B.J. Thomas then and now
A perfectly positive gentlemanWhen I was a ten years old, I hadn't quite began to outgrow my fascination with the Cowboys and Indians. My family had only moved to the Phoenix area the year before from Huntsville, Alabama, and I was reading everything that I could get my hands on about the Wild West. It was during this time that the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came out.
by Randy Patterson
Fighting the summertime blues and wanting to feed my fascination with the rough and tumble West, I rode my bike down to Mann's Chris-Town Theater to watch this Oscar winning movie. I was mesmerized by the action and the incredible scenery. I also remember well the "bicycle scene," with the late, great Paul Newman and Katherine Ross, riding the new-fangled invention while the song, "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head" was playing on the soundtrack.
Fast-forward 40 years later. I have the distinct privilege and honor to speak with the voice that sang "Raindrops" into the history books, B.J. Thomas. In addition to "Raindrops" (which earned an Academy Award and spent four weeks at #1), Thomas is also famous for such iconic songs as "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," "Hooked On A Feeling." "I Just Can't Help Believing" and "Rock and Roll Lullaby."
Several years later, B.J. broke new ground as the first artist to "cross-over" into the new genre of contemporary Christian music, followed by Bob Dylan, America's Dan Peek, and Grand Funk Railroad's Mark Farner to name a few. Thomas was the first platinum-selling artist in Gospel music and pushed Contemporary Christian Music to a whole new level before continuing on in his "sweet spot" of pop and country music. I asked B.J. what he has been up to lately.
"Well, I do stay busy. I do a lot of shows. I'm on the road and I do a number of one-nighters. I actually played Branson for the first time. I was there for a couple of days with Dionne Warwick. I have a lot of fun and do a lot of one-nighters and things. I have a record that just came out in South America and it's in the process of coming out here. It's a thing called Once I Loved. It's a CD of Brazilian classic songs. "You know, I've had a lot of hit records in Brazil. I go down to Brazil every 2, 3, 4 years and for some reason, they've always loved my music down there - even the gospel stuff. So, I finally made a record just for Brazil, of the Brazilian classics. It's got some duets on it with some of their big people. I've been working on that for a year or so, so that's coming out.
"Other than that, I'm just doing the one-nighters and if something good comes up I'd like to get in to, I try to do it."
I had recently read that Thomas was involved in an independent movie that was filmed on location in Jake's Corner, Arizona, not too terribly far from Payson.
"Oh, yeah, yeah! We did! I played a small part and did some music for a movie called, Jake's Corner- a movie shot in Arizona by Jeff Santo, who wrote and directed the movie and he's Ron Santo's son. Ron Santo, you know, is the guy that played with the Cubs - third base for the Cubs - for a number of years. A great Hall of Fame player.
"Anyway, Jeff wrote this movie - this story - and he always had 'Rock and Roll Lullaby' in the back of his mind when he was thinking of this movie. So, he contacted us online and then we spoke on the phone. He came down and visited me and we got involved.
"We shot our part in about three days. Richard Tyson's in the movie and other people - Diane Ladd and some other great people. It's a story about a group of misfit people who have their issues that they kinda get resolved when they have to take responsibility for a 10-year-old kid who's had a tragedy in his life. They all come together for this child. It's really, really a great movie. I really enjoyed doing it. It was pretty cool and a great experience. I was involved in a movie back in the '70's (Jory) but back in that day, we had to make a choice of what we were going to do. I was very busy with my music then so we chose not to pursue a movie career. So that was the first movie I had done in a long time. It was a lot of fun."
Thomas has a reputation in the industry as being one who does not waiver from his core values or from his beliefs. I asked him if that caused him any problems in his career.
"Well, there really hasn't been a lot of that. But there's been some of it. I'm really devoted to - I purpose to do positive music. I mean, I'll sing the Blues sometimes, but I try to stay in the positive side of my music and do something that uplifting and inspirational, if you will. So, I've got certain areas and certain boundaries that I put on my music.
"There have been a number of times when I've been presented with music or situations that, you know, I just had to say, 'No, I'm not going to do that.' Sometimes it's been tough and causes some personal problems with people. But, usually people will understand and realize what you're doing."
Continuing on, he brings up the very public "situation" that occurred during his appearance on shock jock central the Howard Stern Show back in 1998.
"I was in a situation like that, oh it's been a number of years ago - probably 6 or 7 years ago - I got on the Howard Stern Show. He asked me to come on the show. And, uh, I was like, 'What in the world does he want to talk to me about?'
