September 8, 2020 Interview – BJ Thomas
Crossing genres, BJ Thomas is one of the most distinctive voices to emerge from the 1960s. Attaining a string of hits including “Hooked on a Feeling” in 1968, perhaps the most enduring legacy of Thomas is “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” A song which found its way into the majorly successful 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” is forever a piece of recording gold that still resonates 50 years later.
An artist who prides himself on recording music that is near and dear to who he is, Thomas has touched fans of Pop, Rock, Country, and Gospel music. Aspects that broaden his appeal, he is an American artist not only with an extraordinary talent, but a big heart. Still actively performing, and preparing to record a new album, Thomas recently sat down to look back on his career, the success of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” life lessons, plus much more.
Cryptic Rock – You have been involved in music for over five decades now. Breaking through as a massive success in Pop, Rock, and the Country genre, how would you describe your incredible career to this point?
BJ Thomas – I’m very satisfied with my career. As anybody would probably think looking back, I think there is a lot more I could have done. I feel like I could have really done three times what I did, but that is just the way the music business ebbs and flows.
As I look back, I started in a band when I was 15 – a band called the Triumphs. I feel like I’ve worked with some of the great writers of my time – Burt Bacharach, Hal David, Barry Mann, Cynthia Weil, Mark James, Stephen Dorff, and John Bettis. I think that was one of the key things to my career: it was back in an era where you would always sit down with the people you were going to record with. You would talk to them about what you wanted to do, what you were thinking, and they would write songs that would fit who you were. I think that was a great way to do it in Memphis, New York, or wherever I was recording.
I think I’ve had a great career; I’ve been blessed and very lucky. Of course there have been some very low lows and some unbelievable highs, but that’s like anything in life. Looking back on how it’s turned out, and where I am right now in my career, I feel satisfied.
Cryptic Rock – You have certainly done a lot of wonderful things with tremendous success. One of the most successful songs you recorded is “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” It is a song that crossed into a new decade on January 3rd, 1970 as the first #1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 where it remained for the next four week. Featured in 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, 50 years later, what was it like for you at the time the song was taking off?
BJ Thomas – It was incredible on almost every level; not just musically, but personally. The whole thing was fantastic. I was recording in Memphis at that time, I was with Scepter Records. Burt Bacharach and Hal David played a major role with that label because they produced and wrote most of Dionne Warwick’s music.
Florence Greenberg, the lady who owned Scepter Records, came to me when I was recording in Memphis after I just had a hit with “Hooked on a Feeling.” I was feeling really good and I loved Memphis, but she came to me and said, “BJ, would you and Gloria move to New York City?” Gloria and I had just gotten married, but Florence said, “If you move to New York City I think I can get you a session and song with Burt Bacharach and Hal David.” That sounded really good to me but I hated to leave Memphis, but subsequently I went back and still had some success there.
I had seen Mr. Bacharach in the offices, I knew Dionne Warwick, and I was in awe of them. Eventually we started working on music and pretty soon the bicycle scene with Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came up and they needed a guy to sing it; I was right there and selling records. They gave me the shot, and, of course, I went out and did the session for the bicycle scene. A matter of fact, I had an acute case of laryngitis when I did that session, but we re-cut the song about 6 weeks later for the number one record.
There are hardly words to describe what an incredible time that was for me professionally and personally. It is one of the great moments of my life and great memories all the way around.
Cryptic Rock – It sounds like it was a really special time. The song won an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 1969, and, as mentioned, went number 1. You have also had plenty of other hits, as well. What is very interesting about your music is you have never been pigeonholed into one genre; you move from Pop to Country to Rock. Was it always important to you to have that versatility?
BJ Thomas – Well, you know it wasn’t something I was really trying to do. I’ve always been lucky though; Country people take me as Country, Pop people take me as Pop, and Gospel people take me as Gospel. When we formed the band, we were all about 15 years old, and it was right at the inception of Top 40 radio. That was at a time where they played all of the popular music on one station. We just would do the songs we liked off that Top 40 chart when we started. I’ve just always been used to doing the song I liked; it wasn’t anything I was really doing on purpose.
Kenny Rogers, who sadly recently passed and was a great friend of mine, was kind of the same. He did Jazz and different things; I think that had a lot to do with the Top 40 radio style of my day. At this point it is kind of nice to have had those number 1’s in all those genres. That’s really something I’m proud of now, but it wasn’t something that I did on purpose really.
Cryptic Rock – It worked out well because it really broadened your fan base throughout the years.
BJ Thomas – Yes, it has. I’ve been very lucky. I think people from my generation want to hear the music more now than they ever did. They still support me and I also have a lot of young people that come to see me too. The whole thing has been fun. There’s been a lot of drama, and like in anyone’s life there have been some downs and some highs, but it’s all been wonderful on the whole.
