'Where it all started': Christopher Cross is grateful to have sailed back into Austin
If there’s one word to describe Christopher Cross’s state of mind at age 70, it’s probably this: grateful.
He’s grateful that the COVID-19 pandemic has abated enough for his band to finally complete a tour celebrating the 40th anniversary of his self-titled album that swept all the major Grammy Awards in 1981 — a feat unmatched until Billie Eilish did it last year.
Grateful that Austin welcomed him back when he returned here a decade ago, after 30 years in Southern California. A San Antonio native, Cross lived in Austin throughout the 1970s, honing the talents that led to his career-making debut record.
Grateful that he’s able to walk again. Cross was one of the first well-known Americans to contract COVID-19 in March 2020. The virus induced Guillain-Barré syndrome, a nervous system disorder that put him in a wheelchair for much of last year.
And grateful that the future looks bright. The two-month 40th-anniversary tour concludes Thursday in Austin at the Paramount Theatre, but he’s planning to add more dates next year, including shows in Europe and possibly Japan. He’ll soon release new original music, and he’s teaming with recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Todd Rundgren for a concert of Beatles songs to follow the “White Album” tour they did in 2019.
“I’ll be a busy guy,” he said late last month via Zoom, as his bus traveled between gigs in California and Arizona. “It’s pretty ambitious for somebody who's compromised (health-wise). Right now, I can't imagine getting on a plane to Japan, but I take one thing at a time.”
'And I'm doing OK': Christopher Cross on being back on the road
The 40th-anniversary tour initially was scheduled to begin in Austin, rather than ending here. Tickets had been sold for an April 1, 2020, show at the Paramount that got put on hold indefinitely when the pandemic hit a month before.
Cross had recently traveled to Mexico City, and upon returning home, he tested positive for COVID-19. Soon he was having trouble walking and was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré, which he explained to fans in a social media post “resulted in a paralysis of my legs, part of my face, and a numbness in my fingertips. … Being in a wheelchair has taught me a lot about patience and resilience, but especially to count my blessings.”
Gradually his condition improved. He’s walking now, though it’s still not easy. “If I walk very far, it feels like I ran a marathon,” he explains. But the tour has been going well.
“I wasn't sure what would happen with my stamina and health,” he says. “And of course we were also on the fence about going out at all, because of COVID. But we made the decision to go, and I’m glad we did. People seem grateful to be able to see live music, and the promoters are really pleased, because they've been on hold for a long time.
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“And I’m doing OK. I’m able to stand for the show and play. My chops have been a little rusty, but it’s all coming back. I’m singing strong and playing well. I do an acoustic section of three songs, and it's a nice little respite in the middle of the show where I get to sit down. I’m able to rest a lot during the day; I don't do a lot else, so I’m able to get through the show.”
Backed by a bassist, drummer, keyboardist, saxophonist and three backup singers, Cross plays for an hour and 40 minutes. He's doing everything from his debut album (scattered throughout the set rather than in-sequence), plus a few from 1982’s “Another Page” and songs from more recent albums.
In addition, “I’m probably doing more banter this time than I’ve ever done,” he says. “Because it's the 40th anniversary, I’m trying to tell them a little more about myself — more about my beginnings in San Antonio, and how I got into playing music.”
Austin in the 1970s
Born Christopher Geppert in San Antonio on May 3, 1951, Cross was in a cover band called Flash as a teenager. The group moved up the road to Austin in the early 1970s. “We just decided Austin was a hipper market where there was more going on musically,” he says.
He rented a house in north-central Austin with keyboardist Rob Meurer and bassist Andy Salmon. “We started playing cover stuff in Austin, trying to make a living,” he says. The cover-band circuit was lucrative, but it kept Cross’ songwriting talents under wraps.
“We really didn't try to play my material live,” he says. “I used to finish playing frat parties and go over to the Rome Inn (now Texas French Bread at 29th and Rio Grande streets) and hear Stevie (Ray Vaughan) play, because he was doing his own thing.”
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Married and with a young child, Cross says he “just felt I was better off making a good living playing cover music and keeping my own songs under my hat. So we never really tried to do that, until right before the record came out. Everybody was kind of shocked when we suddenly had an album.”
That the album — recorded in mid-1979 and released in December — even happened at all was a minor miracle. Cross was a fan of Warner Bros. Records acts such as Randy Newman and Joni Mitchell, so he sent the label a demo tape.
“I didn't know anything about the record business,” he says. “I looked in Billboard magazine and I saw that Mo Ostin was the chairman. I figured it couldn't get to him, so I looked under his name and there was this guy David Berson, an assistant to Mo Ostin.
“So I sent David Berson my tape. Turns out he was a staff lawyer, and he’d never gotten a tape in the mail from anybody. He went to lunch that day with Lenny Waronker, who was head of A&R, and said, ‘Hey, I got this tape today, let's check this guy out.’ Lenny said. ‘Oh man, give me a break, I listen to tapes all day long.'
“But David and Lenny listened to it in the car on the way to lunch, and Lenny said, ‘I like this guy's voice; give me the tape.’ And they started a dialogue with me. Lenny told me later that had it not happened that way, they would have just sent back a standard rejection letter, because it came unsolicited. So I actually got my start by sending my tape to the wrong guy.”
