B.J. Thomas, a handsome, curly-haired crooner who climbed the music charts in the late 1960s and ’70s, recording richly orchestrated, irresistibly catchy pop songs such as “Hooked on a Feeling” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” died May 29 at his home in Arlington, Texas. He was 78.
The cause was complications from lung cancer, said his publicists Jeremy Westby and Scott Sexton. Thomas announced in March that he had been diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer and was receiving treatment in Texas.
A five-time Grammy winner who sold more than 70 million records, Thomas blended country, soul, gospel and soft rock, singing warm and occasionally wistful songs about love, family and looking for sunshine on a rainy day. By the late 1970s, when he turned toward Christianity and got sober after years of drug addiction, his subject matter was more religious, even as his sound remained the same.
“Ever since the beginning I’ve tried to do positive music, even though it has meant a lot of struggles against record companies and producers,” he said in a 2006 interview with Pentecostal Evangel, a Christian magazine. “I want my music to have a positive effect on people. When I perform live I hope the audience will leave with their heads lifted up.”
Thomas launched his solo career with an uncharacteristically downcast single, a cover of Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” that he initially recorded with the Triumphs, a Houston-area band. Released when he was 23, the song reached No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1966 and led to an album of the same name.
Thomas never fully committed to a genre, flitting between styles while his reassuring voice remained a constant. He cracked the Top 10 a second time with the idiosyncratic 1968 love song “Hooked on a Feeling,” which opened with an electric sitar solo and became an even bigger hit six years later when it was recorded by the pop group Blue Swede, who incorporated a primal “ooga-chaka-ooga-ooga” vocal intro.
In the 1970s, he recorded “I Just Can’t Help Believing,” which was later covered by Elvis Presley; “Rock and Roll Lullaby,” featuring a chorus of sha-na-na-nas by the Blossoms; and “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song,” a country-inflected chart-topper in which he asked to hear “a real hurtin’ song about a love that’s gone wrong, ’cause I don’t want to cry all alone.”
But he was best known for “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” which Burt Bacharach and Hal David wrote for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” the biggest box-office hit of 1969. Starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, the western defied genre conventions with its mix of bloody action sequences, slapstick comedy and a musical interlude in which Newman performs bicycle tricks for Katharine Ross.
The bike scene was shot in the sun but set to “Raindrops,” which earned the Academy Award for best original song and stayed at No. 1 for four weeks in 1970. When Thomas performed the song on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that year, water rained down as a special effect — “the most singular dumbest thing that anybody ever had to do,” he later said.
Thomas was not Bacharach’s original choice to perform “Raindrops,” an effervescent celebration of optimism and freedom. By some accounts, the songwriter and producer originally sought Bob Dylan, although Bacharach wrote in a memoir that he simply offered the song to Ray Stevens before going to Thomas.
Although Thomas later recorded a crystal-clear version of “Raindrops” for the single, his singing for the film was raspy, the result of an ill-timed case of laryngitis. “We got through five takes; I couldn’t have done one more,” he told Vanity Fair in 2019. “I thought I sounded terrible, scratchy. As it turned out, Bacharach liked that sound. He thought it sounded more authentic.”
“His was the perfect voice for the song,” Bacharach later told the Houston Chronicle. “He knew how to sit back with his vocal and let the song go where it needed to go.” Yet while Thomas followed Bacharach’s instructions on phrasing, he also added a cascading flourish of his own, drawing out the last word of the song: “Nothing’s worrying meeeeeee.”
Billy Joe Thomas was born in Hugo, Okla., on Aug. 7, 1942, and raised in Houston and nearby Rosenberg, Tex. His father was an alcoholic who was happiest around music, especially the country songs of Williams and Ernest Tubb. Thomas broadened his own musical horizons while listening to gospel, soul and early rock music by Mahalia Jackson, Jackie Wilson and Little Richard.
“My childhood really didn’t instill a lot of self-esteem and self-love … The music was always a way I could feel those emotions,” he told HuffPost Canada in a 2014 interview, adding that he had started drinking heavily and using drugs as a teenager.
At 14, he joined his church choir, setting him on a path to join the Triumphs, a band formed by some of his older brother’s friends. After covering “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” which Thomas said he recorded for his father, the band broke up, with Thomas joining a nationwide rock tour organized by “American Bandstand” host Dick Clark.
In 1968 he married Gloria Richardson. In addition to his wife, survivors include three daughters, Paige Thomas, Nora Cloud, and Erin Moore; and four grandchildren.
While recording pop songs such as “Everybody’s Out of Town” and “No Love at All,” Thomas developed a Valium addiction and a $3,000-a-week cocaine habit. “I had begun to overdose a few times,” he told The Associated Press. “They had to hook me up to a machine and keep me alive. Once I was pronounced dead. My marriage was a failure. Finally I was totally at the bottom in my life.”
That was in December 1975, when he reunited with his wife after months of separation. With her encouragement, he became a born-again Christian and stopped using drugs; after releasing a 1977 cover of the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby,” his last Top 40 hit, he focused on gospel music, receiving seven straight Grammy nominations for best inspirational performance.
He won four, with a fifth for best gospel performance, contemporary or inspirational.
Thomas never stopped performing pop songs at his concerts, angering some of his Christian fans. In the 1980s he released country hits such as “New Looks From an Old Lover,” co-written by his wife; became a regular performer at the Grand Ole Opry; and sang “As Long as We Got Each Other,” the theme song to the ABC sitcom “Growing Pains.”
He later revisited many of his old hits in the 2013 album “The Living Room Sessions,” which included duets with Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett and blues musician Keb’ Mo’.
“We could talk about music for 24 hours straight and never really capture what that mystery is about,” Thomas told HuffPost Canada the next year. “Music cuts through all the literature and all the sermons and all the discipline and everything. It cuts right through to your spirit.”
Looking back at his childhood, he added: “I think that’s why I eventually got to a place where I could appreciate myself, love myself and respect myself as a human being, and pass that onto my children and my wife.”