The recent passing of Billy Joe “B.J.” Thomas brought about a fresh flurry of “I know that song!” …which in turn, brought about a unanimous agreement that his contribution to American pop ranks among the greats.
Certainly B.J. Thomas didn’t have the longevity nor the star power of an Andy Williams, Perry Como, or Johnny Mathis, and he likely won’t be remembered with the same degree of sentiment. That’s a shame — sort of — although it’s 99 44/100ths percent certain that Thomas wouldn’t put himself in that category, and 100% certain he would outright dismiss any attempt to do so. His personal humility and genuine friendliness and approachability didn’t allow him to transcend his fans, nor anyone for that matter. With “movie star” looks and a tremendous voice, he certainly was equipped to be a huge star, but he wasn’t personally equipped to play the role. That’s fine, and it’s an admirable legacy.
Career-wise, Thomas was more or less a household name for about 20 years. It began in 1966 when his first single, released by B.J. Thomas and The Triumphs, reached the top ten on the pop charts. The song was “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” which was written by none less than Hank Williams. Although Williams’ 1949 version reached #1 on the country charts, and remains widely known, B.J. Thomas is one of the few artists to out-chart him in the pop category. Thomas and the Triumphs sold over a million copies, and garnered a gold record. Not a bad start for a kid from Hugo, Oklahoma.
Thomas poked around the pop charts through the rest of 1966 and 1967, and then struck gold again in 1968 with a trio of tunes written by legendary songwriter Mark James. Up first was “Eyes of a New York Woman,” followed by “Hooked on a Feeling” and in 1969 “It’s Only Love.” Although “Eyes” was widely acclaimed at the time, it seems largely forgotten a half century later. “Hooked on a Feeling” was a massive hit, but oddly enough a weirdish 1974 cover by one-hit-wonder Blue Swede eclipsed B.J.’s version for a few years. It was only recently that Thomas’ original (and better) recording again outsold the “ooga” recording. The third record, “It’s Only Love,” started a trend of Elvis Presley covering B. J. Thomas hits. This came to a head with “I Just Can’t Help Believing,” a Barry Mann song from a few years earlier when Mann still harbored dreams of continuing his solo career. This was another case of Thomas charting significantly higher than an icon. Who wore it better? Time will tell, although again, Thomas seems to have re-taken the lead on that score.
Sprinkled in the midst of this was the song that propelled him to the peak of success, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head, ” which topped the charts for the month of January, 1970 and became one of the best known songs of the decade. Billboard ranked the song at #4 for the year, as did the editorial staff here at popularsong.org. “Raindrops” features a quite likeable composition by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, and what seems like an effortless vocal by Thomas. Oddly enough, radio stations had little use for the record until the song showed up shortly afterward in the movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which launched it into orbit.
As big as the song was, it failed to dent the country charts. Thomas would do that with a vengeance in 1975 with “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song,” which topped Adult Contemporary, Pop, and Country.
More hits followed, and Thomas struck additional gold on the Contemporary Christian charts in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and then on the Country charts in the mid 1980s. Most notable of these was “Whatever Happened to Old-Fashioned Love,” which put him firmly in the country category in 1983. By the late 1980s the hits stopped flowing, but it hardly mattered, as he continued to sell out shows whenever he wanted. As perhaps the only artist to out-chart Hank Williams and Elvis Presley with multiple hits, B.J. Thomas’ resume is complete.
And while B.J. Thomas may not be remembered in the same rarified air as a Williams, Como, or Mathis, they (and Elvis) all covered his records — which is high praise indeed.