In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Arthur does as he pleases — all his life, his master’s toys. Deep in his heart, he’s just… he’s just a boy. This, at least, is how Christopher Cross describes the character of Arthur Bayer, Manhattan playboy billionaire. But in the 1981 movie Arthur, we don’t actually hear Cross sing that description. Instead, the opening theme song fades out as Arthur’s driver pulls a Rolls Royce up to a curb. Arthur, deeply sloshed and cackling maniacally, rolls down his window and picks up a sex worker, making fun of her the whole time, throwing his money around with abandon. Christopher Cross doesn’t really have to tell us anything about Arthur. We get the idea.
Arthur is a weird one. The movie is a sort of money-porn romantic comedy. Arthur meets working-class girl Liza Minnelli, and they fall in love. If Arthur marries this girl, he’ll lose his billions in inheritance. But he does marry her, and he gets the money anyway. I’ve never seen Arthur, and I am OK with that. Maybe the movie elegantly fleshes out Arthur Bayer’s character. Maybe it tells a plausible and affecting love story. But from the little bits and pieces that I’ve seen, I’m good. In the trailer, the narrator asks, “Don’t you wish you were Arthur?” I do not. I don’t even want to spend any time around Arthur.
For whatever reason, Arthur was a smash. It earned $85 million at the domestic box office — less than Stripes, more than Chariots Of Fire, enough to make it the #5 highest-grossing movie of 1981. John Gielgud, the august British stage actor, won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing Arthur’s deadpan butler Hobson, beating out Jack Nicholson in Reds. And the weak-ass Christopher Cross theme finally unseated Diana Ross and Lionel Richie’s “Endless Love” from the #1 spot on the Hot 100 after a baffling nine-week reign of terror. When the American people of 1981 got tired of one drippy movie-soundtrack love ballad, they went straight for another one.
The original idea was for Christopher Cross to score Arthur. Cross was, at the time, a hot commodity. He’d swept the Grammys earlier that year, becoming the first artist ever to win all four major categories. (Billie Eilish, the second, will eventually appear in this column.) Cross, who’d never scored a movie, agreed to compose the soundtrack. But Arthur director Steve Gordon vetoed the choice. As a first-time filmmaker, Gordon didn’t want someone inexperienced to score the film. He wanted Burt Bacharach instead. (Gordon would never direct a second film. He died of a heart attack in 1982, at the age of 44.)
So Christopher Cross didn’t get to score Arthur. But he did land his second #1 single with “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do),” from the film’s soundtrack. Cross co-wrote the song with Burt Bacharach and Bacharach’s romantic partner Carole Bayer Sager, who was also a veteran pop songwriter. At some point, Bayer Sager remembered a line from an unreleased song she’d co-written, and she called up another writing partner.
For a while, Bayer Sager been writing songs with Peter Allen, who happened to be the first husband of Arthur star Liza Minnelli. Together, Bayer Sager and Allen had written things like Melissa Manchester’s 1976 ballad “Don’t Cry Out Loud.” (“Don’t Cry Out Loud” peaked at #10 in 1976. It’s a 4.) On a never-released song, Allen had a line about getting caught between the moon and New York City. He’d thought of it while his plane was stuck in a holding pattern over JFK one night. Cross, Bacharach, and Bayer Sager called Allen in Australia and asked him if they could use the line. Allen said that was fine, and he got himself a songwriting credit, a #1 single, and an Oscar out of it.
“Sailing,” Christopher Cross’ previous #1 hit, had a certain woozy grace working for it. I don’t hear any of that in “Arthur’s Theme.” “Arthur’s Theme” is the sort lush, intricately orchestrated piece of music that you would expect from Burt Bacharach. The session musicians all know what they’re doing. (Three of them were members of Toto, a band that will eventually appear in this column.) But the song itself leaves no impression.
Part of the problem is Cross himself. Cross could do thoughtful, introspective music, but in the orchestral bloat of “Arthur’s Theme,” he sounds like a lost little kid. Cross brings starry-eyed romanticism, but he doesn’t have the slick confidence that it takes to truly sell a Burt Bacharach song. The session musicians run wild — melodramatic sax-bleats, busily thudding echo-drenched drums, woodwinds out the ass. But there’s no passion or heft to any of it. The song just indolently twirls around for a few minutes before fading into nothingness. In fact, the only part of the song that I really remember once it’s over is Peter Allen’s line about getting caught between the moon and New York City. So maybe Allen really did earn that Oscar.
“Arthur’s Theme” won the Oscar. It took Best Original Song, besting a list of nominees that included “Endless Love,” the same song that it unseated at #1. Cross, Bacharach, Bayer Sager, and Allen accepted the award from a madly riffing Bette Midler, a person who will eventually appear in this column. Cross barely did any talking when he accepted the award; Bayer Sager, the best-looking of the four of them, gave most of the speech. Five days later, Bacharach and Bayer Sager got married.
After “Arthur’s Theme,” Christopher Cross only scored one more top-10 hit: 1983’s “Think Of Laura,” which peaked at #9 after General Hospital started using it as theme music for one of the show’s characters. (It’s a 5. General Hospital, I have learned, had an outsized influence on the pop charts for a few years there.) Cross kept touring and recording afterward, but he faded from the pop landscape quickly, becoming a punchline about the sort of thing that wins tons of Grammys and then gets immediately forgotten. In recent years, Cross has had a bit of a renaissance thanks the the whole online hunger for all things yacht rock. Last month — on the same day, in fact, that this column looked at “Sailing” — Cross announced that he was battling COVID-19. I wish him well, and I hope this column isn’t some sort of weird curse for him.
Christopher Cross won’t be back in this column, but two of the co-writers of “Arthur’s Theme” will. Before “Arthur’s Theme,” Burt Bacharach hadn’t co-written a #1 single since the Carpenters’ “(They Long To Be) Close To You,” more than 11 years earlier. But thanks to his songwriting partnership with Bayer Sager, Bacharach had a bit of a commercial renaissance. Bacharach and Bayer Sager will return to this column.
BONUS BEATS: In 2011, Peter Baynham remade Arthur as an absolute flop of a Russell Brand vehicle. For the remake, Fitz And The Tantrums covered “Arthur’s Theme (The Best That You Can Do).” Here’s their pretty terrible version:
(Fitz And The Tantrums have never had a top-10 hit. Their highest-charting single, 2016’s “HandClap,” peaked at #53, despite total ad-campaign omnipresence.)