WHATEVER HAPPENED TO:
By: Terri Marquis
Entertainment Staff Writer
Whatever Happened to B.J. Thomas? B.J. Thomas, is still performing and opened his U.S. Tour. Thomas is a true American institution whose iconic pop, country and gospel hits defined their respective generations and now transcend them, B.J. Thomas has found a unique way to celebrate an incredible half a century in music and some 47
years since his first gold selling hit on Scepter Records. He is currently on tour, and recently celebrated his 50th
The singer, a five time Grammy and two time Dove Award winner who has sold more than 70 million records and is ranked in Billboard’s Top 50 most played artists over the past 50 years, invites longtime fans and newcomers alike to his living room — or more accurately, The Living Room Sessions, his debut recording for Wrinkled Records featuring intimate acoustic re-imaginings of 12 of his most renowned songs.
Working with famed veteran country music producer Kyle Lehning (Randy Travis, George Strait, Willie Nelson) at Sound Stage Studio in Nashville and backed by a host of Music City’s finest sessions musicians, Thomas recorded many of these as duets with a perfectly fulfilled “wish list” of guest artists from different genres. These include pop great Richard Marx “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song”, country legend Vince Gill (“I Just Can’t Help Believing”), bluesman Keb’ Mo’ (“Most of All”), Lyle Lovett (“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head”), rocker Isaac Slade, lead singer of The Fray (“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”) and producer/songwriter turned popular contemporary standards singer Steve Tyrell (“Rock and Roll Lullaby”).
Inviting Tyrell to the “living room” for a duet not only leads to some of the album’s most compelling vocal moments, but has rich historical implications that take both singers back to the beginnings of their careers — an era that included Tyrell managing Thomas and being the producer on Thomas’ original recording of “Rock and Roll Lullaby.”
Thomas also vibes on The Living Room Sessions with two lesser known powerhouses, labelmate and renowned Nashville touring and session singer) Etta Britt (“New Looks From An Old Lover”) and–consistent with his ongoing appeal to younger audiences as well as lifelong fans–20-year-old Broadway and soundtrack phenom Sara Niemetz, who joins Thomas on “Hooked on a Feeling.” The Living Room Sessions also includes four solo performances by Thomas that represent a several decade swing in his earlier career: the opening track “Don’t Worry Baby” (a Beach Boys classic first covered by the singer in 1977), “Eyes of a New York Woman” (1968) “Whatever Happened To Old Fashioned Love” (a #1 country hit in 1983) and “Everybody’s Out of Town” (1970).
One of the keys to making The Living Room Sessions — Thomas’ first recording since the 2009 Brazilian themed Once I Loved — as cozy and warmhearted as its title promises was not over-thinking the process in advance. Realizing that most of these classic tracks lent themselves perfectly to the “unplugged” setting, he trusted Lehning and the Nashville “cats” (Bryan Sutton on acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, gut string guitar and dobro, John Willis on electric, acoustic and gut string guitar and dobro, Viktor Krauss on upright bass and Steve Brewster on drums and percussion) to just trust their instincts and do their thing. While Thomas brings a fresh emotional urgency to each song, he mostly kept the arrangements simple and in line with the original, only varying the melody slightly on a select few — including “I Just Can’t Help Believing,” “Don’t Worry Baby” and “Hooked On A Feeling.”
He owns one of the most distinctive voices in American pop music — a reassuringly masculine timbre conveyed with a smattering of unique embellishments that represent a distillation of the most influential genres in pop culture.
Nothing about the identifiable sound of B.J. THOMAS’ voice has changed, but there’s a re-energized commitment behind it. Recognizing the continued loyalty of his fans, B.J. re-launches with the forthcoming Curb Records release of The Best of BJ Thomas, his first new studio album in almost a decade.
Concurrent with that project, he will be contributing six songs to the soundtrack of the independent picture JAKE’S CORNER; is in production with Allan Swartsburg and Bob Mann of NY Deep Diner on an upcoming Brazilian album in which B.J. lends his voice in an exciting new style.
“We’ve always tried to do the right thing as far as getting our music out and encouraging people with positive music,” B.J. reflects.
Indeed, many of B.J.’s signature hits — the Oscar-winning Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head, the million-selling (Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song and his career-igniting cover of Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry — invariably find the plots’ protagonists employing some level of positivity to overcome the universal battle with loneliness.
Continuing his supportive inclinations, a series of positive-themed discs were embraced by the gospel community, giving him the first four platinum albums in gospel history. A brief-but-successful foray into country music — dotted by Whatever Happened To Old Fashioned Love and New Looks From An Old Lover, written by his wife, Gloria, Red Lane and Latham Hudson — emphasized classic family ideals and commitment, as did the still-familiar theme to Growing Pains, As Long As We Got Each Other, sung on the tube with Jennifer Warnes.
