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Published: 2002/08/25
by Mike Gruenberg

Featured Column II In My Life: BJ Thomas Interview

{Editor's note: Here is our second featured column this month, Mike Gruenberg's "In My Life" which takes a look at artists from the 60's and 70's. For a look at some of his other columns, visit his archives.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing BJ Thomas. Few recording artists have had the success of this man. His rmncludes: 15 Top 40 Pop hits, 10 Top 40 Country hits, 5 Grammys, 2 Dove Awards, 2 Platinum Records, and 11 Gold Records. At the age of 30, he became the 60th member of the Grand Ole Opry. He has had unparalleled success in virtually every music category, selling over 50 million records.

BJ was scheduled to appear at a concert on Long Island when I caught up with him. Just before he arrived, the skies turned black and it began to storm rain quite heavily. I spoke with BJ on his tour bus as he and the band waited for the rain and lightening to subside. I found him to be candid, engaging and most of all realistic about his successes and failures over a 40-year career.

After welcoming BJ to Long Island, I began the interview.

MG My column, In My Life is written about bands from the 60’s and 70’s. More appropriately, I try to zero in on artists, albums and songs that are real diamonds, but somehow have not been able to gain the attention of the record buying public. Given your enormous success, I would not only like to talk about your successes, but also your early recording experiences and then touch on some of the albums you made that were truly excellent, but did not sell as well as expected. Let’s therefore begin with your earliest recording experiences.

BJ The first record I did was in 1960 and I was 18 years old, it was called "The Lazy Man." We had a band and I started singing when I was 15. It was my brother’s band and they needed a singer. My brother took me over to meet the other guys in the band. I used to love to listen to Ricky Nelson and tried to sing like him. It was really a garage band

MG According to my research, your next record was the Hank Williams tune, "I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry" which came out in 1963.

BJ Actually, my next record was called "Billy & Sue" which was on a local Houston label in 1964. Warner Brothers bought the master and released it nationally, but they didn’t give it a big promotion and it didn’t make it.

MG Was Hank Williams a great influence for you in those years?

BJ I had seen Hank Williams on the Grand Ole Opry and he was a big hero for my dad. My dad always wanted me to sing country although I was not a huge fan of country, but I did like Hank Williams and there was something really unique about him. I think it was 1964 or 65 the movie Your Cheatin’ Heart; The Hank Williams Story came out and Hank Jr. sang the soundtrack. A friend of mine who wrote "Billy & Sue" said you should sing "I’m So Lonesome." We started doing it with the band and it just evolved into one of our favorite tunes. When I got a chance to make my first album, it was the very last thing that we did and I said that I just gotta do this for my dad. The first time we recorded it, the trumpet player had a bad lip after playing fifteen songs and he kept missing his notes. The first time we got through the song and he didn’t miss his note, we took it. We really had no idea of the complexities of recording.

MG It sounds like you were really just a bunch of young guys trying to figure what to do.

BJ Yeah, in ’65 I was 23 years old. I was beginning to think that time is passing along and I need to have my hit. After all, Elvis had his first hit when he was 19. In the Fall of ’65, we went to visit KILT-radio. Bob White was the Program Director and we had recorded a few songs for a small local label. One of the songs was written by Mark Charron called "Hey Judy" which was about my sister. It was a real pop tune and we thought it was a smash and played for Bob. He said, "You know BJ, I don’t really love that tune, but while you’re here, let’s flip the record over to the other side." We put "Lonesome" on the flip side for my dad and somewhere around the second verse, he took it off the turntable, didn’t even listen to the end and went into the control booth and told them to start playing this record immediately. Within three weeks, it was #1 in Houston.

MG Didn’t you release the record again a number of years later on Scepter Records?

BJ A friend of mine named Steve Tyrell went to work for Scepter Records in New York as a Promotion man and told them that one of his best friends had the # 1 hit in Houston. He played it for them; they released in late ’65 and it was a Top 10 record. It became a Gold Record for me in 1966. Then I released "Mama" and "Billy & Sue" for Scepter.

MG Did Steve Tyrell go on to produce a number of albums for you after the success of "I’m So Lonesome?"

