Exclusive Interview: Tommy Taylor

Looking Back Track by Track
by Michael Aubrecht

“Christopher Cross” is the self-titled debut album by the Christopher Cross band, released in December of 1979. In 1980, it won Grammy Awards for Album of the Year. The song “Sailing” won Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying a Vocalist and Song of the Year. Christopher Cross also won Best New Artist. One of the aspects of the album that immediately stand out in my mind is the steady and smooth drumming of Tommy Taylor. Of the twenty five musicians listed as contributing to the album there was only one drummer. Tommy’s style perfectly fits the style of this soft rock gem. Taylor’s tasteful accompaniment to Cross’s sound compliment songs like “Never Be the Same,” and “Sailing” while driving songs like “Ride Like the Wind.” Amazingly Tommy was only 22 at the time. You can listen to the entire album over on YouTube. Tommy took time to share his insights on the iconic album track by track:

The first tune up is “Say You’ll Be Mine.” This was actually the tune that got the record deal in the end. It was a bit of a marriage between an old song Chris had in an old band called Flash and a new spin. He wanted to start the song with a Chorus as he’d never done that before. He knew what he wanted to say. The verses were done…but he needed the chorus. I gave him the line “Say You’ll Be Mine.” We were rehearsing at a club during the afternoon in Wichita Falls, Texas. I listened to what he was talking about and even though I was not as important of a sounding board as Rob and Andy on that level…I just blurted out, “Why not ‘Say You’ll Be Mine?’”  I actually was eating those candy hearts that you get at Valentine’s Day at the rehearsal with the little notes written on them.  “Say You’ll Be Mine.”….I wish I knew about publishing then I’d be rich. Haha!

So that was actually the first thing we tracked when we got to L.A. We didn’t use the track as we found the tempo a bit on the up side and re-recorded it later on down the road. It’s a throw away for me. The track is fine…but it was never much of a song.  It was also my suggestion to have Nicolette sing on the record. I had discovered her first when she had the LP with Neil Young’s “Lotta Love” on it. Everyone was talking about who they wanted to possibly be guests when we kind of started musing about that kind of thing. She was a label mate so it was pretty easy. She did a great job on it. That and Jay Graydon’s lead are probably the best things about it.

The second song is “I Really Don’t Know Anymore”. This is one of my favorite tracks really. It was our pick for the second single. Warners opted out likely because of pressure from the Doobies after Michael McDonald was so prevalent on “Ride Like the Wind.” It’s a very good track and it’s straight up no chaser, no click track, just as most of the tracks are. Michael Omartian had taken over the acoustic piano duties at that point and he was really holding the groove down nicely. Drum wise it’s one of my better moments I think.

The third song is “Spinning.” Strangely, this is by far my favorite track on the LP. We had never ever played it before that day and I had only heard it on the early demos before I was involved in the group. I was a rocker and never a ballad player. I think my playing really shines on this one. It’s a very slow tempo and tough to pull off. I’m sure it’s either the first or second take. We just had it for this one that day. It was only included because it was Mo Ostin’s favorite song and he was president of the label. Valerie Carter lent a beautiful duet with Chris…it’s really wonderful. I now favor ballads over anything. I somehow mastered the pop ballad. No click track…just the band doing what we did well.

The fourth song is “Never Be the Same.” Another favorite for sure. I had to fight to keep this track. Chris was very unsure of the performance…but for whatever warts and bumps it has, I knew the vibe would carry it. We first heard this song on a gig. We used to play clubs and casuals and the like to make a living before the contract and we never mixed original and cover tunes on a date really. We would do long medleys where the drums would just keep playing as one song would end and another would start, usually with the kick drum just holding four on the floor. We might go from say “Boogie Man” by K.C. and the Sunshine band into “1985” by Paul McCartney. Keep ‘em dancin!’ The tempos are all the same. So we end a song and I’m carrying the beat over and Chris starts those Todd Rundgren changes and then sings the whole thing from start to finish. I quickly adjust the feel to basically what is on the record and the band arranges the tune on the spot. We finished likely going back into whatever song we came out of and took a set break.