His lyrics aren’t just words to B.J. THOMAS. He’s lived out his musical ideals, turning down career opportunities for years when he thought they might interfere with the home life he established in the Dallas area with Gloria and their three daughters: Paige, Nora and Erin.
“We weren’t really silent,” he observes, “but we weren’t really chasing the prize, so to speak.”
But an interesting confluence of events helped to recharge B.J.’s career commitment. The girls grew up and left home. The surprise emergence of Raindrops in a key scene in Spider-Man 2 underscored his continued place as an identifiable cultural touchstone. And he discovered through technology just how deep and loyal his fans’ commitment runs.
“One of the real catalysts behind this is I did an interview with an online disc jockey,” B.J. explains. “He interviewed me and then put some music together for a one-hour package that could be accessed on the Internet, and he had 3.5 million downloads in three days. So we said, ‘Hey, our people are sitting right there. We just gotta figure out a way to reach them.’”
The Best Of, a release that synthesizes the wide-ranging styles that have influenced his career, digs into Allen Toussaint’s New Orleans-flavored Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues) and features a Dobie Gray-penned ballad, Stranger in the Mirror, which finds B.J. in movingly sensitive form.
In a sign of real synchronicity, B.J. was also approached to do his first acting role since the 1973 movie Jory, which introduced Robby Benson. JAKE’S CORNER writer-director Jeff Santo had developed the script with B.J.’s Rock And Roll Lullaby as sonic inspiration. B.J. re-cut the song for the picture, and ended up on screen, a marked change after resisting that line of work.
“Gloria and I actually sat down after I finished Jory, and she wanted to know if I wanted to pursue being an actor,” he notes. “At that time, I was on the road almost 300 days a year. The music was very successful, and both of us kind of agreed that movies would take too much time — that I would just pay attention to my music.”
The JAKE’S CORNER soundtrack represented a bit of a reunion for B.J., given that the music was written by Steve Dorff, who also composed the Growing Pains theme.
One of its key tracks, When the Hero Dies, also provides a symbolic reflection on B.J.’s own life with its mix of public acclaim and private commitment. The song celebrates the contributions of such legendary figures as Johnny Cash, John Wayne, Bob Hope, John Lennon and Martin Luther King. But its real strength comes by putting the sacrifices of everyday Americans on the same plane as those more familiar faces.
“That was very key and very significant,” B.J. suggests. “We got these big names and we’ve got to perpetuate what they’ve done and what they’ve allowed us to do. But the song also included the mothers and fathers and teachers and preachers and the Unknown Soldier. It just got me.”
Music certainly “got” B.J. Thomas from a very early age. Born in rural Hugo, Oklahoma, just north of the Texas border, his family soon moved to Houston, where he was attracted to the country of Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams (one of his strongest memories is of attending a Hank concert with his father) and the soul of Jackie Wilson and Little Richard, whose Miss Ann was the first single B.J. ever bought.
In fact, the embellishments, repetitions and melisma that have become a trademark of B.J.’s identifiable style were adapted from one of those mentors. “I got that from Jackie Wilson,” B.J. says. “What he could do was amazing. If you do it the right way, it puts a lot of sincerity and meaning into the word that you’re singing. I always try to use it where it emphasizes the emotion of the song.”
After his initial successes on a small Southern label, B.J. signed with New York’s Scepter, where the roster also included Ronnie Milsap and Dionne Warwick. In fact, it was Warwick who introduced B.J. to songwriter-producer Burt Bacharach, leading to his performance of Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head for Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid.
The song has shown an amazing resilience — it was featured in Forrest Gump when Tom Hanks’ character encountered President Lyndon B. Johnson; it made the soundtracks for Clerks II, The In-Laws and Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle; and it appeared almost in its entirety during Spider-Man 2.
B.J. has shown a comparable resilience. He married Gloria at the Chapel of the Bells in Las Vegas just weeks before Hooked on a Feeling hit the Top 10.
“We’ve always had each other, even through the hard, wild, stupid, crazy times,” he says. “She was just right there for me, and I’ve been there for her, too. If there’s anything that got me to today it was having her.”
She’s still there, running their management company as B.J. reinvigorates his public persona, one that very much reflects his desire to convey some basic meaning to both his daughters and his fans.
“That’s been a real positive, wonderful thing that’s a part of the music that I’ve been a part of — making someone lift their head up or making someone feel OK,” he says.
“All I am is just another guy. I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had a wonderful life, I’ve been a husband and a father who cherishes his children and now I’m a grandfather, and I’m motivated like all these teachers and preachers and mothers and fathers to help my kids grow up with character and self-respect. I hope that doesn’t sound too grandiose, but that’s what it comes down to. It’s what I’ve tried to do with my music and with the majority of my life.”
That he has succeeded at home and still maintained a place as one of music’s most recognizable voices is truly remarkable.