BJ No, he only produced one album for me, which was "Billy Joe Thomas" in 1972 with "Rock ‘n’ Roll Lullaby" on it.

MG In my opinion, "Rock ‘n’ Roll Lullaby" was one of the best tunes you have ever recorded. I feel that it was the highlight song of the "Billy Joe Thomas" album.

BJ Yeah, it’s probably the best thing I did over the first 20 years of my career. Actually, I know a lot of the old guys like to say they were the first, but this really was the first album where famous people wrote the songs and actually played on the recording of their songs. It was the first album of that kind. It was recorded at Electric Lady Studios in New York and we had Stevie Wonder, Carole King, Duane Eddy, John Sebastian, Beach Boys among others writing and playing on the album.

MG Given the fact that this was truly a world-class album, why didn’t it sell?

BJ It just so happened that at the time we finished the album, Scepter Records went bankrupt. They could barely put out "Rock ‘n’ Roll Lullaby" and the Paul Williams tune "That’s What Friends Are For." Literally, they didn’t even have the money to press the records. To this day, we still perform "Rock ‘n’ Roll Lullaby." Barry Mann played the piano on that tune.

MG Given the schedules of the famous people on those sessions, did you have a time constraint to get each tune recorded on just a few takes?

BJ By that time, we were not doing tunes on one take, although I remember that when we recorded "Raindrops" in 1969, it was spliced together from just three different takes. But I have to say that the "Billy Joe Thomas" record was the best album I had done up to that point.

MG Since you brought up "Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head" there is the story that has circulated for years that actually you got the tune after Dionne Warwick turned it down. What is the real story behind you getting to record that song?

BJ No, Dionne didn’t turn it down. Actually, we were always trying to get Burt Bachrach to write songs for us since he was so prominent on the label and had so many hits with Dionne. We never got to work with him because he didn’t work well with male artists, so he concentrated mostly with female artists. When he wrote "Raindrops" it wasn’t a female song. He may deny it, but I always felt that the melody was kind of different and funny and I think it was written with Bob Dylan in mind. They contacted Dylan, but he turned it down. That was the story at that time although that may be denied today. I later found out that Burt and his partner, Hal David went to Nashville, and played it for Ray Stevens. Anyway, I had no idea they pitched it anyone else. I was doing one-nighters in the mid-west when I got a call to go to California to do a session with Burt. About six weeks later, we recorded it again for the single. It got terrible reviews when it was released. Life Magazine said it was the worst song that was ever written. They said it should have remained on the cutting room floor and that I was singing wrong notes and that no radio station should play it. In fact no one played it until Christmas of 1969 when the Butch Cassidy movie came out. The movie was such a hit that everyone began to play the record.

MG In this case, the movie made the record.

BJ Absolutely, but you know the scene in the movie with Katherine Ross on the bicycle and "Raindrops" playing in the background could really be characterized as one of the first music videos. It turned out to be one of the best songs Burt and Hal wrote. "Raindrops" sold 10 million copies.

MG Before we got sidetracked on the "Raindrops" story, which was truly a great story, I wanted to ask you about recording for Scepter Records. Here you had a relatively small label competing with much larger companies. Do you think that put you at a disadvantage?

BJ They were an independent label, but in actuality they really were a major force in the industry. They had Shirelles, Chuck Jackson, the first Ronnie Milsap record, they had "Louie Louie" and of course, Dionne. It was a shame that they couldn’t continue. Florence Greenberg, the Head of the label was a great music person.

MG I have about 4,000 albums in my LP collection. If I exclude my Beatle albums and then try to pick out my favorites, I can point to about 25 albums that I consider being truly great. You recorded an album in 1973 called "Songs" on the Paramount label. It must have done right after the demise of Scepter Records. I brought it along to perhaps jar your memory. (At this point, I show the album to BJ and a big smile comes over his face) .

BJ Oh yeah, Tyrell produced this one. It was a good album, but it didn’t have any hits on it. After we recorded it, I told Steve that I didn’t think there was a hit on it, but on the other hand, I wasn’t in the best of shape at that point in my life, so my judgment may not have been too sharp. You can tell that by what I look like in the picture on the cover of the album.