Cryptic Rock – That is great. You have one of the most distinctive voices around. You put your own feel into every song you’ve ever recorded, whether it be The Doors’ “Light My Fire” or any other song. When you approach a song, what makes you decide that this is a song you want to record and make your own?
BJ Thomas – It’s pretty simple: if I like the song, I can really feel it, and I find a way I can really believe it, that’s all I need. I really got that early on when I was 12 or 13 years old and I started hearing Jackie Wilson. Jackie Wilson was a huge thing in my awakening to music. I always sang a little bit and was all about hitting the notes, but Jackie Wilson always seemed to be singing absolutely straight from his heart. I recognized early on that is what made the song feel so good.
The music has always been emotional for me. If I can find an emotional connection where I can really believe it, especially in the music, where you can get lost in the feeling and emotion, I think that was one of the good things for me being so successful. There were plenty of guys who could sing better than me, but I don’t think there was anybody who believed what they were singing any more than me.
Cryptic Rock – You can certainly feel that in your recordings. In 2013 you released an unplugged album, The Unplugged Sessions, which was re-recordings of some really great songs. You collaborated with the likes of Vince Gill and Richard Marx, among others for it. So what was it like recording that album?
BJ Thomas – It was really a lot of fun. Of course I kind of hesitated, because I really didn’t want to re-record all my songs. We put some thought into it and people really wanted me to do it. So we came up with the acoustic idea of doing it in a living room fashion. That made it work for me and made it interesting.
I loved working with all the other people such as Vince Gill and Sara Niemietz, who still hasn’t reached her potential yet, but is a great singer. It also was great working with Richard Marx, Lyle Lovett, and everyone else. It was a lot of fun to do.
Cryptic Rock – It is a fun listen, too. You have continued to tour throughout the years, but obviously that is on hold right now due to COVID-19. Recently doing a virtual benefit concert on July 3rd, can we expect you to pick up touring again in 2021?
BJ Thomas – Yes, as soon as we can, but the pandemic has put a stop on things. That is one of the things – I had to postpone a recording. I was going into Muscle Shoals, Alabama on the 15th of July. I had to postpone that for a while, and I was looking forward to that. I haven’t nearly done as much recording as I would have liked to have done over the last 20 years. We have some great songs and we are eventually going to record them.
The pandemic has really put a stop on the music. What I’m now personally doing is waiting. We all need the vaccine so we can be safe. Once I get the vaccine and I know I can’t catch the virus, I’m going to be working as normal doing my music. Of course we don’t know when that’s going to happen; we’re all on hold. It’s been a frustratingly stressful thing, but sooner or later we’ll be back.
Cryptic Rock – Understandable, it is about being safe at this time. You mentioned you will be recording another album. What can you tell us about the new music you are working on?
BJ Thomas – I am going with the Songwriter Dan Penn who wrote “Cry Like a Baby” for the Box Tops, among many other songs. I am also going with Billy Lawson. They are two great songwriters. We are going to go in the studio there in Muscle Shoals, do it with real people, and see what happens. It’s not so much that I’m recording for radio anymore, I’m just doing it on a personal sense. We’ll try to get it out through all the venues we can.
Cryptic Rock – It will be exciting to hear that. As you stated, it has been quite a while since you put out a new album.
BJ Thomas – Yes, it’s been kind of disappointing to me. Music as a business is all about who’s new and who’s the next guy. Very few people stick around, like say a Frank Sinatra.
I’ve had a great, long run in music, but eventually as you get a little older the songwriters are not thinking of you as they once did. It kind of puts the onus on me though: I should write more of my own music. I have been writing lately and I’m planning on doing that more. Maybe I’ve been a little bit lazy, so I’m going to try and get back on the ball.
Cryptic Rock – Well people will love to hear some new music. Last question for you. Through the highs and lows of everything, what would you say are some of the more important things you have learned from your experiences?
BJ Thomas – I do think that every life has its drama. You just can’t give up. It’s almost like putting one foot in front of the other. Like when I had laryngitis for “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” I felt, “Is there any use of me even showing up?” Then I thought, “I’m just going to show up. If he fires me, so be it. I’m just not going to not be there.”
I think that has related to my life. It’s the reason I cut back so much on performing, recording, and traveling; I wanted to be there for my family. We raised our kids and I was present and around. I think that’s one of the most important things: not to give up. Don’t get your head down, because the higher power is with you at all times. People who don’t have a faith I feel sorry for. You have to have faith in something, it keeps your head up. Just don’t give up, be present, and see what happens.
Cryptic Rock – That is a great message. It comes with time and wisdom.
BJ Thomas – I’m not trying to be on the mountaintop or anything, but through my life I’ve learned don’t ever give up. Always have faith in yourself. It’s like the golden rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. That will take care of a lot of things. It will take care of yourself too if you have that attitude.
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