B.J. Thomas – Singer
Born August 7, 1942; died May 29, 2021
B.J. Thomas, who has died from lung cancer aged 78, was a singer whose rendition of Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head became a defining moment, both of his own career, and of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969), the buddy based western it soundtracked. The sunny joie de vivre of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s composition was the perfect accompaniment to Paul Newman’s outlaw on the run Butch and Katharine Ross’s Etta Place – lover of Robert Redford’s Sundance - larking about on a bike in George Roy Hill’s William Goldman scripted film.
Thomas hadn’t been Bacharach’s first choice, and originally wanted Bob Dylan to sing his song. It was also offered to Ray Stevens. Thomas had been recovering from laryngitis when he recorded the version that appears in the film, and Bacharach worked him for several takes until he was satisfied.
Thomas sounds less husky on the recording released as a single. Made after his voice had recovered, it took him to the top of the American Billboard chart. While it only reached 38 in the UK, it also went to number one in Canada, Norway Mexico and South Africa, and won an Oscar for Best Song.
Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head wasn’t Thomas’ first or only hit. He had already scored a winner with the original version of Mark James’ song, Hooked on a Feeling (1968), later picked up by Jonathan King. Thomas would go on to become a regular fixture of the American Country and Christian charts. He scored a second Billboard number one in 1975 with Larry Butler and Chips Moman’s Grammy winning (Hey Won’t You Play ) Another Somebody Did Somebody Wrong Song.
By that time, Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head had been Grammy nominated, become something of a cabaret staple, and had been covered numerous times. It is Thomas’ original, however, that remains the definitive version.
Billy Joe Thomas was born in Hugo, Oklahoma, and grew up in Houston, Texas, the second of three children to Vernon and Geneva Thomas. He went to Lamar Consolidated High School in Rosenberg, and acquired his nickname while playing Little League baseball to distinguish him from other players called Billy Joe.
As a teenager he sang in a church choir before joining The Triumphs aged fifteen with his older brother Jerry. In 1966, the band released their album, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry. A single of the Hank Williams penned title track sold over a million copies before Thomas released a solo album of the same name a year later with a different track listing.
Beyond the global success of Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head, Thomas went on to win five Grammy awards throughout the 1970s and early 1980s. Four were for Best Inspirational Performance, including his 1981 version of Amazing Grace. He also won a Best Gospel Performance Grammy in 1980 for an all-star version of The Lord’s Prayer. Other hits included a version of Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s I Just Can’t Help Believing (1970), later made famous by Elvis Presley, No Love At All (1970), and Rock and Roll Lullaby (1972). Albums included Songs (1973), and Longhorns and Londonbridges (1974).
Thomas had been drug and drink dependent since the early days of his career. This almost caused the end of his marriage to Gloria Richardson, who had wed in 1968. They reconciled in 1976, after both became Christians following a major overdose Thomas was lucky to survive. Reinvigorated by his newly born again status, Thomas made Home Where I Belong (1976), which became the first Christian gospel album to go platinum.
The record’s title also became the name of his candid autobiography, published in 1978. Inbetween, he won his first Grammy, and performed at the memorial service for Elvis Presley, who died in 1977. Other albums by Thomas that followed included You Gave Me Love (When Nobody Gave Me a Prayer (1979), and Love Shines (1983).
Despite his popularity, Thomas’ faith didn’t always go down well with evangelical audiences, who demanded he perform Christian songs all the time. In interviews he took pains to point out that he wasn’t a Christian singer, but a singer who was also a Christian.
Beyond singing, Thomas made occasional forays into acting. In 1973, he played a gunslinger in western film, Jory, and he would later appear in comedy-drama, Jake’s Corner (2008). His rendition of As Long As we Got Each Other became the theme song for 1980s TV sit-com, Growing Pains. The smooth clarity of his voice also lent itself to jingles for Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
Latterly Thomas focused more on secular work, with The Living Room Sessions (2013) featuring new acoustic versions of a dozen songs he’d previously recorded. This featured all his best-known works, from I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry onwards.
Guests on the record included Richard Marx, who joined Thomas on a stripped down version of (Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Something Wrong Song. A new rendition of Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head saw Thomas singing alongside Lyle Lovett. With Thomas’ voice as clear as ever, the record confirmed both the song and its singer as evergreen as both had sounded almost half a century earlier.
Thomas is survived by his wife, Gloria Richardson, and their daughters, Paige, Nora and Erin.
The Herald, June 14th 2021