How many people can say they ushered in a decade?
B.J. Thomas did it.
His biggest song — “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” — was the first No. 1 hit of the 1970s. It climbed to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart Jan. 3, 1970, and stayed there for four weeks.
Oklahoma ushered in the person who accomplished the feat.
Billy Joe Thomas was born Aug. 7, 1942, in Hugo, Oklahoma.
He wasn’t born in a hospital. He was born the old-school way at his grandmother’s home. She was the one who delivered him.
“I’m kind of proud of that,” said. “I came in the rough way. It wasn’t a sure thing.”
Thomas’ Oklahoma residency didn’t last long. His parents packed up baby B.J. and returned to their home in Texas shortly after he was born. But this state claims Thomas as one of its own (he’s in the Oklahoma Music Hall of Fame) and he welcomes the embrace.
In normal times, Thomas would be on the road performing hits like “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” “Hooked on a Feeling” and “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.”
These aren’t normal times. Music artists aren’t touring. They’re at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With time on his hands and the 50th anniversary of “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” to celebrate, Thomas took part in a recent phone interview with the Tulsa World. Among people and topics that came up organically: Dionne Warwick, former Texas football coach Darrell Royal, Burt Bacharach, “Spider-Man 2” and the TV sitcom “Growing Pains.”
Hugo was the chat-starter. Thomas said his grandmother didn’t live in Hugo very long. She moved to the Houston area (where Thomas was raised) and spent the rest of her life there. He said he went back to Hugo a couple of times to lay eyes on his grandmother’s old house, but he thinks the home has since been demolished.
“Great little town,” he said. “It would have been fun growing up there, I bet.”
But Houston was the right place for Thomas to grow up for his story to turn out the way it did. He said there was a lot going on music-wise in Houston. The town wasn’t just a music hot spot. It was hot, period.
“My dad and his brothers were in the air conditioning business,” he said. “That’s kind of one of the first cities where air conditioning kind of boomed was Houston. At one time, it was the most air-conditioned city in the United States.”
Thomas said he doesn’t know how “we” could live without air conditioning now. He survived without it. When growing up, he said his family never had an air conditioner in their home.
“We were attic fan people,” he said. “My dad was just a working man. He was a good man, and he loved music. I can remember being a kid and (listening to) the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday night, that kind of thing. But then I kind of heard some Jackie Wilson records when I was about 13 or so and I really gravitated toward the R&B singers of my time — Jackie Wilson and Bobby Bland and those people.”
Thomas said he sneaked out of the house, hitchhiked to a downtown Houston nightclub and met Bland when he was 14. “I would go see him as often as I could, and he was really great to me.”
Thomas joined a band soon after, tackling R&B material that he loved. But his first chart single was a country song — a cover of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” It peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1966.
Darrell Royal, Texas’ football coach for 20 years, was a music fan who especially liked the country and Western genre. Royal came backstage to meet Thomas before a 1960s concert in Austin.
“We just hit it off,” Thomas said. “He was like a brother to me from the get-go. He wanted me to come over to his house after the show and (play) some music. I couldn’t do it. I was on the bus. I had to get somewhere else.”
Royal told Thomas he brought some Longhorn players with him to the concert. Thomas introduced Royal during the show “and, of course, everybody loved him down in Austin.” Then Thomas wanted to acknowledge the football players in the crowd. He was surprised when 75 of them stood up.
“He made it a team requirement to come to the show,” Thomas said. “But he was a great guy. I knew him for years. He is sadly missed.”
Royal died in 2012. Besides music, one of the things they bonded over was Oklahoma roots. Royal was born in Hollis, Oklahoma.
“He told me all of his experiences,” Thomas said. “It was like ‘The Grapes of Wrath.’ He was in the back of a truck driving to California and doing the Dust Bowl kind of thing. Together, we had a great appreciation for Oklahoma, and I’m proud to be from there.”