"When I got to the show, he was in the midst some sort of feud with Rosie O'Donnell. So he has a set of lyrics that he wants me to sing that are to the melody of 'Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head.' And the lyrics are just filthy. So, when he hands me the lyrics, he wants me to sing it. I said, 'Well, guys, I'm not going to sing this', you know? 'I don't know what made you think that I was going to sing it.' Anyway, he ran through his little deal and I said, 'Man, YOU can sing it!'
"So, I refused to sing it. I didn't refuse to sing it on any kind of basis. Why would I do something like this? I mean, my whole career I've tried to stay positive and do good music. Why in the world would I do this? And so, it got a little ticklish for a minute but then he was very nice about it. And, actually, he treated me really good. But, you know, sometimes, you hit a situation like that you never would think would come up and it might catch you off guard but you've gotta be true to yourself."
Switching to more "angelic" memories, I commented on his incredibly successful foray into the Contemporary Christian Music market back in the '80's. When I asked if he would go full bore back into that genre as he did then, he's very diplomatic.
"Well, you know, probably not. Although that experience was one of my great memories and I feel like was one of my big successes. We had the first four platinum albums in Gospel Music history so that was like a really great thing and I'm so proud that I was able to do that. And I think I was one of the first guys to have that sort of public story and conversion deal. I think the music I did helped open a lot of doors for some of those behind me. So, I feel proud about that period of time.
"But, I probably won't go back there. There is a great chance that... I might do a spiritual or a Gospel record, if there's any reason to do one. But I probably won't go back in to just the Gospel business, per se." Having once been involved in the retail end of the Christian music business, I knew that he was the target of some unfair shots from within. While he was lauded for his success, he was also criticized for it. However, he seems to be able to reflect on those times with a calm grace.
"The thing that happens in a lot of these cases is not so much that - the Gospel business at that time - I didn't really know much about (it). Once I cut that record ("Home Where I Belong, " from 1977), all of a sudden, BANG! It was so huge that, all of a sudden I was in the middle of a business that I wasn't familiar with.
"So, a lot of times, what I've found ,and some other people have found, is once you make that record, then the mainstream where you've been your entire career, they turn their back on you also. "I guess Elvis was the only guy that ever got away with this, right when he first broke out with his first hit record, he still sang Gospel music and had spiritual records out. And he was able to do both of those and nobody required him to do one or the other. So that's what kind of becomes ticklish about it once you do it. Radio - we had problems with radio and the industry, too. But, I don't regret anything. We had some problems, of course, with some expectations of - on both sides. But it was all good."
With a career that launched in the '50's, B.J. Thomas has witnessed a lot of changes in the music industry. Thomas's encyclopedic knowledge of the business shows in his comments about those changes. "Well, of course, the differences are huge. I think people, especially from our generation, they still want to hear good songs. And I think now, when we're talking about the younger generation, they're not as familiar with what a good song is. That's why I really was so pleased to see the Beatles come out with their re-mastered music because this music is really good. The Beatles music was really great so you could really respect their music and the craftsmanship and the quality of it. That's going to make the younger generation, a lot of them, familiar with what good music sounds like.
"There's some groups out - U2, they do a lot of positive music. But a lot of the music is kind of a one-geared thing where one group will lock in to a certain mode of music and that's what they do every time. From our generation, from the '50's, '60's, '70's, we were lucky because every artist was almost totally different than his fellow artist, in the way he sounded and the kind of music he did. Gosh, you know, going back there, we had the Beatles at some point. We had Ray Charles. We had Motown and Al Green, Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis. There was a lot of stuff going on back then that was unique. We don't have that right now. That's the biggest change. I think music has become more angry and more drone-like. It's more the immediate 'payoff' comes in the first two lines of the song. They repeat that first line or two, they repeat that for four minutes and that call that a song.
There's a huge difference in the quality of music and I know that every generation has problems with it (music). I know Sinatra had problems with Elvis' music. He was very public about Elvis' music - wasn't up to par. He did get to where he loved Elvis and he loved the Beatles also. You know, there's (so) few good music. There's good artists out there but it's changed. Technically, it's different. You don't need a big orchestra to do a big Bacharach thing. You can get a keyboard or two to represent that sound. Things have changed. The music is always about who's the new guy - who's the next guy. That's the way it is - the nature of the beast.
