B. J. Thomas Interview: 50 Years of "Raindrops" and an Oscar Gala Showdown with John Wayne
Image attributed to B. J. Thomas
Five-time Grammy Award winner and Grammy Hall of Fame inductee, B. J. Thomas, has sold over 70 million albums worldwide with a total of eight No. 1 hits and 26 Top 10 singles throughout his 50 years in the music industry. Those singles include “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” “Hooked on a Feeling,” “I Just Can’t Help Believing,” “Don’t Worry Baby” and "(Hey Won’t Your Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.”
“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” topped the Billboard Hot 100 for four weeks in January 1970 and was also the first American No. 1 hit of the 1970s. The song was inducted into the 2014 Grammy Hall of Fame. “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” was written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach for the 1969 film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid starring Paul Newman, Robert Redford and Katharine Ross.
"'Raindrops' is a great memory for me. Just about everything that’s ever happened with that song has been good."
Smashing Interviews Magazine: B. J., how are you doing during the pandemic?
B. J. Thomas: Well, I have to count myself pretty lucky because me and my wife are together. We’re doing okay. This is probably the most consecutive days we’ve ever been together in our 52 years of marriage (laughs). But we’re not doing too bad. It’s frustrating at times, and it’s stressful on the family staying healthy, and then I’m worried about my band. You know, the music is almost at a total standstill. It’s frustrating and stressful, but we kind of have the best of it because we’re together and in our home here we’ve lived in over 40 years. So we’re okay.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Are you staying in contact with your children and grandchildren?
B. J. Thomas: Yeah. We keep in contact with them. We’re not seeing them, but we’re keeping in contact. I’m in Texas, and this is one of the worst places. It’s kind of funny because so many people see this whole thing of staying safe and protecting yourself as something against personal freedom, and Texas is about the worst place for that. Our cases here keep rising, and its kind of a weird place to be in this situation. So we’re not getting out at all. We’re staying in and trying to do that as long as this thing goes on. But everybody’s just praying and looking for the vaccine. By whatever miracle, come up with that vaccine so we can be protected, and I can get back out and do my music. But until then, we’re pretty much locked in.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I can relate because I live in Alabama.
B. J. Thomas: Oh, goodness (laughs), two hardheaded capitals of the world, Alabama and Texas. I was headed to Muscle Shoals. I was supposed to have a recording session this month. We had to reschedule, but as soon as we get through this thing, I’m headed to Muscle Shoals, so I’m anxiously waiting to do that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Yes, the home of the legendary Sound and FAME studios. You will be working on new songs?
B. J. Thomas: Yeah. I’m going in with Billy Lawson and Dan Penn, two really great songwriters. Dan Penn wrote “Do Right Woman, Do Right Man” for Aretha Franklin. He produced the Box Tops’ “Cry Like a Baby.” So they are great writers, and we finally hooked up and were getting some songs together. Anyway, it’ll be new material. So we’re looking forward to doing that.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: I do remember when “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” came out in 1969, and I can’t believe it has been 50 years since it became the first America No. 1 hit of the 1970s. Has the time flown by for you since you’ve had a busy career or has it felt like every bit of 50 years?
B. J. Thomas: Truthfully, there’s been a lot of good life and drama that each lifetime holds. So it does feel like it’s been 50 years, but then it also feels like it’s just flown by. “Raindrops” is a great memory for me. Just about everything that’s ever happened with that song has been good, working with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and the song became a No. 1 record. Then they put myself, the record “Raindrops,” Burt Bacharach and Hal David in the Grammy Hall of Fame a couple of years ago.
It’s been such a perfect song. It’s always been a great memory and a wonderful experience. Also I performed on the Academy Awards show. Just everything with it has been great. It’s one of the few times that all things worked out perfectly in just about everything that ever happened with that song.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Speaking of the Academy Awards show, you came out on the stage shooting blanks from a six-shooter, which probably wouldn’t happen on any awards show today (laughs).
B. J. Thomas: Probably not (laughs). I remember that. It was a big production thing, and I had Sundance Kid’s clothes on, came out and fired off three shots. I had a lot of fun (laughs). Just to see all of those people, man!