Thomas said it was around the time of “Hooked on a Feeling” (it went to No. 5 in 1968) that he and Royal first met. The song appeared on an album he recorded with Scepter Records, described by Thomas as a great independent record label in New York City. He lived there at the time, so he spent a lot of time in the Scepter offices, where one was prone to see Warwick, a star for the label. Warwick frequently collaborated with Bacharach, a legendary songwriter. She introduced Thomas to Bacharach when he needed someone to record a song that he had co-written with Hal David. The song: “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”
“I was kind of in the back of his mind because I had just had ‘Hooked On A Feeling.’ When they did venture out away from Dionne and recorded with somebody else, they, of course, preferred to record with somebody who was selling records.”
But “Raindrops” was not an immediate seller. “It got terrible reviews,” Thomas said. “For its time, it was a very different song melody-wise and radio just wouldn’t play it.”
What changed? The song was featured prominently in the Paul Newman and Robert Redford movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” Boom.
Said a news release about the song: “While studio execs thought ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head’ was too unconventional and contemporary for what they knew would be a blockbuster Western, they were proven wrong at the movie premiere when the audience exploded with delight at the famous scene featuring the song prominently played to the visual of happy-go-lucky Paul Newman riding a bicycle while he tried to impress his movie love, Katherine Ross.”
The song went for a ride too, selling 200,000 to 300,000 copies per day during its peak era. Thomas was asked to sing it at the Academy Awards show April 7, 1970. Thomas was nervous as heck but tried not to let it show.
“Liz Taylor. Gregory Peck. All these people were right there,” he said. “I could reach out and touch them. It was kind of a one-in-a-kind experience and a great memory to look back on. I went to the Governor’s Ball afterwards and, of course, that was the year John Wayne won his Academy Award in 1970 and I went and saw all the people. It was just unreal.”
The song took home an Oscar in the category of best original score for a motion picture. In 2014, The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences inducted “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
“There have been highs and lows in my career,” Thomas said. “But everything to do with ‘Raindrops’ has virtually been perfect ... I feel lucky and blessed to have that song.”
A movie that gave the song a 21st-century boost was 2004’s “Spider-Man 2.” Thomas said one of his daughters called him after seeing the film to tell him the entire song was in the movie.
“Of course, I have made the grandkids watch it about 100 times,” Thomas said.
Were the grandkids more impressed that Grandpa had a song in the movie or that Spider-Man got the bad guy? “Oh, Spider-Man,” Thomas said. “They were loving him, but they appreciated that I had a song in there and they always wanted to watch it.”
You hear different versions of the song in “Spider-Man 2” and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” The “Spider-Man 2” version was the single that was released in 1969. If you watch “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and notice that Thomas’ voice is a little raspy, it’s because he battled laryngitis before recording the song for the movie.
“I didn’t even know if I could sing,” he said. “But Bacharach, he never said anything. He liked it. He thought the kind of rough sound in my throat worked well, and it obviously did.”
There’s a Thomas song that got just as much airplay because it was on TVs all over the globe. The song is “As Long As We Got Each Other,” the theme song for “Growing Pains.” Thomas initially handled the theme song solo. Subsequent seasons featured him teaming up on the theme song with Jennifer Warnes or Dusty Springfield. “They did go to (an A capella) group there for one season, and they got so many complaints about it that they went back to my version.”
Thomas wants to perform for live audiences again, but like others in the music industry, he must wait out the pandemic.
“I guess it has shut down most things, but it really shut down music because we require shoulder-to-shoulder participation by people in the audience,” he said.
“That’s not something that is going to work now. We are all just pulling for the vaccine so we can get a hold of the vaccine and we can perform without the threat of getting sick, but, of course, no one would have ever dreamed anything like this would ever happen and it really has brought music to a standstill.”
Thomas said you can still do things on Zoom, but it’s not really the same when you are performing at home. He said there is nothing like the road.
“Most of us in this business, if not all, have a burning desire to perform and to sing and to do it somewhere,” he said. “We are really missing it right now.”
Like the song says, you can’t stop the rain by complainin’. Thomas found a bright side.
“I’ve got my wife, Gloria,” he said. “We have been married 52 years. I have got her with me and we are enjoying being together all of this time, which has never really happened in our marriage. We are making it OK, but it is tough.”
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