I went running after Chris as he went to the bar to get refreshment during the break saying “Chris…MAN…What was that?….That’s INCREDIBLE…We’re gonna be HUGE!” I knew it was a hit…great song great track. Omartian helped with the arrangement and came up with the changes for the solo.  He mused at the time that no one would likely notice it was the outro to “Layla.” Now you know.

The fifth song is “Poor Shirley.” Sadly of all the songs on the record this track is my least favorite. One of my favorite songs but we did end up cutting this one to the drum machine and it just is soul-less to me. Chris’s vocal is weak compared to the demo and it just never really did what it could’ve. So that is the end of side one when such things existed in the day.

Opening side two we have…(oooooh that) “Ride Like the Wind.” That was what Chris and I used to say…kind of like school boys involved in a scandal….and then giggle, after playing it the last song of our original sets, back before the record contract. It was a smash. We always knew. It was the first piece I ever played with the group at the rehearsal for my first demo/audition recording. This was one of the more stressful pieces to cut. It was the first time I had ever worked with a metronome or drum machine. Omartian was pushing for this, disco four on the floor feel all the way through. We weren’t having any part of it…we all had slaved through the disco era in bars and hated the effect. My original part was very simple, ala my mentor at the time Gary Osier.  Kick on 1 and 3 only. The ”ba da damp” after the line “got such a long way to go” that Andy plays with me on the bass, I actually lifted from a song written by John Inmon called “Whiskey Still” that he had performed in the Austin, Texas, Progressive Rock Group Genessee. The song shared the same lyrical theme “got a long way to go” The drummer Chuck Rogers was a huge influence on me coming up and the figure he played on the kick drum was the same after they sang “got a long way to go.” I couldn’t resist taking it and putting on “Ride Like the Wind.” To me it sets the song apart and is very signature. These were the kinds of little nuances that we created together as a band that were so quickly discarded once the solo artist effect came in full swing.

There are literally reels and reels of two-inch tape, of different versions of the song where we are going back and forth with the drum part. Omartian at one point wanted me to play the four on the floor through the choruses and everything never stopping. We were mortified. We really were a rock band at heart and this was taking all the balls out of our one real rocker. At one point he wanted to assemble the drum part…starting with the kick and then adding the snare and overdubbing the triplets on the hi-hat and then the crashes. I was satisfied with what we came up with in the end and I think it speaks for itself but I’m not sure it’s as heavy as the demo. I had a very difficult time crashing a cymbal without it being supported by the kick drum I remember at first. It was just something I hadn’t ever done. The half time bit on the double chorus at the end was an accident that happened on a previous take…I thought someone stopped or something and so I just kind of went in to half time for no particular reason…the track was a dud…Omartian picked up on it and said  “Hey do that like that!  We’ll pick it back up and play out.” So that was how that bit of the arrangement happened.

Truly the one thing I learned from the first demo session I ever did with the guys, was that you never stop even if you think it’s a mess. So…if you were to play along with a drum machine to “Ride Like the Wind” or rather if you could hear the drum machine track, you would realize that I turned the beat around 180 degrees by rushing the tempo in the end. Omartian was not listening to the drum machine in the control room and never noticed. I brought it up because I thought it might be a problem. They looked at me like the Nipper Dog on the RCA label. It was fine. These little things don’t matter in the end it’s so minute.

So what are we up to, song number seven I guess? “The Light Is On.” This was always one of my favorites because I actually made up the figure for the main portion of the drum part. The little upbeat thing on the hi-hat is cool. Sort of a bastardized Latin thing. I was toying with it when we were cutting the demo and Chris really liked it. I couldn’t even play it at first but by the time the record came along I had it down pretty well. I like the lyric on this song. It’s a very good track of a very nice song. I don’t know that much stands out about it drumming wise except it’s got nice textures. The fills were representative of what Chris had sort of orchestrated to me.  He was a drummer first before he played guitar so he had ideas…they always do don’t they?

