Christopher Cross reflects on historic Grammy sweep: 'Whether I did it again or not isn't as important as the fact that I did it once'

Christopher Cross poses with a Grammy Award (one of several for his song
Christopher Cross poses with a Grammy Award (one of several for his song "Sailing") in 1981. (Photo: Allan Tannenbaum/Getty Images)

Forty years ago, at the 23rd Annual Grammy Awards, singer-songwriter Christopher Cross made history when he became the first artist to win Album, Record, and Song of the Year, as well as Best New Artist, during a single ceremony. And Cross was the only artist to achieve that feat until last year, when Billie Eilish pulled off her own “Big Four” Grammys sweep.

It was an achievement beyond most musicians’ wildest dreams. But the humble Cross, who not long before releasing his 5 million-selling debut album had been playing small clubs, insists to Yahoo Entertainment: “It wasn’t ever my dream. You don't have those kind of expectations unless you're just an egomaniac. My dream was just to get a record deal, and then I’d hoped to sell 50,000 copies, which I heard was the breakeven point so a label wouldn't drop you. And then you’d get to make another record. And if I could do that a few times, maybe by my third record, I would come up with a single that could be on the radio, and maybe I'd have some success. That was my dream. So, all this was way beyond my dream. I never was pompous enough to say, ‘I'm going to win a Grammy.’ I mean, you just don't think some new kid is going to win against these people, you know?”

While Cross was already 30 years old in 1981 — much older than the teenage Eilish at the time of her big Grammy night — he was definitely the “new kid” at that year’s Grammy Awards, beating out the likes of Pink Floyd, Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb, and Billy Joel in the Album of the Year category, Cross’s final and most surprising victory of the night. “There was talk around the watercooler that I might win Best New Artist, that I had a very good shot at that, and that's what my PR people were ready to sort of launch on,” Cross recalls. “So when I won that award, I came back to my seat and I was a happy clam. I was ready to just sit there and to just enjoy the night. I don't think any people at Warner Bros. thought there would be anything more. And so, I think that everybody was completely shocked. And it was just overwhelming.

“In fact, when we got to the Album of the Year, Barbra Streisand and Barry Gibb were up for Guilty, and they were standing right over there [in the stage wings]. We had just performed and we were standing backstage waiting for the last award to be announced, and the producer said, ‘Rather than go back to your seats, just go stand over here.’ And we were not used to this whole thing, in tuxedos, hanging around with these kinds of people. And I remember Barry and Barbra were there, and I got the sense that people thought they were going to win. When they announced the Album of the Year, I think that people were really, really shocked — including them.”

Regardless of whether or not Billy Joel, who was nominated for Glass Houses, was shocked, Cross fondly recalls Joel’s reaction to the surprise result — and how Joel’s graciousness helped Cross win over the skeptical Grammy audience. “I remember seeing Billy Joel in the front row, and I remember he stood up. And then everyone stood up, because Billy stood up. I think people were torn, because it was like, ‘Who is this kid? He's nobody!’ But Billy being a songwriter, he stood up, and then people kind of looked around and thought, ‘I guess we better stand up too.’ And I got a standing ovation, thanks to Billy Joel.”

Cross recalls the press being kind to him at the time, embracing his underdog/Cinderella story. But that narrative has since been nastily rewritten, perpetrating a fallacy that his Grammy sweep was a career curse and that he immediately vanished afterwards. While Cross’s supposed sophomore-slump album, 1983’s Another Page, only sold a fraction of what Christopher Cross sold, it did yield a top 10 hit, the General Hospital-popularized “Think of Laura.” And post-Grammys, Cross even made it halfway to EGOT status, when he won the Best Song Oscar for his Arthur theme “The Best That You Can Do” in 1982. Cross admits he was much more intimidated to perform at the Academy Awards than at the Grammys, since that was “completely another world. … I remember when I was ready to go out and sing, Bette Midler was there because she was going to present an award, and I said to her, ‘You're so used to doing this. I'm just incredibly nervous. I don't do this kind of thing!’ And she said, ‘Don't worry about it. It's just you, the mic… and 70 million people!’ And she sent me up my way. So, that's one of those things where I'd love to go back and do that today, because I would do it much better. But you know what? It was a moment, I did it — and then we won.”

Cross was also nominated for an Emmy in 1988 for his Growing Pains theme, and he has recorded enough material over the years to comprise a new 13-disc boxed set. But the “Christopher Cross curse” storyline has become so common that the singer-songwriter admits he was leery of even doing this Yahoo interview. “The press is very vampiric,” says Cross, who is understandably not a fan of “where are they now?”-style hit pieces. “This one guy I interviewed with said to me, ‘It's sort of understood among the press that the two darkest days in the Grammys were you and Milli Vanilli.’ I was pretty taken aback! That was a moment where I decided, ‘I cannot let this stuff get to me, because if I do, it'll get the best of me.’”

However, Cross confesses, “There was probably a day when I would deny all this stuff about the ‘curse’ and all that. I think what I've come to realize is it's a balance. Yes, it's a curse, but it's also a blessing. … I think there's some truth to the fact that it's a lot of pressure, the expectation that people have of what someone like myself, or possibly Billie Eilish, is going to do next. My guess would be — probably like with me — no matter what Billie does, it'll always be compared to her first record: ‘Boy, wasn't that a great record? This second record is good, but it's not as good as that!’ But, that’s just what you live with.”

