It’s hard to imagine now, but classic country ballad “I Cross My Heart” wasn’t written by – or even for – George Strait. Instead, it took a full decade for the hit song to find him.
For 10 years prior to the “monster” success of “I Cross My Heart”, the song’s writers struggled to find anyone willing to take on the song’s heaping romance. A true ballad, “Heart” is written with, well, its heart on its sleeve, right from the start:
Our love is unconditional
We knew it from the start
I see it in your eyes
You can feel it from my heart
From here on after
Let’s stay the way we are right now
And share all the love and laughter
That a lifetime will allow
As such, not just any ol’ singer could take on these lyrics and make them work. It would take a hefty amount of gravitas to deliver “Heart” as a sincere ballad, rather than ‘just another cheesy love song.’ While some – like Bette Midler – came fascinatingly close and seemed an appropriate fit, “Heart” would experience nothing but its own heartache, until fate found it in the loving arms of George Strait.
“I think we wrote it in an hour, maybe”
Written by prolific songwriters Steve Dorff and Eric Kaz, “I Cross My Heart” has one of the most interesting stories of any song we’ve covered here on Outsider. And it’s Steve Dorff himself who recalls the hit’s winding road for The Tennessean‘s “Story Behind the Song”.
Speaking to fellow songwriter Bart Herbison, Dorff firstly reveals that “Heart” was “a very easy write. I think we wrote it in an hour, maybe… We both love to eat, so it was like, “Come on, man, let’s finish this now,” he laughs.
Dorff thinks the song has a pretty fascinating story, as well. “Of all the stories of all my songs,” he start off, “this one really has a great story. When Kaz and I finished the song, I thought it was a Boyz II Men kind of song. We demoed it that way. It’s a great demo. Done in this very cool, R&B, vibey, Boyz II Men thing.”
As for how that went over? “Played it for a bunch of people and (they said), “Not one of your best, Steve.,.”
Youch. But if an artist knows anything – it’s rejection. Dorff genuinely believed in the song, and he kept at it.
“I thought it was a really cool song,” he continues. “I go in with a singer that did a lot of demos for me, Suzie Benson. We made this terrific little piano vocal version.” And then, Dorff recalls, “Bette Midler cuts it.”
It Wasn’t Meant to Be…
“Bette cuts it to Arif Mardin, who calls me and says, “Dust off your shelf for an Oscar. This is going to be in the movie. This is going to be unbelievable.” I’m getting excited. I’m really excited,” Dorff lauds of the first part of this memory. That excitement, however, wasn’t meant to last.
“I get a call about three weeks later from Arif saying, “Bette just doesn’t like herself on this. It’s not working for her. We tried. We went in again…. Sang it three, four times. She’s just not happy with it, so we’re going to take it off the album.”
Youch again. But in all honestly, Dorff adds, “Heart” truly wasn’t meant to be Midler’s song. At all.
Upon finally hearing her cut for himself, Dorff wholeheartedly agreed with the singer’s assessment.
“It was terrible,” he recalls. “Not good. To her credit, she knew that it wasn’t the right song for her voice. For me, the true test of a hit is also the marriage of a great song with the right artist…. I played that song for everyone I knew, including my mother, for the next eight years. So this song is now going on 10 years old,” Dorff laments of the situation at the time.
“And everybody without question said, “Nice, not one of your best.” Triple youch! At this point – after nearly a decade of searching – any other songwriter surely would’ve thrown “I Cross My Heart” to the dogs. Or, at the very least, conceded to writing it off as a dud. But not Steve Dorff.
‘Heart’ Finally Finds Its PURE COUNTRY Home
Even after a decade of rejection for the ballad, Dorff never resigned the song to the trash bin. And it’s a remarkable thing he didn’t, too. For just around the corner was his cowboy in shining stirrups.
“I get a phone call from Chris Caine, who is directing a movie called “Pure Country,” Dorff remembers. Caine was in “Panic mode,” Dorff smiles. “He says, “Steve, I don’t have the song for the end of the movie. I’ve listened to 500 love songs. I just don’t have it. Do you have anything?”
Even a near three decades on, Dorff’s eyes light up when telling this part.
“I dig this song up again, and the next day, I go over to Chris’ house and play it for him on the piano. … He says, “That’s perfect.” Dorff is, of course, thrilled to hear this. For the first time, it seems, someone is hearing what he hears in “Heart”.
Then, Dorff learns who else is behind this “Pure Country” film – none other than the King of Country himself, George Strait.
“We fly down to Nashville to play for George Strait. Oh and I played it for Jerry Weintraub, who’d been producing the movie, who said, “That’s it,” Dorff recalls. Brilliant. Superb. Finally.
A “Monster” Hit in the Making
“We come down and we play it for George Strait and Tony Brown.” Much to Dorff’s surprise, “George said, “Let’s try it.”
“Jerry Weintraub said, “George, try it. If you still don’t like it, we’ll take it out of the movie.” And to his credit George owned it,” Dorff smiles again. But that wasn’t the end of the road for “I Cross My Heart”. Far from it.
“We made a great record and then everybody was scared to put it out as the first single from the movie because it’s a ballad. You don’t lead with a new album with a movie with a ballad that doesn’t sound anything like George Strait, but they did,” Dorff lauds. “And it was a monster.”
A “monster,” indeed. “I Cross My Heart” hit radio stations in tandem with “Pure Country”s theatrical release and took North America by storm. It hit at number 58 on the U.S. Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks upon release in October of 1992- then climbed all the way to number one for the remainder of that year in both the U.S. and Canada. In the years since it’s become available for digital download, George Strait‘s performance of “Heart” has sold over 1 million copies.
Watch: George Strait Performs ‘I Cross My Heart’ in PURE COUNTRY’s Finale