How Did Christopher Cross, Of All People, Achieve That Historic Grammy Sweep in 1981?

Christopher Cross
AP Photo

Christopher Cross, best album Grammy winner, photographed backstage at the 1981 Grammy Awards in New York City on Feb. 25, 1981. 

Music fans around the world are all reading the same sentence today: Billie Eilish is the first artist to sweep the Big Four categories at the Grammy Awards since Christopher Cross achieved the feat in February 1981.

And many of those fans are saying the same thing: Christopher Cross? How on earth is it that, of all the artists who could have been the only artist to have previously achieved this feat, Christopher Cross -- a mild-mannered 29-year-old who specialized in what he called "Pop 'n' Roll," and what today is often called "Yacht Rock" -- is the only one who actually did it?

Some of the whippersnappers on the staff—who weren't even born in February 1981 (if you can imagine that) turned to me for answers. I was on staff back then: In fact, I wrote the story announcing Cross' sweep that ran in Billboard in the issue dated March 7, 1981. The headline: Cross Collects 5 Grammys in Major Upset.

Here are the first five paragraphs from that story, verbatim (with a couple of clarifications in brackets).

"If the nominations for the 23rd annual Grammy Awards were fairly predictable, the winners themselves were anything but.

The only element of mystery or suspense going in to the televised ceremony Wednesday (25) centered on which record industry legend -- Sinatra or Streisand -- would pick off the top awards. As it turned out, neither did.

Instead, in a major upset, Christopher Cross swept the prizes for album, record and song of the year. Only twice before in the history of the Grammys has one act won all three top awards. Paul Simon, who hosted last week's show, achieved the triple-crown in 1970 with Bridge Over Troubled Water [and its title track]. Carole King followed suit in 1971 with Tapestry, 'It's Too Late' and 'You've Got a Friend.'

The awards to Cross, who also won for best new artist and best arrangement accompanying a vocalist, reflect the current popularity of soft, mass-appeal adult contemporary pop.

They also mark a return on the part of the Recording Academy to favoring conservative MOR [middle-of-the-road, now called adult contemporary]-slanted hits. In the past four years, the organization had seemed to be moving closer to the rock mainstream, with album and [/or] record of the year citations to Stevie Wonder, Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Billy Joel, Bee Gees and the Doobie Brothers."

So even at the time, Cross' sweep was considered a surprise. Even Cross' record company, Warner Bros., was caught off-guard. The label didn't host a post-Grammys party that year, which is standard if a label thinks there's a good chance it will have something to celebrate. Following Cross' sweep, label executives (and Cross) simply went to the Recording Academy's after-party.

Maybe we all shouldn't have been so surprised. Cross was the only person nominated for album, record and song of the year. Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra were each nominated for album and record, but they didn't write or co-write their nominated songs, "Woman in Love" and "Theme from New York, New York," respectively.


But why did it happen? For one thing, Cross' album of the year rivals may have split the vote. Legends (and previous album of the year winners) Sinatra and Streisand appealed to the same type of voters—though Streisand's Guilty album, which was co-produced by Barry Gibb, was highly contemporary, not the traditional pop you may associate with her. Joel (who had won album of the year the previous year for 52nd Street) and Pink Floyd appealed to the same type of younger, rock-leaning voters (pop/rock, in the case of Joel). Cross, the only newbie in the album or record of the year races, had his lane all to himself.

Cross' eponymous debut album spawned four top 20 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, more than any of that year's other album of the year contenders. The album's biggest hit, and Grammy entry, was the hypnotic ballad "Sailing," which reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Joel's Glass Houses and Streisand's Guilty each spawned three top 20 hits. Pink Floyd's double-disk classic The Wall spawned just one -- albeit a No. 1 smash, "Another Brick in the Wall, Part II." Sinatra's triple-disk opus Trilogy: Past, Present, Future didn't spawn any top 20 hits. Its only Hot 100 hit was "Theme From New York, New York," which peaked at No. 32.

Cross was plugged into the West Coast pop music scene of the era. His album featured such guest musicians as Michael McDonald (who won record and song of the year the previous year for "What a Fool Believes" and who sang backing vocals on "Ride Like the Wind," the No. 2-peaking first single from Cross' album), Nicolette Larson (who sang backing vocals on the album's fourth single, "Say You'll Be Mine"), Don Henley, J.D. Souther and Valerie Carter.

