Monday, November 15, 2010

(Hey Won't You Play) Another B.J. Thomas Song

This Thursday, November 18, the country-pop singer B.J. Thomas will make an appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman. Heaven only knows why. Not that there's anything wrong with B.J. Thomas, who has become a popular favorite around here, but it seems like kind of a funny choice to me.

Billy Joe Thomas was born in Hugo, Oklahoma, but his family moved to Houston when he was very young (which didn't prevent the 1982 New Rolling Stone Record Guide from calling him "Oklahoma-based"). He decided he wanted to be a musician after seeing Hank Williams in concert: "I remember him getting on his knees and playing that guitar," Thomas said later. "And I'll never forget the look on my daddy's face at that show. I guess that's the night I decided I was going to communicate with my daddy through the music he loved."

Thomas befriended another Texas singer named Roy Head, whose band the Traits served as a rival for Thomas' Triumphs. Roy Head hit nationally first, with "Treat Her Right," which went to Number Two in the fall of 1965. B.J. and the Triumphs also got a deal and recorded their own album, on the little Texas label Pacemaker, run by Huey P. Meaux, the Crazy Cajun. Most of the album was straight rock & roll, but B.J.'s father had told him, "Don't come back till you record something country," so the last song they lay down was Hank's "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry." It became the title track of the album and a regional hit, going to Number One on whatever charts Houston had at the time.

One of Thomas' high school friends, a dude named Steve Tyrell, had become the head A&R man for Scepter Records, which had signed Roy Head in 1964. (Tyrell was still in his teens at the time; Scepter was rather bootstrappy.) Scepter re-released "I'm So Lonesome" nationally and turned it into a smash. B.J.'s version was the biggest hit anyone ever had of that song, going to Number Eight in the spring of 1966 (although Terry Bradshaw [!] took it to Number 17 on the country charts in 1977).

With that hit under his belt, Thomas was asked to go out and perform on a Dick Clark package tour, not unlike the Motown tours that were going around at that time. Other acts on the tour included Len "1-2-3" Barry, Chad and Jeremy, and the inimitable Norma Tanega, riding semi-high on the semi-success of "Walkin' a Cat Named Dog." To hear Thomas tell the story now, the Triumphs were asked to go along on the tour, and be the backing band not only for B.J. but for the other solo singers as well. B.J. now claims that they didn't want to play for any other vocalists, but he also admits they were going to college and had day jobs and such, and didn't want to ride a bus around the country with the terminally twee Chad and Jeremy.

Anyway, B.J. Thomas was now a solo act. Thomas knocked around in the nether regions of the Top Forty for a couple of years. One of these was "The Eyes of a New York Woman," by another old Houston friend named Mark James, who was working as a staff songwriter for the Memphis producer Chips Moman. "New York Woman," featuring the electric sitar Moman had come to love so well, was the first single from Thomas' 1968 album On My Way, and it went to Number 28. But the big mover was the album's second single, another James song, "Hooked on a Feeling." The two songs had the same electric sitar (playing seemingly the same parts), and even similar lyrics ("Lips as sweet as honey" in "New York Woman" becomes "Lips as sweet as candy" in "Hooked"); the less energetic "New York Woman" seemed like a dry run for "Hooked on a Feeling." It went all the way to Number Five early in 1969.

Thomas' labelmate Dionne Warwick recommended Thomas to her house songwriters, Hal David and Burt Bacharach, for a song they were writing for the soundtrack of the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Ray Stevens had already turned down "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," as did, purportedly, Bob Dylan, but Thomas took it. He cut the song live, to the scene in the movie where Paul Newman and Robert Redford are riding bicycles around their ranch in the Old West, for use in the film, then re-recorded it for the single version. On January 3, 1970, the single went to Number One, where it stayed for four weeks; it also won an Academy Award for best song. Along the way, Thomas was asked to perform the song on The Ed Sullivan Show, in front of people dancing around with umbrellas and complete with a bunch of water dumped on his head partway through. Thomas later called it "the most singular dumbest thing that anybody ever had to do."

