Just a regular guy with a burning desire to sing — The B.J. Thomas interview
How do you accurately introduce an artist who has conquered one musical genre after another without skipping a beat? In the case of legendary singer B.J. Thomas, firmly ensconced in his sixth decade as a recording artist, perhaps it is best to start with a list of his accomplishments.
Since 1966, 46 of his singles have appeared on Billboard’s pop, country, and adult contemporary charts. Of those, 14 went Top 40 on the pop chart, while 5 more climbed into the Top 10 on the country chart. By the late ’70s, the singer’s groundbreaking Contemporary Christian albums were also setting records. The five-time Grammy Award winner’s songs are known from Brazil to Japan and in-between.
His definitive hits include “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”, “Eyes of a New York Woman”, “Hooked on a Feeling,” the Oscar-winning Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid theme “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”, “I Just Can’t Help Believing”, “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song”, “Don’t Worry Baby”, “Two Car Garage”, and the catchy theme from Growing Pains — ”As Long As We Got Each Other” with Dusty Springfield.
Available on the Nashville-based Wrinkled Records, Thomas’s latest studio album The Living Room Sessions takes an interesting left turn with revamped acoustic arrangements of some of the Texas-born song interpreter’s biggest hits. Notable guest artists, including Lyle Lovett, Vince Gill, and Keb’ Mo’ perform on roughly half of the songs. Visit his official website [BJThomas.com], Twitter [@TheBJThomas; he actually tweets himself], or Facebook to know when Thomas will be appearing in your neck of the woods.
In an eye-opening interview debuting exclusively below, Thomas covers plenty of territory. Stories about touring with James Brown, arriving in Memphis in the late ’60s and headlining a private New Year’s Eve party with Elvis Presley sitting on the front row, the impact of Chips Moman and the Memphis Boys on his career, and singing live on The Ed Sullivan Show while buckets of rain were inexplicably thrown on his head abound in tantalizing detail.
Stick around for what happened when Thomas’s record label went belly-up, why he has been an uncredited producer throughout his career, how he strives to be a better songwriter and guitarist, his conflict with the Contemporary Christian industry, and the epitome of a perfect day.
The B.J. Thomas Interview
How would you describe your personality off-stage?
I’m not necessarily on all the time. When the situation calls for me to be recording or performing, I can turn it on a little bit more.
I have always had a burning desire to be a musician. I was attracted to music when I was very young. I got in my first band when I was 15, so that’s all I’ve ever done. I’ve been married a long time, I’ve got grown children, and I love to play golf. So I guess I’m just a regular guy.
Did you have a relatively happy childhood?
I grew up in the city in Houston, Texas. We lived in three or four different places around Houston for most of my childhood. Probably like most people, I had happy times, and I had sad, difficult times. There were some dysfunctions in my family.
My dad was a great guy, but he had a little problem with alcohol. That always will bring about some ups and downs. For the most part, I had a good childhood. I think I got into the right thing, the area where I was supposed to be. My calling — so to speak.
I was a happy kid. I played a lot of baseball with my big brother, Jerry. I only really remember the good times now.
Was there a specific moment where you knew you wanted to be a musician?
Well, I know that I was always attracted to music. I remember singing along to the radio and the people on TV. I was just always singing and having fun with music. That was something that always got my attention and turned me on and I loved to do.
I never really thought about being a professional singer until I got in that little band, the Triumphs, when I was 15. They were getting the band together and had had a couple of rehearsals.
They needed a guy to sing, so my brother took me over there. It kind of surprised me to be honest. I got up and sang a few songs with them, and that was really the first time I ever thought, ‘Am I going to do this professionally?’ I was basically just doing it for fun.
[Author’s Note: The Original Triumphs posted the following on their official Facebook page after this interview went to print: “B.J. started out singing in his high school choir and was subsequently invited to ‘audition’ with the Triumphs. The drummer, Ted Mensik, actually rode his motor scooter — a Cushman Eagle — that he used for his paper route to visit B.J. and found he and his brother Jerry throwing a football in their yard. He is such an interesting, talented, and friendly guy who just happens to be a mega-star spanning several decades. B.J. occasionally makes a guest appearance with us. It is always a trip down memory lane — especially to the four original band members that performed with B.J. for a number of years starting in 1960”].
How did singer Jackie Wilson influence your style?
I heard his second solo single, “To Be Loved” [№22 Pop, №7 R&B, 1958], when I was a teenager. It was a true epiphany for me because it really lit me up and piqued my interest. I was amazed me at what this guy could do with his throat and his voice. Jackie has been a huge influence on me since day one.
I worked with Jackie a few times, mostly on television shows. I never did a live concert with him. I would constantly study and watch him perform. Jackie was an unbelievable performer, up there with the greatest of all time. A great guy, too.