Most crucially, Grammy voters have long liked to shower talented newcomers with awards -- think of Alanis Morissette in '96, Norah Jones in '03 or Eilish this year. Some voters may have thought that an album of year win for Sinatra or Streisand won't make them one iota more famous or successful, but it could really give this talented newcomer a boost.

And it did, at least in the short term. Cross teamed with Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager to write "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)." Cross' sleek recording of the song shot to No. 1 in October 1981. The three writers shared an Academy Award with Peter Allen (who had written the song's most famous line, "caught between the moon and New York City"). "Arthur's Theme" brought Cross three more Grammy nominations the following year (but no wins).

However, the bump didn't last. Cross' sophomore album, Another Page, was released in January 1983, and while it spawned two hits -- the upbeat "All Right" and the treacly ballad "Think of Laura" -- it was far less successful than Cross' first set. Where Christopher Cross had been a fixture in the top 10 on the Billboard 200 for months, Another Page peaked at No. 11. Cross' third album, 1985's Every Turn of the World, stalled at No. 127. His last dozen studio albums haven't charted on Billboard's flagship chart.

Ultimately, the sweep caused a backlash. It all but invited people to say, "Oh come on. He's not that special." I have always thought if Cross had just won best new artist, he would have been better off. Rock critics still would have grumbled that he beat The Pretenders, who they strongly favored, but the grumbles wouldn't have been so deafening.

Still, music was about to change in ways that didn't work to Cross' advantage. MTV launched on Aug. 1, 1981, just five months after Cross' Grammy sweep. By 1983, music videos drove the music business. Cross didn't have the looks or charisma to prosper in that world. Also, music changed. New wave began making inroads in 1982, with such top 10 hits on the Hot 100 as the Human League's "Don't You Want Me" and Soft Cell's "Tainted Love." Starting in 1983, R&B crossover became the hottest sound in pop, with Michael Jackson leading the way, and Prince, Lionel Richie, Tina Turner, the Pointer Sisters and many others riding the wave. Some white pop artists prospered in this era, including Joel, Cyndi Lauper and Madonna, but they were far more videogenic than Cross.

It's revealing to look back at the 1980 Grammy nominations -- back in an era before "nomination review committees" (which were put in place in 1995) were established. All of the nominees in the Big Four categories were white except Richie, who was nominated for song and record of the year for "Lady," the ultra-romantic ballad he wrote and produced for Kenny Rogers, and Irene Cara, the "Fame" singer and actress, who was nominated for best new artist.

But it's not just the lack of racial diversity that is striking. It's the sameness of the nominees, especially for record of the year. All five nominees were ballads. The peppiest was Sinatra's rousing remake of "Theme from New York, New York," which Liza Minnelli had introduced three years earlier in the film of the same name. The other nominees, besides "Sailing," "Lady" and "Theme from New York, New York," were Bette Midler's "The Rose" (which she introduced in the 1979 film of the same name) and Streisand's "Woman in Love."

There was more range in the album of the year category. Cross, Streisand and Sinatra were nominated here too, but the other two nominees -- The Wall and Glass Houses -- were rock. (Joel's album straddled the line between pop and rock, but the Grammys classified it as rock.) The Wall represented Pink Floyd's first Grammy nomination -- the English band had not been nominated even for 1973's landmark The Dark Side of the Moon.

The Wall was probably too progressive a choice for Grammy voters at the time to have a serious chance of winning. It's impressive that it was even nominated.

I interviewed Cross' producer, Michael Omartian, for a piece that ran in the May 17, 1980 issue of Billboard. Omartian said Cross' album was originally scheduled be released in August 1979, but was held up when the music business took a downturn.

"[Warner officials] told me they believed in the album and wanted to put it out in January [1980]," Omartian said. "I thought that was just another way of saying 'Everything's too insecure and we don't really hear it." But that wasn't the case at all."

Omartian, who won three Grammys in the Cross sweep and was nominated for producer of the year, non-classical, also said the album took 3-1/2 months to record and cost $180,000.

The Grammy Hall of Fame, which is voted on by a committee of musicologists and other music pros, honors recordings that have been in release for 25 years or more. Cross' album has not yet been honored, though it has been eligible for 14 years. The only 1980 album of the year nominee that has been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame is The Wall. The only 1980 record of the year nominee that has been so honored is "Theme from New York, New York."

So Cross' period of pop stardom was short-lived. But look at it this way: He got to write (and share an Oscar) with Bacharach, one of the greatest songwriters of all time. He got to record with such heavyweights as Henley and McDonald. In his short time at the top, he really did "Ride like the Wind."

2020 Grammy Awards