B.J. Thomas, on the other hand, didn’t bat an eye when the wistful, charming little ditty — written for the surefire Paul Newman-Robert Redford box-office bonanza “Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid” — was offered to him.
So, Thomas recorded the Hal David-Burt Bacharach composition, and it made him a massive star in 1970.
“Of course, the melody always had that Dylan kind of [quality], and Burt really did like Bob Dylan, because no one ever phrased a song or wrote a song like Dylan, and Burt always admired that,” said Thomas.
As for Atkins and Stevens dismissing it, Thomas said he never believed “ … the veracity of that story … until Chet Atkins told me personally, yes, they did turn it down … There was just something about it that they didn’t go for, and I’m so glad they passed on it. I think that’s one of the few mistakes that Chet Atkins ever made.”
Their loss was Thomas’ gain. He cut a version that appeared in the film’s famous bicycle scene, and then, following a long tour, Thomas caught a bad case of laryngitis. Vitamin shots and pills helped Thomas regain his vocals, and the song was re-cut in Columbia Studios for the single version, which ended up being a combination of three different studio takes.
Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” spent four weeks atop the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 chart and was the first #1 single of the entire decade of the ’70s. It also earned an Academy Award for Best Original Song, thanks to Bacharach and David’s genius and Thomas’ gentle, slightly wounded, yet cautiously optimistic, interpretation.
“You know, Burt and Hal were two completely different kinds of people,” said Thomas. “Burt was a sophisticated, kind of flamboyant, very charismatic kind of guy, and Hal was kind of an everyman — just a great guy, everybody loved him. He was just kind of a guy’s guy, real friendly and open.”
The two had a certain chemistry that resulted in songwriting magic.
“They fit together, of course, in a spectacular fashion as writer and composer … I was in awe of them, and, of course, being in the studio with them was unreal,” explained Thomas. “They used 80 to 100 musicians on their sessions, and that was a real step up for me. It took me to a high level.”
Immediately, upon hearing it for the first time, Thomas, known for his light balladry and country crooning, knew he had a hit on his hands. Adding a bit of his own personal touch to the song at the end made it sweeter.
“I was influenced in an R&B sense, and I liked to curl some notes and do that kind of thing,” said Thomas. “And I asked Burt, I said, ‘Can I do some of my licks on this song, if it’s OK?’ And he said, ‘B, after you sing it just the way I’ve written it, sing all the notes I wrote, if you’ve got room to do anything, feel free.’ And of course, I didn’t have any room to do anything but on that last ‘me,’ I put as good a lick on ‘me’ as I could.”
Now, fans can experience the song all over again on the reissue of the album Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head from Collectors’ Choice. Packaged with Everybody’s Out Of Town, it’s one of eight LPs Thomas recorded for Scepter Records between 1966 and 1973 that Collectors’ Choice has re-released on four 25- to 26-song two-fer CDs. The others are: I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry/Tomorrow Never Comes; On My Way/Young And In Love; and Most Of All/Billy Joe Thomas.
“[They] brings up a lot of feelings, a lot of good memories,” says Thomas. “That’s just from the very first records I ever made through the Memphis sessions [where Thomas wound up recording 1968’s On My Way and 1969’s Young And In Love with famed producer Chips Moman and the American Studios session players] and Bacharach and Atlanta, when I recorded with Buddy Buie [Atlanta Rhythm Section] and then back to Memphis. [They] sound good. They remastered ’em, and I think the mixes are the original mixes, which is nice. I really appreciate that they didn’t re-mix everything.”
In a sense, these reissues are a sort of audio scrapbook of Thomas’ most successful years. While with Scepter, Thomas cut hits like “Rock ’N’ Roll Lullaby” and “Hooked On A Feeling,” and even a re-make of The Doors’ classic “Light My Fire.” In addition to working with producers like Buie, Moman and Bacharach and David, Thomas interpreted songs by such songwriting greats as Wayne Carson, Mark Sharon and Mark James, who penned the Elvis Presley hit “Always On My Mind,” a song Thomas hoped he’d be able to cut first.
Catching up with Thomas these days, this king of lush pop balladry and country crooning isn’t resting on his laurels. Perhaps unexpectedly, Thomas’ latest LP is called Once I Loved, and it contains 12 Brazilian classics remade by Thomas and company. “Just a lot of Brazilian classic hits, their all-time hits, and I did four duets with four Brazilian artists and just had a great time,” says the singer.
Why Brazilian music? Thomas explains, “There was a time back in the ’70s sometimes I’d have the top five records on the charts [there]. So we started going down there, and ‘Rock ’N’ Roll Lullaby’ was the theme of their longest-running novella or soap opera, as we call it.”
Life is good for Thomas these days. Still married to his wife, Gloria — the two wedded in 1968 — he still does 60 to 70 one-night shows a year and still tours South America.
“So I still go down there every couple of years and do a few shows,” says Thomas. “They always love the [Burt] Bacharach stuff, and I had a hit on ‘Light My Fire’ down there and ‘Oh Me, Oh My,’ the old Lulu song. They would take the current album and pull an obscure thing off or something that they really liked better than the single a lot of times, even though ‘Raindrops’ was a big hit down there.”
And pretty much everywhere else, too.