You know you must be having a surreal night when you pass by Frank Sinatra and don’t even notice the presence of the legend. But that’s exactly what happened to singer B. J. Thomas when he performed at the 42 Annual Academy Awards back in April of 1970. The Texas native had just finished singing the nominated song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on my Head” from the film Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and was being ushered off stage. Still, in the adrenaline of the moment, he was totally unaware of not only the Hollywood royalty that was in the audience but those who just happened to be walking by him.
Celebrating the 50th anniversary of not only the song’s Oscar win but its four weeks as number one on the music charts (the song was overlooked for the Golden Globes, although Bacharach won the Globe for the Sundance score), Thomas, a Grammy winner who has scored 14 top ten hits, shared a few memories of not only that magical night but the journey that almost wasn’t his to begin with.
Originally Burt Bacharach wanted Ray Stevens to record the song. How did you happen to come to his attention?
Burt Bacharach went down to Nashville. He played the song for Ray and he didn’t quite get it. Ray was just about to release one of his songs by Kris Kristofferson. He told me years later he had been trying to get Kris to sing one of his songs for years, so he didn’t want to steer away from that. Anyway, I was told Burt wrote the melody with Bob Dylan in mind and he and Hal David wanted the singer to be someone who had a hit record. I just released “Hooked on a Feeling” and as I had already been working with Burt on Scepter Records, I guess I was in the right place at the right time. But I know it could have gone any number of ways.
So, you get the offer, and then when you go to record it, you have laryngitis…
It was almost like I was supposed to have laryngitis. I had gone to the doctor the day before the session. He told me he didn’t even want me to speak for two weeks. I told him he had to help me and so he gave me things to shrink my vocal cords. It wasn’t like I wasn’t going to show up (laugh). I went to Burt’s house and we started working on the bicycle scene version and he never said a word. He liked it. Later on, a Fox rep told me it was a good idea that I was sounding like Paul Newman. We did rerecord the song six weeks later for the album version, but the bicycle scene was a great memory. All the beautiful things that happened with the song are cherished memories.
Is it true that Paul Newman and Robert Redford didn’t initially like the song?
Over the years, I heard that Mr. Redford didn’t like that a pop song was in his art movie. They believed they were making an art film that was a western. He had a different perspective. Anyway, the song was so effective that he was persuaded. I never met Redford or Newman. I did read Burt’s book “Anyone who had a Heart” and he said he never heard bad news about it either.
So, the song hits number one and then you are asked to sing at the Oscars. What do you recall from that experience?
It was a huge production number. This was before the days where they would send you a limo. I had to take a taxi to the first rehearsals, and I couldn’t find the building and missed the first rehearsal. They were upset. And asked me if I still wanted to do this. The second day I make the rehearsal and it was this huge production number. They had rearranged some of the song.
Were you nervous being part of this Hollywood epic night?
It was a special night for me being around all that American royalty. I shared a dressing room with Glen Campbell. He was so cool, but I was nervous. I was trying to look cool but freaking out. What helped me was I knew I had something I had to do. I was dressed as a cowboy and had to walk on stage, fire my guns, and walk around the stage. That helped me relax.
Now 50 years later, you are still singing the song. Have you discovered anything new?
The lyrics have become deeper. It means a lot to me and uplifts me. I do a show and my mood can run hot and cold when I perform. Sometimes that song is just what I need. I have only done a few shows with Burt as I had my own career going. So, we only worked together a few times. Anyway, he did apologize for having me have to sing that song for all these years, but I love it. I am not one of those guys who gets tired of my hits. I have memories and emotions tied to all my songs.