Wednesday, September 9, 2009

B.J. Thomas Reflects On Days Gone By

I’ve made reference to this previously on this blog, but a few years back I intensified my endeavours to track down (in digital format) every song that had made the Australian top forty during the 1980s. Actually, I cast my hit seeking net a little wider than that, timeline wise, but the 80s were my principle focus at that time. It necessitated scouring a lot of second hand shops (for deleted CD titles), maintaining a keen eye on track listings for compilation discs, and taking advantage of the burgeoning resources available via the internet. We’re talking late 90s/early 00s, so online downloads were in their infancy, however for the first time I was able to readily check the availability of CD titles overseas, and import said titles without having to rely on a third party. I accessed the work of many of the songs/artists who I’ve written about on this blog, via these avenues. On occasions certain artist’s back catalogues weren’t readily available, and in these instances I accessed, shall we say, less official channels. Regardless of the source, it was a never ending process of surprise and fulfilment for a music junkie such as myself. Obtaining pristine digital recordings of some of my favourite songs (which previously I had only owned on cassette/vinyl), and equally as satisfying, discovering (or rediscovering) hidden gems from days gone past. One such nugget of music gold was a minor hit from 1983, ‘Whatever Happened To Old Fashioned Love’, performed by singer/songwriter B.J. Thomas. Thomas had already scored his biggest pop hit over a decade earlier, but ‘Whatever Happened To Old Fashioned Love’ was an appealing sentimental country-pop ballad, rich in poignant lyrics, and fine musical craftsmanship - two qualities that helped to define the career of B.J. Thomas.

The initials B.J. have always interested me when utilised in the first name context. B.J. and the Bear, B.J. Honeycutt from M.A.S.H., and more often than not my first guess as to the full names behind the nomenclatural acronym is Billy Joe - it just seems to fit. In the case of one B.J. Thomas, Billy Joe fits the initials perfectly. The Oklahoma born B.J. Thomas, of the Billy Joe variety, spent his formative years in Roseburg, Texas, just out of Houston. Like many of his generation, the local church choir offered an entry point into the world of music, but young B.J. was enamoured less my gospel, and more by popular country, rock and roll, and R&B fare. Reportedly, the first record he purchased was ‘Miss Ann’ by the inimitable Little Richard, and the likes of Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, and Jackie Wilson also proved a strong formative influence.

Whilst still in high school, Thomas joined a local band called The Triumphs (which included Thomas’ early song writing partner Mark Charron). The band gained a strong following in and around the Houston, and south-west area. During this period, Thomas struck up a friendship with Roy Head, of The Traits, and the two bands regularly locked horns in local ‘battle of the bands’ comps. The Triumphs cut a single called ‘Lazy Man’, which sold well regionally, but an appearance at a 4th of July show in 1965 would prove a defining moment in the career of B.J. Thomas. The band was overheard by Charles Booth, owner of a small time label called Pacemaker Records. Booth signed Thomas and The Triumphs soon after, and in late ‘65 the band recorded their debut set, ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’. The title track was a cover of the 1949 Hank Williams song, and Thomas doubted that it would be any chance of becoming his first hit single, but a local Houston disc jockey named Bob White became a strong advocate for the song. It was initially released as a single through the Pacemaker label, but around that time Charles Booth opted to sell on The Triumphs’ tapes and contract to a New York based label, Scepter Records, which just happened to be the label stable for Dionne Warwick, a connection that would bear fruit for B.J. Thomas a few years later. Scepter released the single ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’ nationally, and in early ‘66, B.J. Thomas (and The Triumphs) had a US#8 hit in the can.

Shortly after, an album was released by Scepter Records under the B.J. Thomas banner, and with the same title. The album contained many of the songs Thomas and The Triumphs had recorded for Pacemaker, with an eclectic mix of country and soul/R&B standards thrown into the mix, including a cover of Wilson Pickett’s ‘In The Midnight Hour’. The follow up single, ‘Mama’, notched up a #22 result on the U.S. charts, which in turn was followed up by ‘Billy And Sue’ (US#34), the final single credited in part to The Triumphs. Part of the reason for the ensuing split with Thomas lay in the band’s reluctance to tour beyond their local area, so Thomas broke away as a solo artist, and toured during 1966 with the Dick Clark Caravan of Stars. Though Thomas earned a Cashbox award for the Most Promising Vocalist of the Year for 1966, over the ensuing twelve months, his chart dividends began to dwindle, with the album ‘Tomorrow Never Comes’ (a diverse mix stylistically), and associated singles ‘Bring Back The Time’ (US#75), and ‘Tomorrow Never Comes’ (US#80).

Thomas bounced back to form with the 1968 album, ‘On My Way’ (US#133). Of the album’s ten tracks, most were covers (including a take on Ray Stevens’ ‘Mr. Businessman’ - an interesting link to pending events), but two songs penned by Mark James (who shortly after wrote ‘Suspicious Minds’ for Elvis Presley) proved to be the stand out cuts. ‘The Eyes Of A New York Woman’ focussed resolutely at #28 on the U.S. Hot 100 mid year, and a few months later ‘Hooked On A Feeling’ became hooked at #5 nationally. It was arguably the first, or one of the first, top five singles to feature an electric sitar, and the song proved to have an irresistible hold on record buyers, returning to #1 on the U.S. charts in 1974 for Blue Swede (though in markedly different form). B.J. Thomas then received the second big break of his career, thanks to Scepter label-mate Dionne Warwick. Warwick took a copy of Thomas’ single, ‘Hooked On A Feeling’, to the famed song writing partnership of Burt Bacharach and Hal David (who penned many of Warwick’s biggest hits). Warwick urged Bacharach to write and produce some songs for Thomas. Bacharach was suitably impressed with Thomas’ enticingly mellow vocal style, and signed him to a management contract, but at the time the song writer was preoccupied with finishing work on the soundtrack to an upcoming motion picture.

