I can’t stop this feelin’ deep inside of me/Girl, you just don’t realize what you do to me…
For more than five decades, we’ve been hooked on the feelings imparted in song by B.J. Thomas: the despair of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” the soaring optimism of “I Just Can’t Help Believin’,” the longing of “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song,” the unfettered spirit of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” and the sheer euphoria of “Hooked on a Feeling.” Oklahoma-born, Texas-raised Billy Joe Thomas passed away on Saturday at the age of 78 following a courageous battle with lung cancer. “I see enthusiasm as I perform around the country,” he reflected to me in 2014. “The music still has a vitality and a value to it, and it still stands up. I can go back and perform this music, and listen to it, and it’s still a part of who I am – and who we all are, really.”
That universality was a significant part of B.J.’s story. He cut his teeth on rock-and-roll and R&B in Texas but achieved his first top 10 hit at New York’s Scepter Records with Hank Williams’ country classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” in 1966. (The recording was originally made for Texas’ Pacemaker label with his band The Triumphs. Scepter Records’ Steve Tyrell knew a good thing when he heard it, and snapped it up for national distribution.) Always mindful of a songwriter’s intentions, B.J. intuitively knew when to deploy big emotions in a song and when to pull back and let a lyric speak for itself. His warm, inviting tone would make him a preferred interpreter of some of the finest pop songs of all time, by writers including Mark Charron (“Mama,” “Bring Back the Time”), Mark James (“Eyes of a New York Woman,” “Hooked on a Feeling”), Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil (“I Just Can’t Help Believing,” “Rock and Roll Lullaby”), Buddy Buie with J.R. Cobb and/or Robert Nix (“Most of All,” “Mighty Clouds of Joy”), and Burt Bacharach and Hal David (the chart-topping, Academy Award-winning “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” “Everybody’s Out of Town,” “Send My Picture to Scranton, PA,” “Long Ago Tomorrow”). When he put out a call for material to appear on his 1973 album Songs, Mann, Weil, and James all responded. So did Carole King, Gerry Goffin, and Barry Goldberg. In 1975, B.J. scored a Pop, AC, and Country No. 1 with Chips Moman and Larry Butler’s “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song,” a clever embrace of traditional country conventions.
B.J. didn’t limit his musical worldview to pop, country, or R&B. After he experienced a spiritual awakening, he knew he had to share his newfound faith. He remembered, “We didn’t say ‘We’re going to do a church song or a gospel song.’ We knew there was a message to the material, but we took on each song as a musical project and tried to make the best-sounding music that we could.” The result was 1976’s joyful and exuberant Home Where I Belong. The LP produced by Chris Christian for Myrrh Records was the most successful Christian-themed album ever released to that point and made B.J. into a superstar all over again. Marrying faith-based themes to radio-friendly pop melodies, Thomas’ recordings broadened the scope of gospel and kickstarted the Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) genre. Home Where I Belong earned B.J. the Gospel Music Association’s prestigious Dove Award as well as his first of five consecutive Grammy Awards. He soon broke further ground when he simultaneously maintained dual contracts for secular music (at MCA) and gospel (at Myrrh).
He followed his time at both labels by signing to Columbia Records’ Cleveland International arm. “We made a decision after the gospel years that the best way to get back in the flow would be to make country records infused with pop sounds,” he reflected when we caught up in 2017. The Country chart embraced such singles as the chart-topping pair of “Whatever Happened to Old Fashioned Love” and “New Looks for an Old Lover.” The master storyteller had earned yet another new audience, and reached an even younger crowd in 1985 when he lent his voice to television’s quintessential family sitcom Growing Pains. B.J. recorded the famous theme three times: first solo, then with Jennifer Warnes, and finally with Dusty Springfield. The latter version netted him and the British soul queen a top ten AC hit on Reprise Records. He went on to record for various other labels, most recently with 2013’s The Living Room Sessions on Wrinkled Records. Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, Keb Mo, Richard Marx, and his old friend Steve Tyrell were among the illustrious artists who joined him on the LP. B.J.’s famous voice had hardly aged even as he brought new depth to tunes from his classic songbook.
“I have never tried to contrive anything. If I do, it doesn’t work,” he candidly observed to me. “As long as I’m singing honestly, I basically approach all of the genres in the same way. I don’t try to change my voice or invent some kind of sound. I just try to be straightforward. That always seems to work best for me.” B.J.’s lack of pretension extended away from the microphone. A consummate gentleman and a class act through and through, he was kind and humble. He remained grateful for his extraordinary career and the love of his wife Gloria and their three daughters.
We’ll remember B.J. Thomas as a voice of comfort, empathy, and uplift. “I would sing the blues every now and then,” he confessed, “but I always tried to do positive music.” Those beautiful sounds will long continue to bring a smile and a gentle nudge of inspiration. Hey, won’t you play another B.J. Thomas song? Indeed, it makes us feel at home.