BJ Thomas, singer of ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,’ dies at 78
By Bill Friskics-Warren
B.J. Thomas, a country and pop hitmaker and five-time Grammy winner who contributed to the Southernization of popular music in the 1960s and ’70s, died Saturday at his home in Arlington, Texas. He was 78.
The cause was complications of lung cancer, said a spokesman, Jeremy Westby of 2911 Media.
Thomas’ biggest hit was “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” which was originally featured in the 1969 movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and spent four weeks at the top of the pop chart in early 1970.
Written and produced by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, “Raindrops” — a cheery ditty about surmounting life’s obstacles — won the Academy Award for best original song later that year. Thomas’ recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2014.
Thomas placed 15 singles in the pop Top 40 from 1966 to 1977. “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song,” a monument to heartache sung in a bruised, melodic baritone, reached No. 1 on both the country and pop charts in 1975. “Hooked on a Feeling,” an exultant expression of newfound love from 1968, also reached the pop Top 10.
(Augmented by an atavistic chant of “Ooga-chaka-ooga-ooga,” the song became a No. 1 pop hit as recorded by the Swedish rock band Blue Swede in 1974.)
Thomas’ records helped to introduce a smooth, down-home sensibility to the AM airwaves, an approach shaped by the fusion of country, gospel, rock and R&B in the music of Elvis Presley. This uniquely Southern mix of styles became common currency on radio playlists across the nation, recognizable as well in hits by singers with similarly expressive voices such as Brook Benton and Conway Twitty.
“I try to give the soft pop sound a natural relaxed feeling,” Thomas said in “Home Where I Belong,” a memoir written with Jerry Jenkins. “I guess that’s why my records always cross over and are good sellers on the pop and rock charts, as well as country.”
His debt to Presley’s romantic crooning notwithstanding, Thomas cited the music of Black R&B singers such as Little Richard and Jackie Wilson as his greatest vocal inspiration.
“We all loved Elvis and Hank Williams, but I think Wilson had the biggest influence on me,” he said in his memoir. “I couldn’t believe what he could do with his voice. I’ve always tried to do more with a note than just hit it, because I remembered how he could sing so high and so right, really putting something into it.”
Wilson’s stamp is certainly evident on “Mighty Clouds of Joy,” a rapturous, gospel-steeped anthem that reached the pop Top 40 for Thomas in 1971. His command of musical dynamics is especially impressive on the chorus, where, lifting his voice heavenward, he goes from a hushed whisper to a flurry of ecstatic wailing before bringing his vocals back down to a murmur for the next verse.
Thomas came by his sense of redemption the hard way: He struggled for the better part of 10 years with a dependence on drugs and alcohol that almost destroyed his marriage and his life. After getting clean in the mid-’70s, he enjoyed parallel careers as a country and gospel singer, releasing three No. 1 country singles over the ensuing decade and winning five Grammy Awards in various gospel categories.
Billy Joe Thomas was born Aug. 7, 1942, in Hugo, Oklahoma, the second of three children of Vernon and Geneva Thomas, and was raised in Rosenberg, Texas, about 40 miles southwest of Houston. The family was poor, a condition exacerbated by his father’s violent temper and drinking. As an adolescent, B.J. (as he had come to be called playing Little League baseball) sang in the Baptist church his family attended.
While in high school, he and his older brother, Jerry, joined a local pop combo, the Triumphs, with Thomas singing lead. In 1966, after three years of playing at dances and American Legion halls, the band had its first hit with a rendition of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” that reached the pop Top 10.
Credited to B.J. Thomas and the Triumphs and issued on the small Pacemaker label, the record was eventually picked up for distribution by the New York-based Scepter Records, home to major pop artists of the day such as Dionne Warwick and the Shirelles. With sales of more than 1 million copies, it secured Thomas a place on the bill of a traveling rock ’n’ roll revue hosted by Dick Clark, host and producer of “American Bandstand.”
Despite the persistence and severity of his alcohol and drug use, Thomas’ recordings remained a constant on the pop chart for the next decade. “Rock and Roll Lullaby,” a Top 40 hit in 1972, featured Duane Eddy on guitar and backing vocals from Darlene Love and the Blossoms. Three years earlier, Thomas had enjoyed an extended run at the Copacabana in New York City, brought about by the runaway success of “Hooked on a Feeling.”
He started on the path to recovery after converting to Christianity in the mid-’70s, a period in which he also reconciled with his wife, Gloria, after repeated separations. In 1977, after a year or so in recovery, he sang at the memorial service for Presley, whose death that year had largely been attributed to his excessive use of prescription medications.
Thomas continued to make albums and tour into the 2000s. Over the years, he also sang and testified at the evangelical crusades of the Rev. Billy Graham and other large religious gatherings.
He is survived by Gloria Richardson Thomas, his wife of 53 years; three daughters, Paige Thomas, Nora Cloud and Erin Moore; and four grandchildren.
At its smoothest and most over-the-top, Thomas’ music could border on schmaltz. But at its most transcendent, as on the stirring likes of “Mighty Clouds of Joy,” he inhabited the junction of spirituality and sentiment with imagination and aplomb, making records that invariably had listeners singing along.
“The greatest compliment a person could pay my music is to listen and sing along with it and think that he can sing just as good as me,” he said in his memoir, alluding to the accessibility of his performances. “He probably can’t, of course, or he’d be in the business, but I want it to sound that way anyway.”