notes and following the path of those who performed on his favorite pop albums was what helped lead acclaimed keyboardist Roger Joseph Manning Jr., a founding member of the legendary Los Angeles alt-pop group Jellyfish who is currently a key part of Beck's touring band, directly to that first Christopher Cross record.
"I remember when I was really getting into stuff like Linda Ronstadt, Chicago and Fleetwood Mac around the same time," Manning explained to the Recording Academy. "I would read the credits as a young keyboard player and I was so fascinated by all the people who played on those records. And I would start seeing their names over and over again, people like Steve Gadd, the Porcaro Brothers, Leland Sklar. I began to see this succession of names and I think my mom had bought the Christopher Cross record; we got it through Columbia House, and I knew the name Michael Omartian because he had played on a bunch of stuff already. He came up in the Christian music scene and then became an ace session guy here in L.A. I remember being so fascinated by all of that, and I liked the fact that Michael McDonald was singing on it, because I was on the same Doobie Brothers crest as everyone else, as it was so keyboard-friendly."
The end of 1979, of course, saw our country merely limping into 1980, mired by a previous decade of crippling economic stagflation and the perilous early stages of the Iran Hostage Crisis that would come to define the immediate era. And while many music fans in this period had already established their identities within their own sonic tribes, be it punk or New Wave or the nascent stages of hardcore, hip-hop and thrash metal, for the average radio-listening commuter, the infectious harmonies of "Say You Are Mine" and "Ride Like The Wind" provided a sense of sophisticated cool that was a calming alternative to the alternative.
"Michael Omartian, who produced me for Warners, was in Steely Dan and knew a lot of musicians like Larry Carlton and Michael McDonald and invited them down when he was working with me," Cross told James. "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."
"There's something so perfectly melancholy about Christopher Cross’s voice," explains musician and non-fiction author Karen Pittelman, whose group Karen & The Sorrows is breaking barriers for queer country music as fervently as Lil Nas X and Brandi Carlile combined. "I remember sitting in my mom’s car as a little kid, listening to 'Never Be the Same,' and feeling swept away by some kind of wistful nostalgia and strangely upbeat grief. Of course, at that age, I knew nothing about any of that, but the music was still able to make me feel it. Even in a song like 'Sailing', there’s such a deep sadness to his voice underneath all that shimmer. After all, sailing may help him escape, but I can’t help wondering why he needs to escape so badly."
Perhaps one of the most astounding revivals in this new young century—at least as far as music is concerned—is just how far we've come in terms of our collective perception of such icons of "soft rock" or "yacht rock" or whatever you want to call it in these last 40 years. The Christopher Cross album would spend 1980 building up steam in terms of chart success and massive radio play that lead up to the guitarist's game-changing victory at the 1981 GRAMMYs, where he remains the sole grand slam champion for sweeping all five categories in the general field, including Record Of The Year ("Sailing"), Album Of The Year (Christopher Cross), Song Of The Year ("Sailing"), and Best New Artist. That kind of shine also led to many detractors, including rock critics at the time turning their poison pens on his efforts, which also went 5x platinum, as of today.
"They always hated me," Cross told James about Rolling Stone, in particular. "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."
The funny thing, however, is that 40 years later, that distinctive green cover with the pink flamingo gracing its centerpoint has retroactively grown in acclaim, as more and more modern music acts look towards the supple, creamy grooves of soft rock favorites like Cross, Little River Band, Andrew Gold and Boz Scaggs for sonic inspiration. From major indie-pop acts like Toro Y Moi, Vampire Weekend and Drugdealer to the leftfield swagger of such artful West Coast jazz-hop acts as Thundercat and Dâm-Funk, the "yacht rock" sound is, seemingly for the first time, outpacing the other genre influencers of its era.
"What's terribly fascinating for me is that there have always been nostalgia crazes, but I never thought there would ever be one for yacht rock," admits Manning. "Its wild to think of how popular it is now and how business generating. I mean, obviously people will remember all kinds of movements so I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise to see some nostalgia over the easy rock stylings of that time, be it Steely Dan or the Doobie Brothers, Pablo Cruise or whatever. But it's gotten so large and it's such a money-generating thing now. I've got friends in bands where all they do is devote full businesses as yacht rock cover bands. And it really blows my mind, because there are moments of that scene, like any scene; disco or whatever, that I enjoyed but a lot of those styles were the whole reason why we all played punk rock to begin with. We were fed up and tired of AM radio, which is what our parents were tapping the steering wheel to at the time. We wanted our own sound, and England and places in the states like Cleveland and New York City provided that for us. But here we are, years later, and guys like Michael McDonald, Christopher Cross and Daryl Hall are doing just fine. They're probably as big a business as ever."
Pittelman, meanwhile, is glad to see the overall renewal of appreciation for Cross' musicianship.
"I’m a fan of both yacht rock and '90s country for similar reasons: I love really well-produced, carefully crafted music," she tells the Recording Academy. "People also criticize both those eras for similar reasons. They conflate smoothness and polish with a lack of authenticity. But I would argue that the rawest, least-produced song isn’t necessarily any more authentic. All art has to be constructed one way or another, and polish or lack of polish are just different choices. What makes something authentic is the truth of the feeling and the care that you put into making it. You can certainly spend countless hours in the studio and still create garbage. You can also make music that’s authentic but awful! But the best musicians and producers use the studio to make something that’s both beautifully polished and deeply felt. And I think a lot of the songs on Christopher Cross' first album are exactly that."
In the grander scheme, it only took 40 years for music to catch up with the realization behind why Christopher Cross deservedly bested Pink Floyd's The Wall as Album Of The Year at the 23rd Annual GRAMMY Awards. But for lifelong fans of the record like Manning, the cognizance of its enduring appeal has been at the forefront the whole time.
"A lot of the songwriters of the '70s, they had all grown up with jazz. Those audiences were raised within a very sophisticated time for pop music," he reflects. "You had Burt Bacharach and Richard Carpenter making hit records for Middle America, but it was all very harmonically advanced stuff. I remember when I first heard 'Sailing,' I was so intrigued by the guitar chord progressions, they were very moody to me. I love when music makes me feel a certain way, viscerally, in my stomach. The Beach Boys did that a lot. Chicago as well. And this first Christopher Cross record really, really intrigued me in that regard all the same."