Song number eight is the hit “Sailing.” This one was a bear. Jeff Porcaro was actually called in at one point to cut this. I was having a hard time keeping the slow tempo steady on it and the part that had been mostly what Rob Meurer had showed me for it (Rob was also a drummer first, geez I wonder how I got the gig) was not really assertive enough. Jeff didn’t fare much better. What he played…wasn’t subtle enough. So…after I saw his assertiveness, I sort of blended that with Rob’s concept and came up with what we have. We knew it was important but honestly I don’t know if any of us knew why. It was never one of my favorite songs actually. Still it nearly broke the band up trying record it. When we finally got it, it was a victory no doubt and we were all very pleased. We almost mutinied when Warner came and told us that would be the second single…after all the headway we had made with “Ride Like The Wind” we were sure they were sabotaging our career intentionally. Russ Thyret, head of promotion was a genius and he ran that ball as well as anyone I’ve ever known. I would have bet my life savings against it…but there you go.

It’s actually an edit between two takes. The string intro is really the strings from the middle tacked on to the beginning as well. This was accidentally suggested by Chris’s brother in-law at the time, Bill Harrison, who was visiting the sessions. They were listening to the strings solo’d and he assumed it was the intro and commented that he thought that was a great way to start the song. Everyone kind of stopped mid-sentence and looked at each other and the intro was born. The tom on 2 and 4 in the bridge is actually Omartian, playing an old round badge Gretsch 8×12 I shipped out to him with a CanaSonic head on it specifically for the part. What can I say…it looms high in me legend eh?

The final track is “Minstrel Gigolo.” We had never intended to cut this piece nor had we ever worked it up or even knew that it existed. I had heard the basic chord riff before once when Chris was messing with it but no song existed. We were drifting apart and losing our moorings as a band at this point, not being able to get “Sailing” and just the pressure of being a little local group from Texas in the big Warner Bros. Studio in Los Angeles. We had gone to dinner on the company tab and rather than going back to our apartments at the Oakwood Gardens we decided to go back to the studio and hang out. Omartian was a family man at that point and he was done at 7:00 PM so we were just on our own. We were just hanging out and Chris tuned to his open tuning and started playing around with that riff. Rob, who had been off of the grand piano for the sessions and on Rhodes was feeling a new direction having listened to Omartian for consecutive days. We all just started jamming the piece and Chris started singing in the scratch mic.

Luckily Chet Himes, our dedicated brother and head engineer on the sessions leapt into action and got the tape machine rolling. We had the one piece with no start as the tape wasn’t rolling…we were just sort of formulating things…but we had no intention of keeping any of it, we were just jamming an arrangement like we always did. I play that two tom hit thing at the end of the riff…I would never have jumped that far out if I thought we were serious in those days. All of that playing around after the last chorus…in the outro…I was just playing around for fun. When we listened back and realized what we had we were sort of awed by it.

There is a certain victorious aspect of the vibe. Here we are again, just like we had always been. No producer, no agenda but to make great music. Just the four of us. The triumphant little family that had come so far in the previous two years to this precipice, showing what the mettle that had made us really was one last time. We played it for Omartian the next day. You could tell he liked it. He was reluctant because he didn’t really have anything to do with it. He actually asked if we used it, if he would still be getting cred for it on the record. Of course he as the producer had the final say. We of course agreed and he added his bits in overdubs. The guitar solo debuting Eric Johnson and the saxophone solo by Tomas Ramirez were produced solely by myself and Chet Himes in Austin, Texas later in the summer.

Being that we were not essential for the overdubs, Andy and I came back to Texas after cutting the basic tracks. We really didn’t hear the finished product until the fall of 1979. There was a big listening party at Chris’s apartment with a lot of friends and local luminaries like Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top, who was a big fan before we ever had a record. When they put the LP on honestly I couldn’t believe it….it was astonishing…I was really just a kid…I couldn’t believe my life’s dream was actually coming true. I looked over at Andy with eyes the size of baby moons and thought…can this be real?

For more information on Tommy, visit his website at: http://tommytaylor.com/
Follow him on Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/TommyTaylorMusician

Here’s the four original band members receiving their Gold Records in 1980.
L to R: Tommy Taylor, Andy Salmon, Rob Meurer, Chris Geppert

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