Friday, June 04, 2021

Tribute to Billy Joe (B. J.) Thomas

Friday Music

Legendary singer B. J. Thomas passed away on May 29 at 78. 

“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” was of course a giant hit in 1969, when I was 10 years old, and I absolutely loved that song. I still like it today.

But for my money that is nowhere close to his best song. And most people had no idea that he also ranged into country, gospel, and even Latin Jazz in later years.

Here are my top 5 — your list is probably different, and that’s okay.

1. Hooked on a Feeling - his second big U.S. hit, reaching #5. Check out the sitar, but mainly check out his singing. Written by Mark James who also wrote other songs “Eyes of a New York Woman” and other hits for Elvis, etc.

2. Whatever Happened to Old Fashioned Love - a #1 country hit in 1983. Lightweight but tons of fun. That’s generally the point, right?

3. Just a Closer Walk with Thee - he recorded lots of gospel music after his conversion to Christianity in 1976 which probably saved his life and definitely saved his marriage. This one includes his incredible vocal power and smoothness of course, but also nice blues shuffle piano and guitar. Just an amazing piece of music. 

4. Rock n Roll Lullaby - reached #15 in 1972. Pay special attention to the guitars, piano, backing vocals, and the arrangement.  


5. I Just Can’t Help Believin’ - #9 in 1970. One of his best vocal performances that showcases his incredible power and range, such as at 0:54 when he repeats the line “This time the girl is going to stay”. Chills, every time. What is it like to be able to sing like that?!

I could have made a Top 10 instead, easily. 

In 1976 after years of alcohol and drug abuse — a common problem in the 70s for lots of musicians — causing marital troubles with his wife Gloria, he and his wife both became Christians. He straightened his life out, abandoned the drugs and alcohol, and saved his marriage, and they celebrated their 50th anniversary in 2018. This change in direction in his personal life led to a change musically, and he recorded several Gospel albums in the late 70s and 80s. Among the best is “Amazing Grace” (which includes “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” above plus the title song and several others, it’s very good).

In 2009 he released an album “Once I Loved” of Brazilian classics “Agua de Beber”, “Girl From Ipanema”, “Meditation”, “Dindi”, “Quiet Nights of Quiet Stars”, and others, plus “Rock n Roll Lullaby” Brazilian style, which to my ears is even better than the original and one of the best recordings he’s ever done. See if you don’t agree:

On this album he shows his ability to adapt to the material, lowering the volume of his voice to match the more subtle music and instrumentation, and only let loose at certain moments. I was not expecting much when I discovered it on Spotify, but then surprised how much I liked it; several of the songs are quite good. It’s mood music, of course, but it fills a niche quite nicely.

An incredible singer that a lot of people forgot about, you will find that his catalog is surprisingly deep and varied. I highly recommend doing a deep dive therein.

Here’s a video compilation of some of his greatest hits.

RIP and Godspeed. 

BJ Thomas Wikipedia entry

BJ Thomas Discography