Did you know I was booked out with James Brown during my first gigs? Promoters thought I was an African American R&B singer [laughs]. I did five days on the road with James, and then I went up to Cleveland and worked with Jackie for the first time on a television show. I’ll always cherish those memories.
What was it like opening for James Brown?
I was very respectful of him, and I looked up to him a great deal. The first night I opened for him, James came onstage while I was waiting in the wings. He said he had met me at sound check and that I seemed like a good guy. Plus, he asked the crowd to give me a chance.
That meant the world to me. James also truly liked my records — “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Mama.” James may have been temperamental to other artists or displayed a star persona, but I experienced none of that. He was especially kind to me, and I’ll never forget that.
Did you play any guitar while you were a Triumph?
Yeah. I actually wasn’t really consumed with wanting to play the guitar, but I could play a little guitar and a little drums. Regardless, I played the guitar well enough to write some songs. But I really wasn’t that excited about being a guitar player. I regret that a little bit, because I probably should have been a better guitar player than I am now. I was mainly interested in singing.
I may have played guitar on a thing or two on my earliest recordings, but I haven’t played much in the studio. You have to remember, I was basically the only guy doing the singing. Sometimes, if the Triumphs were doing a song like “My Girl”, they might sing back-up, but it was quite rare.
I last played guitar onstage in the ’90s. I enjoyed playing, but you have to play every day, or you will lose your touch. I haven’t practiced regularly in years, but I promise I’m going to start practicing again.
What do you recall about your first trip to Nashville to record “Billy and Sue?”
Nineteen sixty-three was a long time ago [laughs]. I was not a known artist then. It was likely my first true big break, and it was quite an experience. My buddy, fellow Triumph Mark Charron, wrote the song. He and I traveled to Nashville on a train from Houston to do the session. There was only one tall building in the whole city, which was the L&C Tower [Life & Casualty].
It was my first time working with the famed Nashville A-Team session musicians. Singer Ray Stevens played organ, and he arranged the music for the session. That was when I first met him. We always laugh about it when we see each other. A great guy and a talented organ player, too.
It was released in 1964 on the Warner Brothers label, but it wasn’t a hit record. After I had hits a few years later with “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Mama” on Scepter, the independent, Nashville-based Hickory Records bought the master and re-released it.
It became kind of a small-town hit [№34 Pop, June 1966]. People are always asking me to sing it. There was just something about that lyric — a young soldier going off to fight for his country while his first and only love cheated on him. Truth be told, it sold close to a million records over a long period of time.
Have you been an uncredited producer in your career?
Yes; I’ve always had an involvement to make songs my own. I produced my first records with the Triumphs, including “Billy and Sue,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Mama.”
Later when Chips Moman, the Memphis producer/engineer/songwriter who produced “Hooked on a Feeling”, “Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song”, and Elvis’s “Suspicious Minds” — and Larry Butler — a Nashville producer/songwriter who worked extensively with Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers and co-wrote “Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” — arrived on the scene, I still kept my hand in the production.
In the mid-‘60s we were on these tiny independent record labels in Texas [e.g. Bragg, Hickory, and Pacemaker]. Pacemaker let us cut our first album — B.J. Thomas and the Triumphs — after “Lonesome” did well regionally [Author’s Note: Florence Greenberg of the New York-based Scepter Records later purchased the master. Releasing “Lonesome” nationwide in February 1966, it climbed to No. 8 Pop on Billboard and claims the distinction as Thomas’s debut hit single].
We were just kids. I didn’t look at it like I was producing — I was just doing songs with my band. An engineer turned the machine on, and we would start recording. The album was complete in one long night [laughs]. Recording “Lonesome” was almost second nature. We had been doing that song for six or eight months in our live performances.
How did you meet Mark James?
Mark was a fellow musician of mine. He played the guitar and sang in another band during the time I was in Houston, before I had any hits. We were buddies. Steve Tyrell was another friend of ours.
Steve had gotten a job as a promotion man with Scepter Records and he influenced Mark to move up to Memphis and start writing songs. By then I had had a few hits.
Around 1967 Mark called me and said, “Hey, B.J., they’re really recording a lot of hit records up here at American Studio. They have a lot of great writers in their stable. I’m writing songs, too, so why don’t you move up here? I think you could cut a bunch of hit records if you did.” I replied, “Hey, I’d love to.” So my brother and I packed our stuff and moved to Memphis.
I think I recorded more of his songs than any other artist. I have a lot of his songs on my albums that weren’t hit singles.
To single out a few, “Living Again” [B-side of “Everybody’s Out of Town,” on Young and in Love, 1969], “Mr. Mailman” [Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head, 1969], “I’ve Been Alone Too Long” [Songs, 1973], and “Man to Conquer All” [Back Against the Wall, 1992] are a few of my favorites [Author’s Note: ”Pass the Apple Eve” from 1969’s Young and in Love unleashes an impassioned vocal, Reggie Young’s driving sitar, and a tight rhythm section].