"You know, I got into music in the '50's and that was Little Richard, Chuck Berry, a lot of great guys back then. Ray Charles was there even then. That '50's/'60's/'70's music, if I go down to South America to some dates down there, all I hear is '60's and '70's music. So, that music is loved all around the world and people still play it. Everybody loves everything (from then) - all the product (out) of Motown, we mentioned the Beatles - I have to bring them up again; Stax Records and all that stuff out of Memphis. So, all that music is still there, still going over the airwaves, all across the country. That may have been the greatest time of all time for music.
"We were talking too about Pop Music, which would mean that everybody across the board, the population, liked the music. Now there's a separation. We've got the R&B music over here, the Hip Hop music over here, and we've got another kind of jazz over here, and easy listening is over here. Back in my time, it was a Top 40 situation where all that music was played on one station. Now, there's a huge separation - there may be a huge artist selling a lot of records and putting out a lot of records that a whole a huge section of the community won't be familiar with because they don't hear it on the station they like to listen to." Adding to his observations, I comment that this dissection of the audience has made it very difficult for big record labels to make those demographics profitable. He pounces right on that comment.
"Absolutely! There's a few artists keeping the record companies doors open and they will - they're going to invest in a new artist, maybe. And if he doesn't have a huge output then his time is maybe past for awhile. For them to be risking a lot of money for new people, and especially older guys like me, there's not a lot of budget there in the industry for us anymore. That all relates to the economy and the changes in the music. That's just the way it is."
I was curious if he is seeing changes in his audiences.
"Well, you know, basically, it has stayed the same. Of course, the main change is my audience has, like me, has become a little older. And so I don't - I always have some young people in my audience but my audience is basically getting older. I think the people that loved to hear me sing back then in the '60's, the '70's and through the '80's, they really need to hear that old school, that traditional music even more so now. So, now I'm kinda always amazed at how many people come to see me on a consistent basis. We sell out just about everywhere we go. People are still wanting to hear that music. Like I said, maybe even more so now than they ever have."
Is the economy affecting the turnout to his shows?
"Absolutely! This is the first time that I've seen the economy affect the music industry so much. Usually, when times get rough, there's more music. People want to hear more music. But this is the first time I've seen where it's truly down. It's down everywhere. Nashville's down. Just across the board, music is down. People just don't have the money to spend to go to concerts. So it's really taken an affect. I've noticed it certainly."
For an artist who has seen and heard it all, I asked B.J. if there were any artists who he was paying particular attention to.
"Well, you know, this is probably is a negative on my end, but I'm not trying to stay. . . aware of everything that is coming out. I'm into my own thing. I'm into my performances. If I'm not working, I'm kind of - I kind of turn it off. I know there are lots of new guys out there.
"There's a huge thing here in Texas called 'Texas Music.' I'm going to host the Academy of Texas Music Awards next year and I'm going to become a lot more familiar with what Texas Music is doing. Texas Music has always got a lot of new guys. My daughter is always playing me some new guys here in-state. So, there are a lot of new people out there that I'm probably not familiar with."
I ask Thomas to dust off his crystal ball and tell me what the future holds for him.
"Well, you know, I mentioned, we have this Brazilian Classics coming out. We're going to be working on that for the next few months and trying to make it available for everyone online and otherwise. And Scepter Records has - there is a company out of England that has re-mastered and re-mixed all the music I did for Scepter (from) when I first started up through 'Raindrops.' That's coming out in a box set so we're going to be trying to help them promote that and be involved in that. Otherwise, I'm just going to continue my one-nighters. I do something like 60 - 85 shows a year. I'm going to continue to do that as long as I enjoy doing it."
Wrapping up the interview with this music legend, I had to ask Thomas if there was one thing that hasn't been covered or, at least, has been least understood about him and his work. He answers with a laugh.
"I don't know if there are any areas left! We've been pretty transparent, you know, especially putting out the book, Home Where I Belong, back in the late '70's. We've been pretty open and transparent. "There's always some music that I still want to make. I grew up . . . as a lover of R&B music - the traditional, old-school R&B like the Temptations, Bobby Bland and those guys. So, I'd still like to do an R&B record before I stop recording, which I hope I never do. But, I think, pretty much, my life has been an open book. I'm just another guy. I'm a family guy. Gloria and I have been married forty years, so they (the public) pretty much know everything about me."
After the conversation, I reflected on how Thomas is both classic and classy in how he presents himself as well as how he balances his professional and family life. Perfect? I would guess not. Who of us are? However, every time I have the privilege of interviewing an icon of my youth, I am almost always struck by the balance demonstrated in their lives. I'm also impressed with the peace they have with their past and present and the positive outlook for their future.
Also see B.J. Thomas' website
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