30 March 2023

Whiteboy Wednesdays: "Arthur's Theme" by Christopher Cross (1981)

As a student of anthropology, I learned that whenever two cultures meet certain standards - i.e. knowledge, practices and ideas - are inevitably exchanged and if in contact long enough, intermixed.  This is something people have understood since time immemorial, considering that one of the subthemes of the Old Testament revolves around that awareness.  And the reason I'm bringing that up is because even though this is the "Black arts review", sometimes I feel like writing about non-Black artists also.

Even if you are Black and prefer the music of your own people, by all means you're going to have a favorite White musician as well.  Well actually, I may not have a favorite White musician per se.  But I do have a personal favorite song headlined by a White artist, which would be 1981's Arthur's Theme by Christopher Cross.  So the purpose of this post is to research that track as the first installment in what will be dubbed the "Whiteboy Wednesdays" series.

The cover art from 1981's
Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)


Arthur's Theme is a very unique song, because the lyrics are based specifically on the plot of a movie but are also a lot more general.  For example, the word "Arthur" is not found anywhere in the track.

I spent a good portion of my life living in New York City, and my favorite place to chill during the evenings was at the Brooklyn Pier, blazin' a phat one while gazing at the bright lights of Lower Manhattan.   This was pre-9/11, when the skyline from that angle was graced by the Twin Towers, which definitely looked cooler at night.

I did return to the Pier a couple of times after the towers were destroyed, and the feel just wasn't the same.  Without the Twin Towers (and before Freedom Tower), Lower Manhattan looked a city from the 1920s.

But the point I'm trying to make is that there is something magical about New York City - the Financial District, Times Square, Madison Square Garden, etc.  NYC is one of the top tourist destinations for a reason.  And I now understand that Arthur's Theme is romance based, but I always interpreted it more as being about falling in love with New York City itself.  It's just you, the moon and NYC, with the former being representative of the beauty of nature and the latter, the best man has to offer when we all work together. 


Christopher Cross does his thing, but the vocals aren't mind-blowing.  Nor do they need to be, considering that he's backed by what I would call one of the best instrumental performances ever rendered in a mainstream song.  So I actually want to use the bulk of this article to give a shoutout to the individuals who played those instruments.

First would be the two which I think standout the most - keyboard and saxophone.  The former is rendered by Michael Omartian, who actually won a few Grammys alongside Cross.  Christopher Cross was pretty hot stuff during the early 1980s, and one of the biggest contributors to his success was obviously Omartian.  So evidently, them putting a quality song together wasn't like a fluke or one-time occurrence.

Ernie Watts (Saxophonist)

As for the impressive saxophone playing, the credit goes to Ernie Watts.  Watts possesses a lengthy discography, having worked with all-time greats such as Marvin Gaye, Dizzy Gillipsie, Aretha Franklin, Bill Withers, Cher, Paul McCartney and innumerable others.  He even contributed to the soundtrack of Roots (1977), whose musical side was helmed by Quincy Jones.

A device built by Michael Boddicker (Keyboardist)

Meanwhile, the synthesizer is held down by Michael Boddicker.  He has a Grammy also, from a song he participated on as a writer, which is Imagination (1983) by Laura Branigan.  He's also won numerous other awards, especially during the first half of the 1980s, due to his skills on this instrument.  And if you look at the contraption displayed on his Wikipedia page, you'll see that he was heavily into his craft.  So now we see a trend developing, in that Christopher Cross clearly enlisted top-notch musicians to participate on Arthur's Theme.

Paulinho da Costa (Percussionist)

The percussion on the song was handled by Paulinho da Costa.  Being from Brazil, he's the only non-American to pop up on this list.  He's also worked with some big names, such as the late Michael Jackson.  In fact he played on all of MJ's albums from 1979's Off the Wall to 2001's Invincible.  And we know that Michael didn't joke around when it came to those he employed on his projects.

Steve Lukather (Guitarist)

Dave Hungate (Bassist)

The next three instrumentalists on the list are Steve Lukather, David Hungate and the late Jeff Porcaro (1954-1992).  They respectively played guitar, bass and drums on the track.  The reason I'm putting them all into one paragraph is because at the time, the trio belonged to a band called Toto, who were a multi-platinum act when this song came out.

Last is Marty Walsh, who served as a second guitarist.  His Wikipedia isn't as extensive as some of the others, but like them he did collaborate with A listers such as Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers, ABBA, etc.

But even without knowing the histories of these instrumentalists, the proof is in the product, and all you need to do is listen to Arthur's Theme to appreciate how good they were in their prime.  And the fact that all eight of them have their own Wikipedia pages says a lot, because with most other songs, even smash-hit singles, that's usually not the case.


I got around to watching Arthur awhile back - or at least as much of it as I could tolerate.  I was surprised to find out that it was one of the biggest box office hits of 1981, harping back to a day when superhero films weren't as dominant as they are now (though Raiders of Lost Ark and Superman II did outperform it).  The movie is actually pretty entertaining, with Dudley Moore and Liza Minnelli offering noteworthy performances (and Moore being nominated for an Oscar).  But it's also over an hour and-a-half long and starts to lose steam once you get about halfway through.

The truly amazing thing about the lyrics to Arthur's Theme is that besides serving as a beautiful ode to New York City, they also encapsulate the character of "Arthur" as portrayed by Moore. I guess that's why the song actually has two titles.


When the movie starts, "Arthur" a childish womanizer living large off of his family's wealth.  So they give him an ultimatum, that he has to marry a woman of their choosing who comes from the same class or be financially cutoff.  But instead he ends up falling in love with Minelli's character, "Linda", who comes from a much humbler background.

And that's the exact same thing that the first verse and chorus of this song seem to be saying, that "when you get caught between the moon and New York City", it's as if you can't really help who you end up falling in love with.  Of course, being unexpectedly smitten is a phenomenon which happens all around the world.  But the movie itself is set in NYC.  And to reiterate, Christopher Cross is also speaking to allure of nighttime Manhattan.

Ted Ross, who played "Bitterman" in Arthur.


Since this is the Black Arts Review, I wanted to use the opportunity to give a shoutout to Ted Ross (1934-2002), the actor who played "Bitterman", the main Black character in Arthur.  I knew I saw his face somewhere before, but it seems he's appeared in so many 1980s' sitcoms that I can't remember exactly where.

"Bitterman" is a chauffeur - albeit an entertainingly-solemn one whose mood contrasts Arthur's loose spirit - the quintessential loyal Blackman whose life is dedicated to looking out for an aloof White, sorta like Robert Guillaume's Benson.  Some may argue that his role was based on a racist stereotype, an idea that holds strong merit since the only other Black character I remember from Arthur was a prostitute.  But even to today honestly, most of the movies I come across seem to have Black people playing servile roles.


Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do) deserved the Academy Award it won and then some, being one of the most cleverly-written and masterfully-composed songs ever.  I always enjoyed this tune from an audio perspective and knew that Cross was backed by quality musicians.  But only after doing this research did I discover that he really did use some of the top talent of his day.

And in terms of the writing, which he achieved alongside Carole Bayer Sager, Burt Bacharach (1928-2023) and Peter Allen (1944-1992), I've studied countless songs that were written for movies.  But none have done a better job of encapsulating the specific plot of the film while simultaneously boasting a larger, generally-appreciable sentiment than this one.  And since New York City is not really a major plot device in Arthur, whoever came up with the idea of associating this love song with the Big Apple really thought outside of the box.