Cross reached out to Eilish last year to congratulate her after she tied his Grammy record, but doesn’t seem to harbor hard feelings that he never heard back from her camp. “But I will say one thing that sounds a little bitter — though I don't mean it as bitter as much as this is interesting,” he begins. “I haven't been back to the Grammys since the year Michael [Jackson] won [in 1984]. But I thought it would have been sort of fun to have me come present the Best New Artist award [last year] at my 40th anniversary [of the 1980 debut album]. I'm just saying that the Grammys are kind of like, ‘What have you done for me lately?’ If I was producing the Grammys, I would've thought this might be kind of fun. Anyway, I did send them a note, and I didn't hear anything back. But that's OK.”

Part of the generally accepted narrative regarding the decline of Cross’s commercial success is that MTV debuted in August 1981, roughly six months after his big Grammy night, and Cross — an old-fashioned songsmith raised on Joni Mitchell, Tom Waits, and Randy Newman — wasn’t willing to get on board. While Cross did hire a young David Fincher, who went on to become one of the most successful and acclaimed music video and film directors of all time, to direct one of his ‘80s videos, “Charm the Snake,” he doesn’t deny that he was largely resistant to the MTV phenomenon, and still is.

“I never saw myself as a visual person. I never had any interest in that visual media. And I don't look like the guys in A-ha. I'm not an actor,” Cross chuckles. “I'll be honest with you: Video killed the radio star. I grew up listening to vinyl, listening to Joni, and it's always been about the songs for me. To me, it obscures the lyrical landscape to put all that to video, to come up with some meaningless montage of crap. It wasn't really the club that I grew up wanting to be in.”

Cross is self-deprecating throughout his Yahoo interview, joking about a question about him recently stumping some young Jeopardy! contestants, or a strange airport conversation when “a woman took my boarding pass and said, ‘Oh, Christopher Cross. There used to be a singer named that, and he was great. He passed away a few years ago.’” He also is aware that most laypeople know him as “that guy that did ‘Sailing,’” though he concedes, “If somebody asks me what's my best song, I will say it's probably ‘Sailing.’”

Cross’s overall catalog did experience a 1,000 percent sales/streaming spike last year. But this came under the worst circumstances, because the boost was the sympathetic public’s reaction to news that Cross had contracted the coronavirus — and then, as a complication, had developed Guillain-Barré Syndrome, a rare nervous system disorder that left him paralyzed and fighting for his life for 10 “very touch-and-go” days in the ICU exactly a year ago. “I was the second person in the world to contract [GBS] from COVID. It's just a piece of real bad luck,” Cross says.

“Those 10 days [in the hospital] were the worst of my life, not knowing if I was going to live. And those 10 days were very dark, because I was alone. No one could visit me. I was alone through the whole thing. And then when I got out, I trying to figure out how to live life in a wheelchair,” Cross continues. “It took a long time and a lot of physical therapy to get to where I could walk with a walker, and then with a cane, and I don't know how much better I'll get. It's been a year. This leg weakness that I have will probably be around forever. I can't climb stairs and stuff like that. But I can play guitar again, and it never affected my voice.”

Cross has spent the last few months trying to raise COVID awareness, which he admits was a major reason why he agreed to this interview in the first place. He knows that had more people had been aware of the serious COVID threat back when he was exposed to the virus while on tour with Pat Benatar in early March 2020, circumstances for himself — and, of course, for the entire world — would be very different now, one full year later.

“None of us knew. Nobody on the plane had masks, nobody knew anything. And that's thanks to the Trump administration. I certainly blame my circumstances on Trump, and probably at least half the deaths that we've had of the 500,000 are on his head,” says Cross, whose first performance after his COVID/GBS battle was for a virtual Joe Biden fundraiser. “If had we known, of course we may not have gone [on tour], but we would have won masks and all that stuff. Everybody would have been masked. Trump and the administration's denial of the virus was just ridiculous; by the time they told us, it was way too late. And I think it also from the very beginning, it has now created a bunch of deniers of not only the virus, but of the vaccine — people who don't want to take it, people who don't think COVID is even real. It’s kind of incredible. So, it just felt really important to try to demystify the fact that, this is a real thing. Wear your mask, stay away, wash your hands. Don't believe what people say. You can get really, really, really sick.”

Cross says he’s still planning to resume touring in the fall, playing the rescheduled dates of his anniversary tour, though he may have to sit in a chair while he performs. “This was a year when I thought I'd be touring my 40th and all that. This isn't a year I really cared to lose,” he says. In the meantime, he’s working on a memoir and documentary, and he seems fully at peace with his Grammy past.

“I had been swept off my feet and I hadn't really gotten back up,” Cross muses, as he reflects on whirlwind of his early career. “I was just floating around on some sort of cloud, and I didn't come back down to Earth for quite a while. I wouldn't trade it for the world, but I wish I could go back with a more cognitive consciousness to those times and sort of take it all in a little more, maybe handle it with more grace or more awareness. But I feel extremely blessed. Like I said, I have met a lot of musicians who are really great, who are just dying to get a Grammy. They just wish they could get that recognition in their life, and they may go through their whole life and never get that opportunity. For me, I got all my eggs in one basket. But how am I going to sit here and not be proud of that stuff? Whether I did it again or not isn’t as important as the fact that I did it once.”

And Cross proudly sums up of his four-decade career, with all of its ebbs and flows, thusly: “I think I've made 12 really quality records. And so for me, my accomplishment is I didn't devolve down some sort of dark ladder with drugs, or emotionally fall apart, or just sit on the pity pot and let it distract me from the original course I set, which was just to write songs and be the best artist I could. I didn’t just fall off the Earth. I kept making records I’m incredibly proud of, like Doctor Faith and Secret Ladder and Take Me As I Am, which are as good or better than anything I've done.

“The fact that I had the tenacity and the devotion to the craft to be able to keep doing what I do, in spite of the fact that I wasn't still receiving that kind of adulation from the industry — that is the thing I'm proudest of.”

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