Bacharach and David had penned a beautifully crafted song called ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’, and initially, according to Bacharach, the song was offered to Ray Stevens. Stevens declined the offer, largely due to the fact he had a new album pending, which included the May 1970 US#1, ‘Everything Is Beautiful’ - now if you’re after eclectic artists, look no further than Ray Stevens. It’s also been widely documented that the song was offered to Bob Dylan, who also declined - I have to wonder if the song would have lost its charm at Dylan’s hands. Unbeknownst to Thomas, he was actually Bacharach’s third choice to record ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’, but for Thomas it would prove third time’s a charm. The song was firstly scheduled to be recorded for inclusion in the film score/soundtrack for ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’, a star vehicle for Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Suffering from bad laryngitis, incurred on a recent tour, Thomas was under firm orders from his doctor to rest his voice for two weeks, but neither rain, nor hail, nor husky voice could prevent B.J. Thomas from stepping up to the microphone under the watchful eyes (and ears) of writers and producers Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Dosed up with all manner of medications, Thomas churned out five takes of ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’, before Bacharach finally gave the thumbs up signal - a good thing too, as Thomas later revealed he was at the end of his vocal tether. An executive from 20th Century Fox, who were financing the film, made comment about how Newman-esque Thomas’ raspy vocal style was - it would be a perfect fit for the film sequence it was to play over.

A few weeks later, Thomas re-recorded the song in New York for a single release. His voice problems were behind him, and Thomas delivered a crystal clear, blue skies take on the inclement title. The single ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’ hit stores during October of ‘69, and by November a light shower of sales had it sitting inside the U.S. Hot 100. By year’s end, the track had been certified gold and on 3rd January 1970, B.J. Thomas scored the first U.S.#1 of the new decade when a deluge of sales pushed ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’ (OZ#29/UK#38) to the summit of the charts. It was the second U.S. chart topper for the mercurial song writing team of Bacharach and David (after 1968’s ‘This Guy’s In Love With You’ by Herb Alpert), and Thomas held the competition at bay for a total of four weeks. Shortly after the song was supplanted at #1 (by the Jackson Five’s ‘I Want You Back’), the film ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ hit cinemas across the U.S. History reveals that the film became a Hollywood classic, and one of the modern day icons of the western genre. It confirmed Paul Newman’s superstar status, and elevated co-star Robert Redford to the same mantle. But for all its cinematic brilliance, arguably one of the film’s most memorable moments is the famed Paul Newman and Katharine Ross bicycle riding sequence, accompanied by ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’. Among the film’s four Academy Awards was ‘Best Original Song’ for ‘Raindrops’. Thomas released an album of the same title around the same time (US#12/OZ#11).

B.J. Thomas’ mellow, easy listening vocal style became a regular feature on the pop charts over the next two years, with a string of hits including, the Bacharach/David penned ‘Everybody’s Out Of Town’ (US#26/OZ#21), ‘I Just Can’t Help Believing’ (written by Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil - US#9/OZ#31), ‘No Love At All’ (US#16), the gospel tinged ‘Mighty Clouds Of Joy’ (US#34), and the pop-rock anthem ‘Rock And Roll Lullaby’ (US#15 - featuring Duane Eddy on guitar and The Blossoms on backing vocals). The diversity of song styles highlighted Thomas as a vocalist capable of skilfully interpreting anything from country, rock and roll, soul, pop, gospel, and any combination thereof.

But the hit singles didn’t translate to album sales, with his self titled 1972 effort only reaching US#145. That particular album represented Thomas’ last outing on the Scepter Records label, and soon after it became apparent that the drug addiction issues that had plagued Thomas since his teen years, were taking a toll. Over the next couple of years he recorded a pair of uninspired albums for the Paramount label, neither of which yielded any great interest, and it’s fair to say Thomas’ career was on the skids. In early ‘75, songwriters Chips Moman and Larry Butler offered B.J. Thomas the right song to spark a short but sharp revival. ‘(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song’ became, in a non-technical sense, the longest title to ever hit #1 on the U.S. charts (OZ#10), when it replaced Elton John’s ‘Philadelphia Freedom’ at the summit in April of ‘75. Released on the ABC label, and lifted from the album ‘Reunion’ (#2 country), Thomas recorded the song in a drug induced haze, but sales served to fund that habit for the next year or so. By early ‘76, Thomas’ personal life and career had hit rock bottom, before the singer found religion and kicked the drug habit for good. 1977’s album, ‘Home Where I Belong’, was gospel oriented, but did include the US#17 Beach Boys’ cover ‘Don’t Worry Baby’. Over the next few years Thomas combined gospel and country styles, and though mainstream pop success faded, he solidified his place as a best selling country artist. 1983’s ‘Whatever Happened To Old Fashioned Love’ was a gentle, reflective, nostalgia tinged tune that reached #1 on the U.S. country charts, and #39 on Australia’s mainstream pop charts. The source album, ‘New Looks’, and its 1984 follow up, ‘The Great American Dream’, were slanted more toward a pop-country audience, but most of Thomas’ chart success remained confined to country chart territory.

Thomas’ output of recorded material remained slow but steady into the 90s and beyond, and the singer has continued to tour on occasion. His most recent album release was ‘Home For Christmas’ in 2007, though via the official B.J. Thomas website, the new album ‘Once I Loved’ is slated for release during September ‘09.

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