Smashing Interviews Magazine: There was no host for the Academy Awards in 1970, but many larger-than-life movie stars were presenters, and you were introduced by Bob Hope. Did you mingle and meet any of them?
B. J. Thomas: Glen Campbell and I were in the same dressing room, and we saw various people coming in to the building. But I didn’t really mingle until afterward. Of course, I sang “Raindrops,” and I had to walk to the front of the stage to sit down on the steps. All of those people were sitting there. I mean, Liz Taylor, Jane Fonda and Gregory Peck. Burt Bacharach and Hal David were sitting there. It was just fantastic. All those old movie stars were like the royal family or something. I was so nervous. Everybody on my team from the label was there. We were all just pumped, you know.
In rehearsal, we were doing this number, and it was about 15 minutes long with the bicycles and the kids and all that, and I was thinking, “I’ll bet we’re going to win this thing.” Sure enough, Burt Bacharach won two Academy Awards, Hal David won one, and it was just a great experience. I was wound up pretty tight and was focusing on what I was doing because when I finished singing “Raindrops,” I walked right by Frank Sinatra. He was coming on as I was going off, and I didn’t see him.
But then afterwards, they had a thing called the Governors Ball for all the performers and presenters on the show. So my wife and I went. Of course, that was the night John Wayne won his Oscar, and we went and had a salad and a little dinner. We sat at a table with Burt Bacharach and Angie Dickinson, Dennis Hopper, Steve Tyrell (an A&R director with Scepter Records) and my brother. Steve is also a singer, and we grew up together in Houston. At some point, my brother said, “Let’s go look around.” So my brother, Steve, Dennis and I walked around. We walked over and looked at John Wayne. It was pretty funny. They wanted to take John Wayne’s picture, and he was eating some sherbet. He said, “Those blanket blanks want to take my picture while I’m eating this sherbet. I’m going to kick your blankety-blanks.” So anyway, they kind of stopped taking his picture, and after he ate his sherbet, he moved it out of the way, put some whiskey bottles up there and said, “Okay. Take your picture.” It was kind of funny.
We walked over and looked at Liz Taylor. It was quite an experience (laughs). “Raindrops” was a unique song in that it was kind of a perfect setting with that great movie and the great writers, but radio stations would not play it. It came out in October of 1969, and not one radio station would play it. It got some terrible reviews. Then once the movie came out in Christmas of 1969, it just became the number one movie, and the radio played the song. It sold about 15, 20 million copies and was one of those once in a lifetime things that I’ve been so fortunate and blessed to be a part of.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: A great song, and a showdown with John Wayne. Funny story. I believe that Billboard ranked "Raindrops" No. 4 on the list of “Year-End Hot 100 Singles of 1970.” But two or three years after that, you left Scepter Records.
B. J. Thomas: Scepter went out of business. They had a financial crisis, and they were done. They had all kinds of hit records, but they were just not good with money, if you know what I mean.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: You were successful on that label, such a shame.
B. J. Thomas: It really was because I had just finished cutting the best album of my career, and they couldn’t even press records. They had a string of hits, but they got in financial difficulties, and that was the end of them. But they were great for a while.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Did your musical interest begin with playing an instrument as a young person?
B. J. Thomas: Well, I played a little guitar, but I was always interested since time immemorial. They tell me that when I was a very little kid, I was always singing. My dad was a big fan of country music and the Grand Ole Opry, so I grew up with that. I loved that music. I loved Hank Williams. “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” was my first hit. But I gravitated to R&B music. I was a good friend with Bobby Bland. My biggest guys were Jackie Wilson and Ray Charles and people like that. We formed our first band when we were all 15 years old, and we would play R&B. We got our songs off the Top 40 chart, and we mainly just played R&B music. We had a horn section, and that’s the music we loved. I didn’t really become an R&B artist, but that’s what I meant to do. My first hit, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” was more of an R&B thing than it would be considered today. I guess they call it country today, but back then it was more an R&B thing.
