Ron Onesti: Prayers for B.J. Thomas
It was announced this week that legendary vocalist B.J. Thomas has been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. He and his doctors have a positive outlook as treatments have begun.
B.J. has always been there for us, appearing at The Arcada on numerous occasions. It seems almost everywhere you turn these days, dark clouds loom. But, thanks to the guy who gave us "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," we can remain having a positive outlook.
Growing up and absolutely loving music, I have so many memories of just simply hanging out in my room staring at album covers and listening to the pop/rock stars of the Seventies. The memories consist of bands and songs, but some memories are of the voices themselves. One of those distinctive voices for me was that of B.J. Thomas.
Although he was born in Oklahoma, B.J. (Billy Joe) Thomas was brought up a Texan. His mainstream singing career began as B.J. Thomas and the Triumphs, but when Dick Clark asked him to be a part of his Caravan of Stars tour, Thomas went out on his own.
"I was part of this tour with people like Roy Orbison and the Four Seasons," B.J. said. "It was kind of a grind -- very little sleep and we never really ate well. But the back-of-the-bus stories were incredible!"
One of his first singles was a cover of the Hank Williams' classic "I'm So Lonely I Could Cry." The record went gold and he was on his way. A couple years later, he broke out again with his timeless hit and his second million record seller, "Hooked on a Feeling." That is when I got "hooked."
Soon after, his fellow Sceptor Records recording artist and friend, Dionne Warwick, introduced B.J. to her intimate friend and songwriting kingpin of the day, Burt Bachrach. He tapped Thomas to sing "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" for a film he was writing the score for, entitled "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid." B.J. became a worldwide sensation … everybody was singing that song!
The song won an Academy Award and he actually performed it on the Oscars in 1970. He went on to earn five Grammy Awards and continued with hit records, including another classic, "Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song," but then he fell into the common entertainer abyss of the day: drugs and alcohol.
"We really didn't understand what we were doing, or how dangerous it was," B.J. said during a recent interview for WGN-FM radio. "It was something that happened and nearly killed me and I almost lost my wife (singer/songwriter Gloria Richardson)." B.J. and Gloria stuck together, found God, and they have been happy ever since.
"I have a fabulous life now," he said. "I have great fans, a great wife and three grandkids! God has definitely intervened, but it's not like I am extremely religious, just living right."
I found B.J. to be a very humble and sincere person who really loves his fans. At The Arcada, he did four encores for a very appreciative, standing-ovation crowd and everybody was loving it. He shared stories and songs that took the audience through his life of rock, pop, Christian and country music. But ironically, as he had hits in all those genres of music, his biggest influences came from early R&B artists.
"My idol was Jackie Wilson, and I toured with James Brown. The label I was on had Dionne, the Shirelles and several other R&B artists. I loved guys like Ray Charles and I tried to convey that soulful sincerity that they had. Many people early on actually thought I was a black performer!" B.J. said. "So that was who I toured with mostly."
As I was standing backstage watching him touch his audience, I couldn't help but think about the 50-year career of this talented fellow. I thought of the places he has performed, from the high school rock shows in Houston to those eventful bus tours, "The Ed Sullivan Show" to the Grand Ole Opry … to The Arcada! And as he sang song after song, that light in his eyes was still there. He gave it his all and I really felt the sincere love he had for his fans.
His voice was still very much there, and I STILL have those songs stuck in my head! Raindrops keep…Hooked on a…Done somebody wrong song … ah!
The feeling we all were hooked on, was the one B.J. Thomas gave us with hit after hit after hit. And as the song "Raindrops…" boldly states, "But there's one thing, I know, the blues they send to meet me, won't defeat me…"
Pretty profound, B.J., pretty profound.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of the Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email email@example.com.