MG Aside from what you look like, it’s a great listening record. I have listened to it for years and I never get tired of it.

BJ Yeah, it’s well produced and the songs are good. If you put out a single, which would you choose?

MG I like "Early Morning Hush." written by Carole King. There is a great banjo part played by Eric Weissberg. Also, the title tune "Songs" written by Barry Mann & Cynthia Weil has great lyrics. I think they are both hit records, but the one that I think could be a hit today is "Good-bye’s A Long Long Time," written by Mark James and Gerry Goffin. It still sounds fresh and vibrant even after all these years.

BJ Yeah, "Early Morning Hush" is a good one. We still perform that song. I always felt that there could have been some hits on this album and I especially liked "Honorable Peace" and that’s the one we wanted to put out. On this album, Gerry Goffin wrote "Honorable Peace" which was a protest song against the Vietnam War. You couldn’t find this song anywhere because we were told that Paramount lost the master. I really liked that song. I would love to hear it again.

MG “Honorable Peace” is on the "Songs" album. (I show BJ where it is on the album)

BJ Are you kiddin’ me? It’s a wonder I remember what town I was in.

MG You had the horn section from Blood, Sweat & Tears, two members of the Rascals, Carole King, Eric Weissberg etc. playing on this album How did you get these people to play for this record?

BJ It was kind of a follow-up philosophy from the "Billy Joe Thomas" album. It was the next album we recorded. There were guys we wanted to use and couldn’t get them for the "Billy Joe" album, so we used them here. Scepter didn’t have the money to promote and even though Paramount seemingly had the money, but they were not committed to this project.

MG The other album I wanted to show you today was the "Renunion" album you did in 1975 for ABC Records. Your beard and very long hair has been replaced with a clean shaven look, but I sense you still were not over your drug and alcohol problems, although you look better than before.

BJ During these albums, not so much "Billy Joe" which was the beginning, but during this album, I was at the worst times with my drug problems. If you look really closely, you’ll be able to see how messed up I was. It’s a good album. I did every vocal performance in one day. One right after the other because the producer knew that if he caught me on a sober day, I would be fine and he didn’t know how long that would last so they tried to get the vocals done as quickly as possible.

MG One of your best songs, “Wrong Song” is on there.

BJ "Wrong Song" is one of the best songs I ever did. It’s not like the type of song to change the world, but it’s a great song. Chips Moman was the producer and I think I made my best records with Chips. He was the best music guy I ever worked with. Maybe I can’t say that because I did work with Bachrach, but for what he did, he was the best. He did all the Elvis comeback hit records. And I tell you what, the band he worked with, “The American Studio Group” will never be in the Hall of Fame, but they should be because they were on 300 – 400 hit records.

MG I see that you’re still looking at your picture on the "Reunion" album cover. I particularly like the shot of you on a horse.

BJ See, they had to blur my picture up a little bit to make me look good. I’m on the horse and the guy says, "look, you have to hold the reins like this" and I disagreed with him by telling him that I can hold the reins with only one hand. So I’m sittin’ there on the horse posing for the picture and all of a sudden the horse threw me right up in the air and I tell you what, I landed flat on my back. I thought he killed me. I was so screwed up at the time. I don’t know how you survive those things. This was actually the beginning of the end of that time of life for me. I left Tyrell and that association. "Wrong Song" was a number # 1 record, and it was like Hank Williams saying when he had a # 1 record and couldn’t get a booking. That’s kind of where I was at the time. I would not show up to performances. It was a downtime in my career. I was separated from my wife. I decided to go home in 1975 to try and get it turned around. I guess it was an epiphany. I went home to my wife and we’ve been together ever since. I’ve been with her for 34 years.

MG It’s a blessing to have a relationship like yours with your wife that has weathered all the ups and downs over 34 years.

BJ She’s a great lady. She’s written a lot of my gospel stuff. She wrote one of my # 1 Country records, "New Looks From An Old Lover."

MG I noticed the name, Mark James, as a musician and writer on a number of your albums.