My first gig out of Houston was with James Brown. I went out with the James Brown tour. They thought I was a black artist. I really loved that because I would’ve traded places with any of those guys I idolized. But then I went to Memphis and had a string of hit records, so I was kind of in the back of Burt Bacharach’s mind. I had been asked by the label to move to New York so that I could go to work with Bacharach and Hal David. So Gloria and I moved to New York, and I had been working with Mr. Bacharach on various songs trying to find the right song to do when “Raindrops” came along. So it just worked out very well.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Legend has it, and when I say “legend,” I mean that more than five websites say that “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” took seven takes before Burt Bacharach was satisfied and that you were recovering from laryngitis when you recorded it. Is any of that true?
B. J. Thomas: (laughs) When I flew out to California, and I did the thing for the bicycle scene, which was just with a guitar, a banjo and a standup bass, I had an acute case of laryngitis. I had gone to the doctor the day before the session, and he told me not to even speak for two weeks. Anyway, I had a small rehearsal with Burt on that Saturday, and then we cut the bicycle scene on Sunday, and I sang it five times. I don’t think I could’ve gotten through one more thing.
Then six weeks later, we re-cut “Raindrops” for the single, the one that became the No. 1 record, with a big band of 80 or 90 guys. We only did it three times, and the last time we did it, I did the “me-e-e-e” on the end. I had been singing the song exactly how it was written, which was not really my mode of operation. I usually like to do my thing and move around a little bit more with the melody, but Burt and I discussed it, and he wanted me to sing it exactly as he had written it. I understood that was absolutely the best way to do it. So I did that, and then on that third tape, I did the “me-e-e-e” thing, and actually, he spliced together the three takes. So the three takes became the one take.
Burt was a brilliant guy. Today, they would’ve probably cut the thing 20 times to make sure it was perfect. But sometimes, that’s not the way to do it. Burt knew when it sounded right. He was an awesome man and just one of the greatest composers. I just worked with him a few years ago in California, and he’s still vibrant, handsome, charming, a fantastic piano player and a great composer.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Burt Bacharach is a musical genius.
B. J. Thomas: A genius. Absolutely.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: Why did you decide to release a gospel album in 1976?
B. J. Thomas: Well, you know, through my “Raindrops” years and “Hooked on a Feeling” years, I had slowly become an alcoholic. I was an alcoholic, and I became a drug addict. I had a serious drug problem. It’s a long, terrible story. But it worked out where I turned around. There were some friends of my wife Gloria, and they talked to me and made sense to me. So I had a turn around in my life. Gloria and I did. And we kind of had a spiritual awakening, if you will. We’d all just been in the money and music, saying “It’s going to make me happy if I had a number one record.” But you know something? That wasn’t the secret.
We woke up to more of a spiritual side of life, so we wanted to express that. Of course, being from the South, I’d always been into church music, and I’d had a hit record with “Mighty Clouds of Joy,” so I’d always loved gospel music. We made a gospel record, and it became the first platinum album in gospel history. So I spent two years making gospel music, won a few Grammys and that sort of thing. I never was really able to connect with the religious end of the thing, but there’s something about it that’s really real that’s not religious to hang on to (laughs).
Smashing Interviews Magazine: So you’re a Christian but not into religion?
B. J. Thomas: Yeah. I mean, I’m kind of a “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” and I’m not an adherent to any religion. I have a faith that’s built on “Do unto others.” That’s the way I go about it. Of course, I’m not a Muslim or a Buddhist, but it’s more Christian than anything. I could just never make the church religious kind of thing work, and I realized that the kingdom is within you and without you. I know Christians who will hate to hear that you’re spiritual, and you’re not religious, and they think that’s all bull, but I don’t think Christians are doing very well right now. Religion, as a whole, is failing across the board. You know what I’m saying.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: A commentary about the current political climate?
B. J. Thomas: Just terrible (laughs). Just the worst. Get out there and vote.
Smashing Interviews Magazine: B. J., do you have any other upcoming projects?
B. J. Thomas: No, not really. We’re going to get into that recording, and that’s going to turn into a whole great thing. I don’t know how long it’ll take, but I can’t wait to get into it, write the songs and get all that done. I’m just waiting to get back on the road. I’m stressed out about my band, so I’m looking forward to seeing what the vaccine’s going to look like so we can get back out and get back to normal.
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