In the summer of 1970, Thomas was back in the Top Ten with "I Just Can't Help Believin'," written by the legendary Brill Building team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. His string of hits ended with another Mann/Weil song, "Rock and Roll Lullaby," which went to Number 15 in 1972. (Incidentally, on American Top Forty, Casey Kasem introduced this song as being by "Billy Joe Thomas," but I can't find any record of him being officially credited as anything but "B.J.") By that time, Thomas was addicted to speed and began missing live shows; one report had him burning through $13 million. He left Scepter and released two dud albums for Paramount. He also turned in a supporting role in the 1973 Robby Benson starrer Jory.

Thomas seemed to be at the end of his career, but he signed with ABC and recorded an album called Reunion - the reunion was with Chips Moman, who produced the record and co-wrote the first single, "(Hey Won't You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song." It was the biggest hit of Thomas' career, going to Number One on not just the pop charts but the country and adult contemporary charts as well. Shortly thereafter, though, Thomas found Jesus, probably to the consternation of his record label. Thomas became a huge star on the Christian charts, recording for the Myrrh label and winning a couple of Dove awards, but his only subsequent pop Top Forty hit was a cover of the Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby," which he took to Number 17 in 1977.

(Thomas rewrote one of the verses, though: Instead of singing, "I guess I should've kept my mouth shut when I start to brag about my car," his version goes, "Each morning I awake and find the sunlight softly shining in her hair." What I see as the whole genius of the song, the way you're never sure whether the singer is trying not to worry about his car or his girl - and the singer is probably not sure either - has been lost.)

B.J. Thomas wasn't quite done, though. In 1985, he sang the theme song to the TV sitcom Growing Pains, "As Long as We've Got Each Other," re-recording it as a duet with Jennifer Warnes for season 2, then with Dusty Springfield (!) for season 4. The B.J. and Dusty version was released as a single, which went to Number Seven on the AC charts in 1988, although it didn't place on the pop charts.

Interestingly enough, Thomas today describes himself as "not a religious person." "God is a big sea, and all the rivers go to the sea," he says. "So there's lots of ways to find your faith and your spirituality." When I look back at the career of Billy Joe Thomas, what strikes me is that he put his distinctive and versatile baritone to work with the artistry of so many great songwriters: Hank Williams, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann, Brian Wilson. Mark James isn't well-remembered today, but in addition to "Hooked on a Feeling," he wrote "Suspicious Minds" for Elvis Presley and "Always on My Mind," perhaps the saddest song in the modern canon. That's a killer resume.

"I'm like the mailman," Thomas said. "I deliver what the guys write and hope it has a lasting effect when I get it there."

We'll see what he does on Letterman; it's gotta be better than this appearance in the same theater forty years ago:


  1. That is quite a clip. It's still not as bad as the dancing strawberries, though.

  2. Wait -- isn't the point of "Don't Worry Baby" that he's afraid of drag racing the other guy, and she tells him not worry, it'll be fine? The genius of the song is the way it takes the specifics of those death-on-the-highway teen sob songs and turns it into generalized anxiety ("it's been up building up inside of me for oh I don't know how long/I don't know why, but I keep thinking something's bound to go wrong"). He's not worried about his car or his girl. He's a depressive. She's the solution. The vibe is the same as the Stones' "She Smiled Sweetly."

  3. Well, I tend to be more of a literalist about these things, which is not to say I'm right. My sense was that his claimed anxiety over the drag race was really rooted in his lack of confidence in being worthy of his girl's love - she's the one who provides him succor, rather than his winning the race. How can she know that "everything will turn out all right" unless she's the everything that really matters? And his bragging about the car is a sign of his overall insecurity. Perhaps "Don't Worry Baby" has yet to yield up all its secrets.

    It really chaps my hide when people dismiss the Beach Boys' lyrics as fluff, because they're often so multilayered and incisive. "I Get Around" is another great one.

  4. I'm pretty sure the literalist here is me. You're getting more psychoanalytic -- the car isn't a car, it's a girl, and the race is his relationship with his girl. Or something.