BJ He was the guy that originally got me to go to Memphis. He’s a friend of mine. He was from Houston, another singer like I was at the time. He went to Memphis and called me to move up there because he was convinced that we could turn out a lot of hits together. In 1967, I had nothing. So I listened to him and went up there and did a session. I met Chips Moman who also told me the same thing. So my brother and I decided to move to Memphis. We cut "Eyes of A New York Woman." That was the first pop record to use a sitar. We then did "Hooked On A Feeling" and "I Just Can’t Help Believing" and "Raindrops" with Burt. It seemed like a lot of people were having problems at that time. Chips was having some personal problems too. So I went down to Doraville, Georgia and cut "Most Of All" and "Mighty Clouds Of Joy" with Buddy Buie. The Atlanta Rhythm Section was the studio band.

MG Mark James wrote "Hooked on A Feeling".

BJ That’s right. He wrote "Eyes of A New York Woman" and a lot of other things for me. He also wrote "Suspicious Minds." He played it for me one day in the studio and I said that I loved the tune and couldn’t wait to record it. He said, you know I wrote this for Elvis. I was a bit annoyed that my buddy didn’t give me the tune that I felt was one that really suited me. Chips called me in and said that he was set to produce the Elvis sessions and he told me that he couldn’t hold back any songs for Elvis and that he was going to produce "Suspicious Minds" for Elvis. Although I was upset, I understood that it isn’t every day you get to write and produce records for Elvis, so I asked Chips if I could at least come to some of the sessions and he said that was fine. I got to see some great sessions and you know Chips did some of his best work for Elvis at those sessions.

MG I noticed that you sang a song with the legendary Dusty Springfield, which was the theme song for the TV sitcom "Growing Pains." What was it like to work with her?

BJ The best part was working with the great composer, Steve Dorf. John Bettis wrote the lyrics. Steve called me from California and said they were in the studio doing this song for a TV pilot. He said that it sounded so much like a BJ Thomas tune and that they wanted to finish it, but since it sounded so much like me that it would be ridiculous not to use me for the record. They invited me to come out there. I said I would be glad to do it. I flew out there and "As Long As We Got Each Other" became the theme for the TV show, "Growing Pains." It went to # 5 on the Adult Contemporary chart. Actually the first version was done with Jennifer Warnes and then they changed the song, so we did another version with Dusty Springfield. It was hard to get a consistent performance from her, but when she was on her game, she was magnificent. It was a real magic she had, that she probably was never in touch with.

MG Was she ill at the time?

BJ Well, she just smoked a lot. Due to the smoking, she could only give you a solid thirty minutes. So it took about three days to get the performance down on the record. Every note she sang was absolutely tremendous. I think it was a hit record without her, but when she got on it, it became a definite hit record. It should have been a much bigger record, but at the time I was signed to Warner Brothers in Nashville, Country Division and they really did not know what to do with the record.

MG Sounds like those were great times. Anyway, that was then, what’s going on now in your life?

BJ We’re currently making a dance record with "Hooked on A Feeling." I can tell you that I have made some of my best records over the last 10 – 15 years. I had an album called "Midnight Minute" which is probably the best album I ever did. If you think about it, there is no such thing today as a male, pop singer any more. There are some female pop singers, but I can’t think of any male pop singers these days. I am not signed to a record company, which is something that I never thought would happen in my life. It’s something that a lot of us guys have to deal with. I still got my burning desire and my dreams are still the same. If I couldn’t sing any more, I wouldn’t be worried about it. I probably sing better now than I ever have. I know I got something left in me. I’m going to keep my desire and keep trying. I’m like the athlete that needs to win another game. I never honestly thought that I would even have one hit record. So, to have the success and do the things that I have done has been a blessing.

Life experience teaches us that success cannot be measured in wealth. The true measure of success is the comfort a person takes within himself or herself. In BJ's case, he sold 10 million copies of "Raindrops" in 1969. After a string of hits and notoriety, he found himself in 1975 with the #1 record in the country. To the public, he was at the height of his career. He was actually hitting bottom. He picked himself up, straightened out his life and today is clean and sober. To me, he's a lot more successful in 2002 without a hit record than he was in 1975 with all the fame. He is a true inspiration to those who need to know what it really takes to be successful.

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