Of course, Mark’s biggest record, “Suspicious Minds,” was recorded by Elvis. It certainly made his name [Author’s Note: Thomas recorded a strong cover version of “Suspicious Minds,” retaining Chips Moman and the Memphis Boys. It also appears on Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head].
About 10 years ago I went in the studio and cut a few things that he wrote. The session remains unheard. I think Mark has more or less gone into writing film scores, and I’m not sure he’s really writing pop stuff anymore. Regardless, Mark’s a great guy who always wrote consistent, above-average songs.
What was Memphis like when you moved there in 1967?
Memphis was a great city back when Elvis was alive. A very electric, fun place to be, especially if Elvis was in town. American Studios was in direct competition with Stax Records. Stax was across town, and American Studios was on Danny Thomas Boulevard. They were very competitive as far as the hits that they would do for various people. Just a very competitive music atmosphere.
Gosh, it was over 40 years ago, so times were different. A little simpler, and not as many people. It’s difficult to explain. We were more naïve as a nation, maybe not as wise as we are now but not as weather-beaten, either. Granted, we had Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. But for the most part, we had a peaceful country, at least on my end of it.
Did you start recording the moment you arrived in town?
Pretty much. The 827 Thomas Street Band — aka the Memphis Boys, consisting of guitarist Reggie Young, drummer Gene Chrisman, pianist Bobby Wood, bassist Mike Leech, deceased organist Bobby Emmons and bassist-producer Tommy Cogbill — wasn’t recording anybody when I first got to American, so I was hanging out with them.
Chips walked up to me and said, “Let’s think of a song and let’s sing it with the band and see how it goes.” And that’s exactly what I did.
I always recorded my vocals live with the band. Usually we’d just start from scratch. After we chose whatever song we decided to record, we would learn it on the spot. Sometimes it might develop rather quickly; on other occasions it would take numerous takes to achieve the master. But it was always a natural progression. The entire process was fun to me.
The first time I sang with them it was like, ‘They were my band, and I was their singer.’ We just fit together perfectly like hand-in-glove. I think a lot of singers can say that, because they were a great band. Chips and the Memphis Boys truly deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. They were capable of doing any kind of music.
I think the very first thing that I did with them was “The Girl Can’t Help It,” the Little Richard song [an A-side available on The Complete Scepter Singles, released in 2012 via Real Gone Music]. I was a very rhythm and blues guy then, and it was the kind of music I still love.
The next thing I recorded was “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” [On My Way, January 1969]. The Platters had the biggest hit with it. It proved we could record anything we wanted to do.
Mark James’ “Eyes of a New York Woman” was the first hit record we had together [№28 Pop, June 1968]. It kind of said, “Okay, this is the direction we’re gonna go in.” Immediately after “Eyes,” Mark wrote “Hooked on a Feeling,” and that definitely broke us out [№5 Pop, November 1968].
“Eyes of a New York Woman” holds a unique distinction.
Many people may not know that I did one of the very first scripted videos for “New York Woman,” not just a performance video where they would shoot me on stage or on set singing a song. I did one featuring a plot and elaborate costumes in different locations around New York City.
When we offered the video to the market, there was no market for it. Companies expected you to be somewhere live, and they weren’t hip to video yet.
I’d love to find that old video. We searched and finally found the guy who had the original tape in Florida, but all of his tapes were destroyed in a flood. Such a shame. However, there could certainly be a video copy out there that we don’t know about.
How would you describe Chips Moman in the studio?
Chips was a producer, songwriter, engineer, and he was really a good guitar player. Without a doubt, he had an ear for what would be a hit record. His basic instincts made him an impeccable record guy as well as a great producer.
He was probably the best engineer that I’ve ever worked with. Chips didn’t need a guy to engineer for him. He could set the knobs on the board perfectly, and he knew how to get that certain sound. His talent amazes me to this day.
I really like the way you curl the final note on “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”
[Laughs]. I was pretty much trying to sing it exactly the way Burt Bacharach wanted it. I had a little freedom on that last word to ad-lib and do what I felt like doing. That’s always been a great memory for me.
I’ve performed with Burt a number of times through the years. I’d love to go in the studio with him again, so never say never.
Your classic appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show have probably been seen by more people than any other.
You could be right. The whole process was great. You had to show up early and do a dress rehearsal, so it was a pretty full day. You would meet the other guests. Of course, Ed would be there. He was a great guy, and we got along very well. I sang for a number of charity events that he would produce and appear at down through the years.
Being live television, it was definitely a knee-knocker. I sang live on most of the shows, except on my first show where I lip-synched “Raindrops.” As a cloud was going to pour rain on me during the last verse, it wouldn’t have been very safe using a live microphone [laughs].
