BJ Thomas – who died Saturday at 78 — came to The Villages a couple of years ago. He told the story of his biggest hit, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head.”
It all started in 1969, when a famed songwriter told Thomas he had to learn to not only feel music, but also read it. It was Burt Bacharach, who wrote “Raindrops” with lyricist Hal David.
“I really wanted to work with Burt Bacharach,” Thomas said from the stage of The Sharon. “I went to New York and met Mr. Bacharach. The first thing he told me was: ‘BJ, I want you to learn to read music.’
“I told him I didn’t really want to read music. I feel music when I sing. I didn’t realize what he was telling me.”
Next thing you know, Thomas was reading a music chart in a recording studio. He sang “Raindrops,” the theme for the hit movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” It starred Paul Newman and Robert Redford and the song created another big star—BJ Thomas.
“Raindrops” hit No. 1, and became an all-time classic. In 2014, the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
“I’ll be singing that song for the rest of my life,” Thomas said. In 1970, Thomas sang “Raindrops” during the live telecast of the Academy Awards. “But I never liked the way I sang it,” even though the song won an Oscar.
Nearly 40 years after that performance, a friend sent Thomas a DVD of his Oscar performance.
“You know, I sounded pretty good,” Thomas said with a laugh. “I wasted 40 years thinking how bad it was.”
BJ Thomas was far more than a one-hit wonder. He scored 15 hit singles from the mid-60s to mid-70s. On stage in The Villages, Thomas offered a career retrospective while performing most of those hits.
They included: “Rock and Roll Lullaby,” “I Just Can’t Help Believing,” “Mama,” “Hooked on a Feeling,” and “Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.” Thomas also sang his first hit in 1966, a heartfelt cover of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”
“Hank Williams was my father’s favorite singer,” Thomas said. “I saw Hank Williams once when I was a kid. He came on stage and dropped his guitar. They had to get him a chair, he might have been drinking. I don’t know what happened but he was great and I never forgot it.”
Like Williams, Thomas had his own battles with booze and drugs. He spent a decade trying to clean up his act, and finally did so in the mid-1970s. Eventually, he reunited with his wife, Gloria Richardson and their three children.
Thomas, who became a devout Christian, also changed his singing style. He still had that blue-eyed soul and R&B sound, but found a new audience in gospel music. One of his biggest crossover hits was “Mighty Clouds of Joy.” That almost turned The Sharon into a revival meeting, as the crowd clapped, cheered and gave the singer a rousing ovation.
Watching BJ Thomas in The Villages, you could almost sense that he was a man fulfilled. He had come back from drugs, booze and the trappings of fame, and was able to just enjoy life and performing.
“I’m the luckiest man alive, thanks to my wife, Gloria,” Thomas said that night. “We’ve been together 50 years.”
The same timeless bond held true for his fans. “He’s got a good voice and he makes happy, friendly music,” Villager Judy Conley said after his show here.
Now, the voice has been silenced, but the music of BJ Thomas goes on.