What sweeter words are there to a catalogue music enthusiast than “Complete Singles”? Thanks to the herculean efforts of the Real Gone Music team, three more artists now can boast of such a collection. And while we’ll soon turn our attention to The Electric Prunes and Timi Yuro, today the spotlight is on a man for whom raindrops might keep falling…but nothing’s worrying him: B.J. Thomas.
Perhaps the most overdue of these sets is Real Gone’s delayed, but worth-the-wait collection of B.J. Thomas’ Complete Scepter Singles (RGM 0043, 2012). Thomas is one of the most underrated vocalists in pop, as proven by these 46 sides originally released between 1964 and 1972. Although exemplary compilations have emerged from the Rhino, Ace and Varese Vintage labels, Thomas’ output has never been released in the CD era with a view to completeness or historical perspective. Real Gone’s set, then, accomplishes these feats, following the excellent series of original album reissues from the label’s predecessor, Collectors’ Choice Music. The 46-track anthology is the first to offer A- and B-sides of every one of Thomas’ Scepter singles, including his 19 hits and a number of B-sides previously unreleased on CD. Thomas never lost the gentle Texas twang in his burnished baritone, and was remarkably versatile as he employed it on songs written by the crème of the crop, from Hank Williams to Burt Bacharach.
Oklahoma-born and Texas-raised, Billy Joe Thomas made a name for himself first as a member of The Triumphs and then under the tutelage of producer Huey P. Meaux. Known as “the Crazy Cajun,” Meaux helped launch the careers of artists including Thomas, Ronnie Milsap, Doug Sahm and Johnny Winter. When B.J. Thomas’ 1964 single of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” on the small Pacemaker label began to attract national attention, he turned it over to Florence Greenberg’s Scepter Records. The golden age of Thomas’ recording career then began, with Greenberg and A&R man Steve Tyrell (also a Meaux alumnus) guiding the singer. “I’m So Lonesome” kicks off the first disc of Real Gone’s 2-CD set, and it was an auspicious debut, finally hitting the U.S. Top Ten in 1966. By the next year, Thomas would exclusively be a Scepter recording artist. But the song was an anomaly, as most of his earliest singles came from the pen of Mark Charron. A full ten sides, or nearly half of the first disc, are Charron compositions including the sincere ode to “Mama” (No. 22, 1966) and up-tempo, “Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa”-recalling “I Don’t Have a Mind of My Own” from the same year. Thomas even returned to the Williams songbook with “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)” which just cracked the Hot 100 in 1967.
There’s much more after the jump!
Thomas’ commercial fortunes escalated, though, when he ventured to Chips Moman’s American Studios in late 1967. He paired with another Mark, surname of James, for the utterly new sound of “The Eyes of a New York Woman,” highlighted by its prominent electric sitar. It was followed by the similar-sounding “Hooked on a Feeling.” The joyful recording gave Thomas his first Top 5 hit and is mercifully free of any “Oooga chakka” chanting! (Mark James and Chips Moman also provided Elvis Presley with “Suspicious Minds,” also recorded by B.J. but not issued as a single. James later gave The King another enduring song with “Always on My Mind.”)
From that point on, Thomas found a niche in sophisticated productions of classy pop songs, enhanced by his gentle, homespun vocals. By 1969, Thomas was teamed with Scepter’s reigning songwriters, Burt Bacharach and Hal David, for “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” reportedly written for Bob Dylan and refused by Ray Stevens. “Raindrops,” from the film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, gave both Thomas and Bacharach a signature song, one which netted the songwriters an Academy Award. And despite the strengths of Dylan and Stevens, neither would have done the song the same justice that Thomas did, with his laconic, earnest and above all, honest, delivery of Hal David’s whimsical lyric. The Complete Scepter Singles includes a number of other remarkable Bacharach and David compositions, though none of them caught fire the way “Raindrops” did on the charts. “Everybody’s Out of Town” and “Send My Picture to Scranton, PA” are both offbeat story songs that played to Thomas’ strengths. On the former, Bacharach’s most woozy horn introduces Thomas’ lament: “Where have the people gone? Seems like there’s no one hangin’ on…Look through the window, the houses are empty,” he quizzically announces. “Hey! Everybody’s out of town…seems like I’m the only one around…” It’s not long before Thomas realizes some upsides: “no more pollution,””no traffic tie-ups anywhere” and of course, he “don’t [sic] have to wait for a seat at the movies.” All the while, he’s accompanied by what sounds like a lonely banjo, subtle piano and strings in Bacharach’s immaculate production.
“Scranton, PA” might be even better, with a successful narrator needling those who didn’t support him early on: “Send my picture to Scranton, P-A/Write them and say I’m the kid they used to laugh at/Send my picture along with the news/Of all the good things I’ve done/Since they said nothing good would ever come of me/They were so sure/Let them know just how wrong they all can be!” Bacharach’s melody is fiendishly tricky, but Thomas navigates it with ease. “Scranton” occupied the flipside of another Top 10 record, Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil’s slice of perfect pop, “I Just Can’t Help Believin’,” another song Thomas would eventually share with Elvis Presley. The goodwill and wonderment in Thomas’ voice is so bright yet tinged with heartbreak that you, too, just can’t help believe him that “this time the girl is gonna stay…for more than just a day.” Mann and Weil would give Thomas his final Top 20 hit at Scepter with 1972’s warm and affecting “Rock and Roll Lullaby,” while Bacharach and David returned for 1971’s darkly haunting movie theme “Long Ago Tomorrow.” Other top songwriters proffered tracks to Thomas, including Paul Williams (“That’s What Friends are For,” No. 74, 1972), Wayne Carson Thompson (the infectious “No Love at All,” No. 16, 1971) and Buddy Buie of the Classics IV and the Atlanta Rhythm Section (the deeply personal, spiritually-infused “Mighty Clouds of Joy” (No. 34, 1971).
All tracks other than the final six songs on Disc 2 are in mono, and although the fidelity of many of the early singles is still not pristine, these tracks sound better now than they have before. DJ/journalist Mike Ragogna penned the entertaining liner notes, which feature quotes from Thomas. He reveals that “Rock and Roll Lullaby” is the “recording I’m proudest of in my whole life,” and why not? In addition to pop, R&B, gospel and soul, B.J. Thomas has provided many a rock and roll lullaby in an impressive career dating a half-century back. The Complete Scepter Singles is an essential part of any music library. (And can we have BJ’s seventies album output next? Please?)
Coming Up: We explore more Complete Singles sets from Timi Yuro and The Electric Prunes, plus a career overview from The New Christy Minstrels! And you can order B.J. Thomas’ Complete Scepter Singles right here!