Recording was done at Austin’s Pecan Street Studios and Warner Bros.’ studio in Los Angeles. “After we finished recording, we came back to Austin and went back to playing cover tunes,” Cross says. “I was playing Eagles tunes, and Don Henley had just sung on my record. The reality is that you do what you have to make a living.”
Heady days in L.A.: 'Life changed completely'
After the album came out, Cross and his band went out on tour, opening for the likes of Bonnie Raitt, the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. The singles “Ride Like The Wind” and “Sailing” hit No. 2 and No. 1, respectively, on the pop charts in 1980.
Then came the Grammys. Cross got nominated for best new artist, song and record of the year (both for “Sailing”), and album of the year. He won them all. The album eventually sold five million copies.
All this came as quite a surprise in Austin, where Willie Nelson’s outlaw country, the emerging Antone’s blues scene, and a nascent punk-rock community at venues such as Raul’s and Club Foot had been getting most of the attention.
Cross’s longtime bandmate Rob Meurer — who was killed in a hit-and-run accident in the Los Angeles area in 2016 — “used to say that Austin never really embraced us,” Cross says. “Which is true, but a little unfair. Because the truth of it is, Austin never really heard the original music. We were just a cover band. So it wasn't like Austin didn't accept us.”
Cross had a wife and son, but his marriage wasn’t going well. In March 1981, he played a memorable hometown show at the Erwin Center; not long after, he moved to Los Angeles.
“Life changed completely,” he recalls. “Suddenly I was this celebrity entity — as the Eagles liked to call me, the new kid in town. It was fantastic in its way, but also very intimidating, challenging and disorienting. I certainly wasn't in touch with the business aspects of how my career was being run. I just tried to hang on the best I could and play.”
Enticing opportunities were coming fast and furious. Soon he found himself at the home of legendary songwriters Burt Bacharach and Carol Bayer Sager, writing a song for a film called “Arthur” starring Dudley Moore.
“I remember leaving that night and Carole saying, ‘I think this is an Oscar song.’ And I was just like, whatever; I mean, I couldn’t believe I just was hanging out with Burt Bacharach.” In March 1982, “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do)” won the Oscar for best original song.
“I did my best to hang on through it, and I’m still very blessed for what happened, because it’s so rare in our business,” he says now. “I would never look a gift horse in the mouth, but it wasn't the easiest way to to have it happen. Most people ramp up.”
Back home again, 'where it all started'
In 2011, Cross returned to Austin, where one of his three children had settled. “Being an Army brat, it's tough to feel like you have a home anywhere,” says Cross, who lived in places such as Japan and Washington, D.C., as a child. “But even though I was born in San Antonio, Austin was kind of home; it’s where it all started.
“I just seemed to be drawn back, for whatever reason. I’ve got tons of friends in Austin still — old friendships, people like (fellow musicians) Van Wilks and Eric Johnson.”
He collaborated with Johnson on “Austin Sunrise,” a song Cross wrote with his childhood pal Meurer that appeared on the 2013 “All ATX” benefit compilation CD. “Austin sunrise, the city comes alive/ I’ve got a river of memories long as I-35,” Cross sings, noting that he’s “older now but wiser than that boy back then.”
“The song is sort of about the beauty of Austin, but it talks about the clubs and stuff, and it makes reference to that early scene,” he says. “It’s definitely a hat-in-hand kind of song about coming back.”
He wasn’t sure if he’d be welcomed. “I did feel like I needed to kind of sneak back into town, because a lot of people thought, ‘Eh, that asshole moved out to L.A.,” he says. “But people have been very, very gracious.
“I think on some level, they're proud: The local boy did well. I’ve been very surprised and pleased that people have been very accepting.”
Will he stay? That may depend on other factors. “I’m struggling with (Texas Gov. Greg) Abbott and the politics and the gun culture,” he says. "I don't know what I'm going to do long-term. If the Congress goes red and Trump gets re-elected in ’24, it's over.
“I’m 70 years old, and whatever life I have left to live, especially with my illness — I don't want to give up on America, but I don't know if we want to live in that country. Joy (Authur, his girlfriend) and I have talked about it. We might just relocate to the south of France or something. And I’m blessed to be able to do that.”
In the meantime, he’s continued to pursue new musical projects. Cross self-released two albums, 2014’s “Secret Ladder” and 2017’s “Take Me As I Am.” And he formed a remarkable jazz-oriented group called Freedonia, which issued albums in 2018 and 2019 (plus an EP this year after the death of drummer Scott Laningham in May).
Next up is "Messages From the Oracle," which Cross describes as “a musical collective born out of who’s on tour at the moment. We collaboratively write and produce the material, and record it at soundcheck.” An album will surface soon.
For now, though, he remains focused on finishing out his current tour. “I’m super excited to get to the Paramount and play for my fans and friends,” he says. “I hope we don't have any technical problems and that everything goes well, because it's a real nice show and I'm proud of it. At this point my career, I’m just grateful to be able to do it.”
(This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Joy Authur's last name.)