I didn’t enjoy having water rain down on me very much [Author’s Note: Several audience members start chuckling as Thomas is forced to wipe his brow during the song]. That was their idea of making the performance unique, so I went along with it.
I returned to the old Ed Sullivan Theater decades later [November 18, 2010] and sat in with David Letterman’s band, Paul Shaffer and the CBS Orchestra, on The Late Show with David Letterman. My friends, Allan Schwartzberg and Bob Mann, who live in New York City and co-produced my Brazilian album [Once I Loved, 2009], helped set up the appearance.
I also know all the band members. The first job that bassist Will Lee ever had was in my band on a tour during the early ‘70s.
It was really fun going back. Although I didn’t perform a complete song on the broadcast, I got more air time singing with the band during the commercial breaks. Nicki Minaj was the featured musical guest that night.
Were you ever forced to record a song?
There were a number of songs that I can’t say I was forced to do, but I was persuaded to do. Sometimes someone will really like a song but it really doesn’t hit you, but you go ahead and do it because someone else really believes in it and they want to hear how it sounds when you do it. Sometimes you just feel, ‘If you think it’s that good a song, let me do it. Let’s see how it sounds.’
Do you remember the first song you wrote?
Oh gosh, that’s a tough one. I have written a lot of songs over the years that I’ve forgotten about. But a song called “Life” [available on The Complete Scepter Singles] could have been the first that appeared on a record.
Co-written with some friends of mine, late arranger Glen Spreen and singer Steve Tyrell [Author’s Note: At the time Tyrell was the head of Scepter’s A&R and promotion — his jazz career would begin much later], it was the B-side of “Mighty Clouds of Joy” [June 1971]. We cut it down in Atlanta with Buddy Buie and Tyrell producing.
I’m pretty much in awe of songwriters. I really appreciate what they’re doing. If a songwriter brings me a song, I like to put my stamp on it and try to bring something more to the song than maybe he was expecting.
I’m kind of shy about my songs. Sometimes I’ll do them live, but I’ll never get around to recording them on an album. I hope to do a couple of them in the studio for an upcoming project via Wrinkled Records, including “Hands on Me Again.”
I’m also gonna try to definitely be more of a writer and be more creative on that side of it from here on out. I would be willing to write for other people, if the situation called for it.
Why did you leave Scepter Records?
First of all, Scepter was a major independent label. They had a major, major artist in Dionne Warwick, and they had huge records like the Isley Brothers’ “Twist and Shout,” the Kingsmen’s “Louie Louie” and my stuff.
I had recorded “Rock and Roll Lullaby” [№15 Pop, №1 Adult Contemporary, February 1972]. The single came out and looked like it was going to be a huge record. It sold a million copies in South America and about 800,000 copies in the U.S., which wasn’t bad.
Nevertheless, they were unable to promote my records properly. I released two final singles for the label, “That’s What Friends Are For” [№74 Pop, №38 AC July 1972] and “Happier Than the Morning Sun” [№100 Pop, №31 AC September 1972], and they barely charted.
Suddenly, Scepter went bankrupt, and it just came out of nowhere. Bang! I had no idea there was a problem. As it turned out, they didn’t conduct their business correctly. If you don’t dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s, you can lose a lot of money through the cracks.
I was promoting the Billy Joe Thomas album [№145 Pop, May 1972], which contained a lot of great music. All the writers came in and played on their songs, including Stevie Wonder, Paul Williams, Carole King, and John Sebastian. Anyway, I was forced to sign with Paramount Records by early 1973 [Author’s Note: After a short five-year run, Paramount was acquired by ABC Records. The latter was then sold to major-label MCA in the late ‘70s].
Scepter was fine as a singles company. But if you examine Billboard’s records, Scepter was not a very good company as far as albums went. None of their artists really had any big albums on a consistent basis.
Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head [December 1969] was my only album for the label that charted in the top 40 [No. 12]. Billy Joe Thomas certainly had the potential to become my biggest selling album. I hated to see that mishap, but that’s the way it goes.
The years I spent with them I enjoyed because I got to meet singer Chuck Jackson [“Any Day Now,” a song Presley also covered], become good friends with Dionne, and do a lot of things that I always wanted to do. I hated to see Scepter go down like that. In retrospect, I might have been better off on another label, but I do have good memories from that relationship.
Did management ever rip you off?
Oh, certainly [laughs]. I didn’t have great management or the full time treatment until around the mid-‘70s. That’s just part of the music business. The movie business is really no different.
You make a few cents per record. Those pennies add up very slowly, and if you’re not really on top of it, you can lose a lot of stuff. That happened to me. That basically has happened to everyone who’s been in this business until they learn how to do it correctly.
How many of your masters do you own?
I don’t own my early masters on Scepter, ABC-Paramount, and MCA Records — the Nashville-based Gusto Records owns most of the Scepter recordings. I would definitely love to buy them. We don’t own the ones we wish we owned [laughs].
It is quite tough to get possession of those old masters, since they have passed through so many different hands. They tend to get lost in the shuffle. We tried to purchase those masters for years to no avail. However, I’ve re-cut most of my hits, and I own those.
I recorded four albums for ABC-Paramount between 1973 and 1975 [Songs, Longhorns & Londonbridges, Reunion, and Help Me Make It (To My Rockin’ Chair)], and those masters have been way under-developed. All are out-of-print domestically, except “Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.”
Since the early ’80s, I made sure I would eventually end up owning every song I record. My country recordings for the independent Cleveland International haven’t been re-packaged [i.e. “New Looks,” “Two-Car Garage, and “Old-Fashioned Love”]. As we own the masters to those recordings, it’s probably our fault they haven’t been released on CD or digitally.
Robby Benson’s first starring role was in the 1973 western, Jory. How were you cast in this little seen film?
After “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” won an Oscar [the theme song for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid], a number of movie offers started coming in. I was offered the Jory script, so I did a screen test for the independent, since defunct Avco Embassy Pictures.
And they picked me for a co-starring role. I went down to Durango, Mexico, and I had so much fun there. I didn’t perform any music — besides the theme song — I just acted. My fellow actors, including noted character actor John Marley, taught me simply to relax and be natural in front of the camera. Don’t stress about it, just let the scene happen.
I had an especially good time learning the gun tricks. Along with an instructor, that took me a good month or so to learn. Jory was released at a time when the western genre was dying, so it wasn’t a big success. However, I think it did quite well in South America.
Back in those days I was so busy. Gloria actually sat me down and said, “B.J., will you please not do any more movies? You’re already doing music, you’re gone all the time, and now you want to do movies.” Since I wasn’t that interested in movies back then, I told her that I wouldn’t pursue an acting career. And I didn’t. Really no regrets there.
Every now and then a script will come my way. In 2008 I was offered a secondary role in the indie film, Jake’s Corner, an inspirational family drama set in the real town of Jake’s Corner, Arizona. I accepted it and had another memorable time working with Diane Ladd and Richard Tyson.
What is the story behind (“Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song?”
I was living in New York, and I told my manager that I wanted to go down to Nashville and get back in the studio with Chips. We had not recorded together in roughly three years. So I went there in the fall of 1974, and we began recording the Reunion album [№2 C&W, №59 Pop].
As we were concluding the sessions, Bobby Emmons spoke up rather excitedly to the control room: “Hey Chips, before we finish, play B.J. that song you just wrote with Larry Butler.” Chips complied, and he played “Wrong Song.” God, I loved it, so we cut it.
It was the only single released from the album, although my cover of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” could have been an excellent follow-up. Nevertheless, “Wrong Song” became a huge hit, going to №1 on all three charts [pop, country, and adult contemporary]. It was the first single ABC Records ever released. They started their record company with that song [laughs].
“Help Me Make It (To My Rockin’ Chair)” was the name of the follow-up single and accompanying album.
I really never liked that song. I wanted to release another song from the album as the single, but Chips disagreed. He had been calling the shots pretty well up to that point, so the record company went with his selection. We butted heads, had a falling out, and went our separate ways for a couple of years. In retrospect, it wasn’t that big a deal.
But as it turned out, “Rockin’ Chair” didn’t do much business on any chart [№64 Pop, №37 C&W, September 1975] besides Adult Contemporary [№5]. It’s just the way it goes sometimes. Incidentally, according to Billboard I’m in the top 50 artists of all time who charted on the Adult Contemporary chart [№46 as of 2011].
After the album came out, I basically got out of the business and off the road for a few years. I was dealing with some personal and family problems.
By late 1977 Chips and I mended fences, and we recorded the Everybody Loves a Rain Song album. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that commercial, although I thought it was a pretty good album. The title cut, written by Mark James, was my last single to nearly break into the Top 40 on the pop chart [№43 Pop, №25 C&W, №2 AC, January 1978].
“Ode to Billie Joe” singer Bobbie Gentry also walked away from her career. However, it was a permanent decision in her case. Did you know her?
Yes; she was a great girl. We would hook up on television variety shows during the late ‘60s/early ’70s. Back in that day they didn’t use video like they do now, so we had to be present in the same studio when performing.
I can certainly relate to Bobbie leaving show business, although my break didn’t last nearly as long. I left the business in the mid-‘70s. I decided to get out of the spotlight, stop running, being so busy. I moved back to Texas from Connecticut for a few years.
I’m not really surprised she has remained out of the limelight. I’m sure she has a happy family life today, and she must be satisfied being away from the music. Fortunately, music is in my DNA, and I could never abandon it at this stage in the game.
When did you last record with Chips Moman and the Memphis Boys?
Circa 2007 we went in the studio and recorded about 10 or 11 songs for an album. We cut just like we always did — songs from different genres including R&B, country, and straight pop.
Chips and the Memphis Boys were writing, and we got a pretty good take on a song I wrote called “Hands on Me Again.” I want to re-record the song again someday. We were just having fun, getting together one more time so to speak.
Unfortunately, there seemed to always be some personal problems that would come up within our group, and those problems prevented the album from coming to fruition. We didn’t take the album to any record companies. To be blunt, I’m not sure any of the songs we cut were of hit record caliber.
Chips suffered a stroke not too long after our session, underwent hip replacement surgery, and basically retired until his death [June 13, 2016]. I imagine our session was probably one of the last that Chips ever helmed.
Is there a reason why Chips and the Memphis Boys have not been sufficiently honored for their vast music contributions?
There must be a reason, or reasons, that I’m not aware of. I don’t know why they haven’t been recognized. For a couple of years running, they played on nearly 20 percent of Billboard’s pop chart, which was a fantastic accomplishment back in those days. Remember, Motown, Stax, and the British Invasion were all happening simultaneously.
You had to be kind of versatile in the ’60s. That’s probably why I’ve always done different genres of music, because when I first started, Top 40 radio played all the genres on one station. The Memphis Boys were one of the best bands, as far as doing any kind of genre of music. I was also in that bag, as I was just looking for any song I liked. I wasn’t looking for a certain genre.
I performed a live show with them in Memphis upon the 30th anniversary of Elvis’s death [Author’s Note: Two years later Moman and the Memphis Boys were honored by the Memphis Grammy chapter for their pioneering work on “Suspicious Minds”].
I’m glad they were finally recognized. In 2007 the Musicians Hall of Fame in Nashville inducted the Memphis Boys. I joined them onstage for a short set.
Former American Studios business manager and vice president Marty Lacker has campaigned extensively to get them inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Surely, sooner or later it will happen. Sadly, we’ve already lost Chips, Bobby Emmons, and Tommy Cogbill. Chips and the Memphis Boys are simply the greatest guys in the world. I’ll always love ‘em.
In 1977 you became the first pop artist to embrace what is now recognized as Contemporary Christian music. When you performed your gospel songs in concert, did you actually receive death threats?
Yeah, that’s true. It’s not something I really want to rehash that much. There was some conflict as to what certain portions of my new audience expected me to do. They thought I was going to be a minister and completely reject my past pop career.
Of course, I was just a singer. I wasn’t ashamed of my old material, so I would do my pop stuff along with my gospel stuff. I could probably write a book on it, but I hate to dig it all back up.
One of my favorite songs from that era is the uplifting “Without a Doubt.”
I co-wrote “Without a Doubt” with Chris Christian, and it was a reflection on the spiritual awakening that I had had. And that was part of the conflict, too. I thought it was a great song.
But my conflict with that whole industry was that I wasn’t then nor have I ever really been a religious person. I have some definite spiritual beliefs that I have dug out of my own heart, but I’m not very religious.
Regardless, Chris is a great writer, and we wrote some good stuff. He also produced several of my pop and gospel albums, including B.J. Thomas [August 1977]. I cut the first four platinum albums in gospel music history [Home Where I Belong, Happy Man, You Gave Me Love (When Nobody Gave Me a Prayer), and Amazing Grace, released 1977–1981], and I’ve always been proud of that.
What made you decide to cover the Beach Boys’ Don’t Worry Baby?”
Chris Christian and I were simply trying to come up with a classic song to do for the B.J. Thomas album. I always loved the Beach Boys, their harmonies, and that particular song. So we recorded it. It became my last Top 20 on the pop chart. While it didn’t quite smash through as a number one record, [№17 Pop, June 1977], it sold around 800,000 copies.
I’ve always wanted to meet Brian Wilson, but it hasn’t happened yet. I did speak to him on the phone when I was recording “Rock and Roll Lullaby” in 1971. I wanted him to add some background vocals to the track, but he was unavailable. However, I have worked with the Beach Boys on a number of occasions, but Brian wasn’t with them.
Did you ever figure out why your country records never crossed over into the pop charts?
That’s funny, isn’t it? People think I had a crossover, but I never did. I’ve never had a country song that went pop. All my stuff was pop. Country was down in a commercial sense during the ’70s. It wasn’t until the Urban Cowboy explosion that country kind of assumed its rightful place.
Case in point: I decided to start recording in 1982 with steel guitar ace Pete Drake, who was a good friend of mine. That’s when we cut “Whatever Happened to Old-Fashioned Love” [№1 C&W, №13 AC], “New Looks from an Old Lover” [№1 C&W], and “Two-Car Garage” [№3 C&W]. I did very well on the country charts for several years.
How were you signed to Wrinkled Records?
I originally did a project with producer/songwriter Larry Butler down in Muscle Shoals, Alabama [along with Moman, Butler was the co-writer of “Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song”].
Larry sadly passed away [January 20, 2012], and the album remains unreleased. Someday I think my collaboration with Larry will see the light of day. It had some excellent songs going for it. Perhaps it was a bit more country than what Wrinkled was looking for.
Anyway, the folks at Wrinkled [i.e. Sandy Knox, Katie Gillon, and Stephen McCord] heard the songs I recorded with Larry. While they may not have necessarily liked the project, they really liked the way I still sounded. So they asked me to come aboard and start a fresh, unplugged project with producer Kyle Lehning, who has worked with Randy Travis, Ronnie Milsap, and Waylon Jennings.
Was there a concept in mind when you first started tracking The Living Room Sessions in March 2012?
First of all, it was a unique project for me and my first album since the Brazilian-themed Once I Loved released three years earlier. We cut 12 of my greatest hits in an unplugged setting in Nashville at Sound Stage Studios.
There was a simple concept — to introduce me and my songs to people who perhaps aren’t as ‘up’ on me right now, and to refresh the minds of others about these great songs that I have had the privilege to record and sing in concert for so many years.
A lot of my peers and veteran artists I know who perform their old hits in concert tend to get bored with the material and start phoning it in, but the biggest blessing for me is that I never get tired of it.
I still feel an emotional connection to the songs, and as they bring back great memories for me, they affect me the same way they might touch a longtime fan of my music. I never planned any of this out, so to be able to express myself in music and have that as a vehicle for my life for as long as I have is something I am always grateful for.
I co-produced The Living Room Sessions with Kyle. We work very well together, and I had a wonderful time. While most producers will sit behind the console listening and directing the sessions, Kyle took a seat in the studio with myself and the band, and became even more fully immersed in the moment. We nailed each song in at most two or three takes. Everything was real simple and organic, and we didn’t labor on anything too long to get things right.
Some of the best studio musicians the city has to offer played on the record, including Bryan Sutton on acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, gut string guitar and dobro, John Willis on electric, acoustic and gut string guitar and dobro, Viktor Krauss on upright bass and Steve Brewster on drums and percussion. Viktor’s sister is a star in her own right — Alison Krauss.
The session really came off just like we had hoped it would. Off the top of my head, “New York Woman,” “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Old-Fashioned Love,” and “New Looks from an Old Lover” — co-written by my wife, Gloria, Red Lane, and Lathan Hudson — sound exceptionally well. I’m also quite proud of “Lonesome,” which we rearranged a bit, creating a cool guitar and vocal only version.
Who did you get to duet with on the record?
Vince Gill [“I Just Can’t Help Believing”], Lyle Lovett [“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”], Richard Marx [(“Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song”], and my longtime friend Steve Tyrell [“Rock and Roll Lullaby”] immediately come to mind. Tyrell produced the original single in 1971, and this is really the first time we have sung together in the studio.
Sara Niemietz duetted with me on “Hooked on a Feeling.” You probably don’t know her yet. Believe me you soon will. I first met her in 1997 when she was four years old at a concert of mine in Wheeling, Illinois. I noticed her singing the words to “Hooked on a Feeling,” and I brought her up onstage. She had an amazing voice even then. Her family and I have stayed in touch over the years.
There were some great, surprising moments as well, particularly on Isaac Slade’s fine interpretation of “Lonesome” and the dynamic singing by Keb’ Mo’. He is so much more than a blues musician. He originally wanted to do “Hooked”, but I wanted to save that for Sara, so I gave him “Most of All.” Keb’ came in not knowing the song at all, but he sat down, learned it, internalized it and put in the work it took to make it magical.
Dr. John and Alison Krauss were originally supposed to be on the record. Unfortunately, scheduling conflicts made this impossible. I would still like to work with them someday.
I tackle “Eyes of a New York Woman”, “Everybody’s Out of Town”, “Don’t Worry Baby”, and “Whatever Happened to Old-Fashioned Love” all by myself.
I include some of the unplugged versions in my show and have been blessed to team up with some of my duet partners for some special performances. I still play between 60 and 80 shows per year. So far my fans have taken quite a liking to The Living Room Sessions.
What other projects would you like to tackle with Lehning?
I would like to do an album containing all-new material. Several of my compositions that not many people have heard — “Hands on Me Again” and “Back Against the Wall” [the title cut of Thomas’s 1992 album], are songs I hope to record for this project.
A classic country album is another idea on the drawing board. I’d especially like to cut a classic soul/R&B album featuring songs that I grew up with. I have no idea why I haven’t recorded an all-R&B project. That just seems like a no-brainer [laughs]. Going back to the early ’60s, I’ve done songs with soul origins on nearly all my records.
One reason it may not have happened yet is that when you have so much success with a certain kind of song, producers only want to cut that kind of song on you. I never had any successful R&B or straight up rock and roll singles.
All the stars have to line up for things to happen in a certain way. Fortunately, I’m with some terrific friends at Wrinkled who are old-school record people who listen to their artists. Their goal is to produce great music. I’m looking forward to tackling these projects soon.
Do you still get nervous before a show?
Oh, sure. That’s just a part of being ready. It’s not really so much nervousness as your creative energy coming up. Your mind focuses on what you’re gonna do, and it makes sure that you’re gonna do it the best you can. I think that’s just part of the process.
Why did you scale back your touring?
To be frank, I just wanted to take some time off from the road and be with my family. I’ll always be a singer. If I’m feeling good and healthy, I’m sure I’ll keep touring and recording for a long time to come.
Tony Bennett is a great example of what you can do if you take care of yourself. He’s the high water mark in terms of longevity in the business. I have a lot of respect for him, and I’d love to emulate him. I’ve never had an opportunity to sing with him, but I would certainly love to do so.
Where did your interest in Twitter originate?
It was part of where the record business has ventured into social media. It’s a way to interact one-on-one with your fans and get news out. You can learn how people are thinking about you, so it’s kind of a natural thing to do in connection with the music business.
I’m not technologically inclined whatsoever. I have to be taught very slowly. My wife Gloria and my manager come to my rescue if I need assistance. Nevertheless, I’ve really enjoyed being on Twitter @TheBJThomas. It’s been a great, fun experience for me so far.
Are you a Rick Nelson fan?
Oh, absolutely [laughs]. That’s kind of why my brother took me over to my first band rehearsal with those other kids. I loved to sing along with Ricky when he was performing on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.
My brother always thought I sounded like Ricky. Ricky had a huge influence on my desire to sing, as did Elvis, Jackie Wilson and a lot of those early R&B singers.
I met Ricky a number of times, and he was always such a terrific guy. I saw him in New York City on the street, and we talked for 5 or 10 minutes. I saw him in Houston before I ever had any hit records. He was in town, and I happened to be in a club that he visited.
We never were close friends, but I did get the chance to tell him how much I admired him and how great I thought he was. I was really heartbroken when he was killed in that plane on New Year’s Eve 1985.
Years later, I actually did record with his twin sons — Gunnar and Matthew. They sang back-up with me on a cover of “Fools Rush In.”
When you’re in this business, you do a lot of projects that everybody hears. But then some projects you do, nobody ever hears about. “Fools Rush In” fell into the latter category. It came out really well, but I don’t think it was ever released. However, we own those masters. They may still be released yet.
[Author’s Note: The fascinating, gone much too soon life and career of Rick Nelson has been explored in-depth with longtime guitarist [James Burton], biographer [Philip Bashe], and youngest son [Sam], who have each spoken eloquently about their relationship with the talented singer and best-selling “Garden Party” songwriter].
If you were stranded on a desert island, what music would you want by your side?
I listen to a lot of the old school R&B artists like Jackie Wilson, Marvin Gaye, Al Green, and the Temptations — one of my favorite groups — on Pandora Internet Radio. I still listen to ’70s pop/rock. Of course, I’m a huge fan of the Beatles and Frank Sinatra. I also like everything that Elvis ever recorded.
[Author’s Note: Presley was also a B.J. Thomas fan. Thomas performed at Presley’s traditional New Year’s Eve 1968 party at the Thunderbird Lounge in Memphis. During the superstar’s after-show sessions at the Las Vegas Hilton, Thomas was asked on more than one occasion to sing “Mama,” which likely reminded Presley of his dearly departed mother Gladys. According to Elvis-Collectors.com, Thomas’s baritone arrangement of “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” featured on Everybody’s Out of Town, was closely copied by Presley when he recorded his cover version. Of course, another track from that very same album, the №9 pop hit “I Just Can’t Help Believing,” was performed by Presley at numerous concerts and became a Top Ten hit for the King of Rock and Roll when released as a single in Great Britain].
What is your perfect day?
Being home with my family. I’ve travelled so much over the years that I really enjoy just being alone with Gloria. When all the kids and grandkids come over, we all hang out and have a lot of fun. My grandkids’ names are now tattooed on my arm. That is the perfect day for me.
I don’t really have many hobbies. I do love to play golf. I go to bed and get up early in the morning to go play golf all day. The game of golf will reveal your character. It’s a good way to learn patience, courage and a lot of things that go good in life.
I enjoy reading — Spencer Tracy: A Biography by James Curtis is heartily recommended. I will also sit around and play the guitar and think about music, but that’s probably about it.
Is there anything you would like to say to your fans?
I appreciate my fans a great deal. Every day I think about how lucky I am to have had the support I’ve had over the years from the people who have bought my records. It means a lot to me. And of course, I want to thank everybody reading this.
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