In 1969, BJ Thomas, who died of lung cancer complications at age 78, spent four weeks at the top of the US list. Raindrops keep falling on my head, from the soundtrack to the popular movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It is the song with which he will always be synonymous, but he hardly ever gets to sing it.
As Thomas recalled, his songwriter Burt Bacharach originally wanted Bob Dylan to record it, but Dylan was unable or unwilling to please him. Then it was offered to Ray Stevens, but he too turned it down. When Thomas was finally given the job, his doctor warned him not to sing because he suffered from laryngitis. “I had come off a two-week tour and had laryngitis and could barely earn the soundtrack,” he recalled. He somehow managed to fight his way through five takes in the studio and produce a result that picky Bacharach was happy with for the film. A recovered Thomas recorded a new voice for the song’s release as a single.
Raindrops won an Oscar for Best Original Song and Thomas performed it at the 1970 Academy Awards. Although it only reached number 38 on the UK Singles Chart, its popularity endured through regular playback of the radio for decades. It was his first number one hit in the US, after other chart hits, including his Top 10 version of Hank Williams. I’m so lonely that I could cry (1966), The eyes of a New York woman (which reached No. 28, 1968) and Hooked on a Feeling (No 5, 1968). The last of these earned Thomas a season of performances at the Copacabana nightclub in New York.
Blessed with a voice that brought a touch of soulfulness to his easy-listening softness, he would enjoy new pop hits in the 1970s, including I can’t help but believe (later a hit single and concert favorite by Elvis Presley) and No love at all (1970), the exuberant evangelical style Mighty clouds of joy (1971) and Rock and roll lullaby (1972), and would once again top the US chart with (Hey, won’t you play) Wrong song from someone else someone made someone (1975).
The latter of these also topped the list of US countries, where he would make numerous appearances, including No. 1 hits. What happened to old-fashioned love? Y New looks from an old lover (both from 1983). In 1981 he was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. In the late 70s and 80s, he had a string of hits as a gospel and inspirational singer.
Billy Joe Thomas was born in Hugo, Oklahoma, the second of three children to Vernon and Geneva Thomas. He grew up in Houston and then Rosenberg, Texas, and graduated from Rosenberg’s Lamar Consolidated High School.
He was nicknamed “BJ” when he played minor league baseball at school, to distinguish him from several other players named Billy Joe. Thomas described how, later, “I went through years of intense alcoholism and drug addiction” and it was music that served as his lifeline.
He had sung in church as a child and was later inspired by singers like Williams, Mahalia Jackson, and Jackie Wilson. The uplifting message of Wilson’s song was taken especially seriously. To be loved. With his older brother Jerry, he joined a local pop band, The Triumphs, while he was in high school. They recorded I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry for the Pacemaker record label, which became a million-dollar blockbuster after it was picked up by New York’s Scepter Records, home to artists like the Isley Brothers, Dionne Warwick and Tammi Terrell.
Thomas’s success meant he was in international demand and on tour frequently, but his drug problems reached life-threatening proportions in the early 1970s. He told the Associated Press: “He had started to overdose several times. They had to hook me up to a machine to keep me alive. I was declared dead once. My marriage was a failure. I was finally totally at the bottom of my life. “
He reconciled with his wife, Gloria Richardson, whom he had married in 1968, and with her help he gave up drugs in 1976. He also found religion and made his first gospel-style album, Home Where I Belong. It won him the first of his five Grammy Awards in 1977, and that year he sang at Elvis Presley’s funeral. Thomas described his personal struggles in his autobiography, Home Where I Belong (1978).
Made a couple of forays into acting. He played the gunman Jocko in a western called Jory (1973) and appeared in the comedy-drama Jake’s Corner (2008). A more rewarding screen-related adventure was his portrayal of As Long As We Got Each Other, the title track of the 1980s television comedy Growing Pains.
This took on a life of its own, being first recorded by Thomas only, Then in a duet with Jennifer Warnes for the show’s second season, then on an extended version sung by Thomas and Dusty Springfield. This latest incarnation appeared on Thomas’ album Midnight Minute (1989) and was a hit on the adult contemporary chart.
He continued touring and recording, and The Living Room Sessions (2013) included acoustic versions of a dozen of his hits, with guest appearances by Lyle Lovett, Vince Gill, Richard Marx, and others.
Thomas is survived by Gloria and her daughters, Paige, Nora, and Erin.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism