B.J. Thomas has travelled the road from R&B to pop/rock, country, gospel and back home again with his latest album The Living Room Sessions. Thomas sings many of his hits in new, acoustic-based arrangements with such artists as Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, Keb Mo, Steve Tyrell and Isaac Slade of The Fray.
BJ Thomas The Living Room Sessions
We had the honour of talking with B.J. about the new album and his career.
VVN: Congratulations on the new album. It seems to be going great.
B.J. Thomas (BJT): Thanks. You know, I have rerecorded my hits in the past and it’s always seemed to be a mistake because it’s very hard to recapture that original feeling but this time, when it was suggested…I forget whether it was Sandy Knox or Katie Gillon or possibly it was Gloria, my wife…suggested let’s do it unplugged. You’ve never done it acoustically. That kind of peaked our interest. It turned out pretty good. I’m satisfied with it. It gave me a chance to work with a lot of other people and work with Kyle Lenning. We co-produced. I think it turned out well. I’m glad people are receiving it well, too.
VVN: I think a lot of the brilliance of the album is what you just mentioned. Doing it with stripped down acoustic versions of the songs. There’s some wonderful arrangements on there. Who did the arranging?
BJT: Kyle and I and Bryan Sutton, who is the band leader and guitar player. As we did the songs, they would almost arrange themselves. If there needed to be anything, we would just had arrange them and talk about what we needed to do. If we needed to lower the key, like on Don’t Worry Baby, we would cut back on the falsetto part and change the arrangement a little bit. We stayed fairly true to the original character of the songs. We would just change them a little bit here and there and that made them a bit more interesting.
VVN: One of my very favorite changes is in the last cut, Everybody’s Out of Town, with the replacement of the horn with bottleneck guitar.
BJT: That’s Brian Sutton on the guitar. He played slide, some kind of banjo and guitar. He played four or five different types of instruments on that thing.
The one thing about the group we had, they were not intimidated by any of the songs, especially Everybody’s Out of Town which is an intimidating song if you’re going to try to do it anywhere near the original, which we did. We kept the essence of the original.
Of course, Everybody’s Out of Town was the follow-up to Raindrops. It was a number one record in Canada and a number one record in Australia but nobody really got it in the states as much as we thought they would. It was a different kind of song for its time. Even now it’s kind of different.
VVN: Well it is. The trumpet part was very different.
BJT: I remember the session clearly. Burt [Bacharach] talking with the trumpet player and the trumpet player was saying, looking at the music, “How do I do this?” and Burt saying “Just mash all the valves down at once and let them out at the same time, slowly.” Burt, that guy was amazing. Everything that was done on this record, he would compose down to the drum fills. He was a brilliant, brilliant guy.
VVN: Where did the idea of doing at least two-thirds of the songs as duets come from?
BJT: We thought it would be a good marketing tool. I hadn’t had anything for awhile. We thought that some of the songs would be so perfect for duetting. I think it’s possible we may have done two to three too many. Five probably would have been OK but people kept wanting to be involved.
Sara Niemietz, who I’ve known since she was a child and she is twenty now, we’ve kept up over the years. She’s a great actress and singer. She’s going to be huge some day. I was texting back and forth with her about being involved on the record and Richard Marx, who also loves Sara, texted me and said “Hey, I want to be involved in this thing.” Once we talked, it turned out he had a real personal connection to Wrong Song so it came about that way.
Sandy Knox bumped into Isaac Slade [of The Fray] somewhere having breakfast or something and he said to her “Hey, I heard that B.J. is recording.” She told him all about it and he volunteered.
A lot of them we went and got. I called Lyle and asked him to be a part of it and he had some history with Bacharach in the past so he wanted to do Raindrops. Vince is a long-time friend so it was kind of a no-brainer to ask him. We get a lot of response to that duet on Believin’.
We might have done too many in retrospect but it sure was fun working with those guys. The Keb Mo thing especially was kind of a unique and interesting.
VVN: As I mentioned in our review, there’s one song I really wish was on there and that’s Mighty Clouds of Joy but I know you have to limit it somewhat.
BJT: I wanted that song on there, too, but somehow it got eliminated because that’s one of my favorite songs. I do that one every time I perform. I cut that with Buddy Buie down in Doraville, Georgia when the Atlanta Rhythm Section was the studio band before they had hits. Maybe, if this thing really turns out well and we need a Volume Two, we’ll definitely have Clouds on that one.
Robert Nix and Buddy Buie wrote that song when one of them was listening to the radio and they played a Mighty Clouds of Joy (the gospel group) song and they wrote the record around that.
VVN: Did you actually go in the studio with each of the artists to record?
BJT: Yes I did. Regrettably, I missed Keb Mo and Steve Tyrell did his vocal in California. I was booked on the day we did Isaac Slade. The other duets, I was there. I so enjoyed doing my songs with someone else.
VVN: One of the things that struck me on the album is that your voice is still so strong and pure today. Is there anything you’ve done over the years to keep your voice in shape?
BJT: I’ve had to stop all my bad habits to keep my throat healthy. Not smoking is a no brainer but I also have to watch what I eat. The older I get I have to not eat late and eat the proper foods. Not go to sleep on a full stomach. Simple things like that. I have to try and get enough rest. Sometimes you’re working and there’s no way to get any sleep so you’ve got to deal with that some. I have a pretty healthy lifestyle. I’m pretty much a family guy and all that goes to keep my voice in shape.
VVN: You had mentioned being long time friends with Sara Niemietz You met her at one of your shows when she was quite young?
BJT: I met her the first time when I was doing a one-nighter in Chicago and her Mom talked to me before the show saying that “My daughter can sing and she loves Hooked on a Feeling.” Then, when I was doing the show, they were sitting right down in front. Sara was four-years-old at the time. While I was doing Hooked on a Feeling her Mom said something and was pointing to Sara so I pulled Sara up on stage and gave her the mic. She sang about half a verse of the song absolutely as in tune as anything that I’ve ever heard. It’s really unusual for someone that young to have that kind of tone and that kind of pitch. She just has that naturally.
We just kept in touch off and on and I knew she was slowly building her career and becoming what she wanted to be. I think she’s going to be huge someday. She has a unique, soulful voice and she’s just a terrific girl with great character. She has a great future in front of her.
VVN: I was also impressed with the voice of Etta Britt and I wasn’t familiar with her. She’s a label mate of yours?
BJT: She was with Wrinkled. I’m not sure she is with them now. She almost had a very successful album. It had great reviews and it almost caught on. My wife loves her and her album. Of course, my wife, Gloria, wrote New Looks [on which Etta and B.J. duet]. That’s the main one we rearranged. We put it in a different key and I did a new melody. That was really a fun one to do. My wife wanted her on that and she did a great job.
VVN: Of course, you are probably best known for Raindrops. I heard somewhere in the past that you were sick when you recorded the soundtrack version?
BJT: Paul Cantor, who was my manager at that time, and the people at Scepter, contacted me while I was doing three weeks of one-nighters in the mid-west and it was right at the end of that run. They flew me out to California to do that session with Burt and my throat was shot. When I got to California, I could hardly talk. At that time, I smoked cigarettes. I had a rehearsal with Burt on a Saturday and we were shooting that bicycle scene on Sunday so I went to a doctor’s office on Saturday and he told me “Son, this is the worst throat I’ve ever seen. I don’t want you to even speak for two weeks. Get a pen and a pad and write down anything you want to say.”
I told him “Whoa, Doc. You’ve got to help me because I have a rehearsal today with Burt Bacharach and I’ve got a session tomorrow with Burt Bacharach and Hal David for a Paul Newman movie.” So, he gave me a B-12 shot and some pills to shrink my vocal chords and did the best he could.
I think I sang it through five times to the bicycle scene but Burt was furious. If you ever hear it again you can tell I’m very ragged. One of the 20th Century Fox people came up to me and said “You know, that’s a good idea” and I said “What’s a good idea?” He said “You’re trying to give the impression that it’s Paul singing.” I just agreed with him. Yeah, that’s what I’m doing.
Anyway, Burt was not happy with me. Somehow it came off. It won the Academy Award
Hal David just had this way of writing these simple lyrics, Hal and I had many conversations about this song. They asked him to write a frivolous, silly song and he said “B.J., I don’t write silly songs.” He tried to be as light hearted as he could. As it turned out, it ended up being one of those great honest songs that so many people connected with.
Burt wrote the ending, that fade out thing, so we rerecorded it about six weeks later for the single and, by then, I was in shape and it came off great.
VVN: You sang that at the Academy Awards, too, didn’t you?
BJT: I did. I did the Academy Awards show in 1970. At that time, it was the largest viewing audience of all-time. Oh, man, I was so nervous and they had this big production thing for Raindrops. I wore the Sundance Kid’s suit and shot a gun off and everything. I’ve seen the film since. It really came off well. It was really a special night for me. All the beautiful Hollywood people were there. It was really a highlight for me.
I so enjoyed working Burt and, especially, Hal. Hal was a real kind of guy’s guy. Burt is a little more sophisticated. Both of those guys, as a team, did some really important work. Maybe some of the most important of all-time from America.
VVN: Hal had a way of writing almost nonsensical lyrics on a lot of songs and they just went together like they belonged.
BJT: Yeah. They just came out so brilliantly. I mean, A House is Not a Home…”A chair is not a chair unless there’s someone sitting there.” Just the way the guy would write was the great thing. He was so in love with his wife. He was always in love and people loved him. There was just something about him that was so honest in a very simple kind of quirky way and I think it really influenced the way that Bacharach had to phrase those lines and create that style that is so unique.
The way Burt played the piano, too. Nobody has ever done that before or since. He would get on that piano and start putting that Bacharach thing down. It was amazing to see.
VVN: What’s the situation with your catalog albums at this point. I know they released the set with the Scepter A and B sides. What about some of your albums like On My Way. Are there any plans for re-releasing some of the catalog albums?
BJT: It’s kind of sad and disappointing on my end. Scepter went out of business right when we cut Rock and Roll Lullaby and we had that and That’s What Friends Are For and the Billy Joe Thomas album where these great writers wrote these songs for me and came and played at the sessions. Carole King and John Sebastian and a lot of great people. Scepter went bankrupt as we finished that album. They actually weren’t even able to press records so I lost a bunch of hits which was a disappointment for me.
Then, the masters were leased and sold and a company that’s in Nashville has all my masters. It’s just a chaotic mess. Actually, we were contacted by these people (or Gloria contacted them) and they put the retrospective out of the Scepter records. We cooperated with the people who had our masters and have abused them and really misused them for years but we cooperated with them so this album would be complete and done well.
But we’re really disappointed in that we don’t have control over our masters. You might never see those things reprinted again unless we can gain control and ownership. We had hoped the courts would give us the ownership of our masters but it’s hard to make people understand exactly what that situation is. That’s really a form of art that you’ve created and someone else is coming in and adding things and painting over your paintings. These are things you’ve already paid for and been deducted out of your royalties.
It’s doubtful that we’ll ever see those records again and that’s a shame because I think On My Way was one of the best things I did. I’m disappointed in that.
VVN: I keep hoping that either one of the European labels who specialize in the re-releasing of catalog products or that an MP3 only release as Motown is currently doing with catalog will somehow happen.
BJT: Yeah, I feel the same as you do. I hope it will happen. I kind of suffered in the worldwide thing because I had so many of my records covered in Europe by Jonathan King and Sacha Distel and down in Australia Johnny Farnham covered Raindrops. I think covers are sometimes flattering but when somebody covers you when you first release a song…I don’t get that. I personally would never do that. I’m kind of hoping some of those people over there will re-release some of the originals.
VVN: I know you have some dates lined up but are you planning any extensive touring for The Living Room Sessions?
BJT: I don’t get to plan them and book them as far ahead as in previous years, but I’ll probably do fifty to sixty shows this year. We also have it in our mind that we’re going to put together a show with all the guests on this album and either do it for PBS or do it with the label. I do believe that is going to come to fruition but, right now, nothing definite is inked in.
VVN: Any other plans for the future out past this album?
BJT: My first influences was R&B music. At the time, Lonesome was kind of an R&B record and the first gig I got was with James Brown. I went out with him for about a week or so and then I went up to Cleveland and worked with Jackie Wilson. I was so influenced at the beginning by Bobby Bland and Junior Parker and Ray Charles. That’s the one thing I haven’t done extensively in my career, the R&B music, so that’s the thing I’m really formulating now. It will probably be a little time in the future but we want to do a definitive R&B record with a live band and a horn section. Just do the songs that inspired me back then.
Having said that, I know a Burt Bacharach/Hal David album would be a no-brainer but so many people have done that we don’t know if that would work but that’s something I would love to do.
VVN: Who are you admiring among the younger artists out there?
BJT: You know, I’ve really become a big fan of Isaac Slade. I had no idea he was going to bring that depth of soul and that much passion in his interpretation of I’m So Lonesome. I was very impressed with that.
Having said that, if I listen to music for myself, I still listen to a lot of old school stuff. I listen to a lot of Motown and Marvin Gaye and a lot of Al Green and, of course, Elvis Presley. I know that it’s the nature of the business that its always what’s new but the music now is such a reflection of our society and the stress and pressure that, really, our whole planet is going through. There’s so much angst and anger in the music now. I connect with very little of it. I love the Roots because there is a real depth in their music. I just worked with them and it was a big thrill for me.
I know there’s a lot of great music being made, but I’m not up on it the way I know I should be. I’m still listening to old school. In the old days, we were all fans of each other. We were all different and we all liked to listen to each other’s music. That doesn’t seem to be the case today. Today it seems to be very competitive. There’s just a different dynamic going on that doesn’t really appeal to me that much.
There’s a lot of good artists out there whose music isn’t being heard. It all comes down to money. It’s like a half million dollars to just promote someone’s debut album. It might be even more than that now. The whole money thing is preventing a lot of people from being heard.
B.J. Thomas’ new album, The Living Room Sessions, is available from Amazon and at most retailers.
Great news for fans of the uber-talented Todd Rundgren.
In 2008, for a week on the glorious isle of Kauai, in Hawaii, about 300 fans from all over the world joined the Rundgrens at their incredible home to celebrate his 60th birthday. This became known as ToddStock; a week of camping, drinking, singing and celebrating.