RAMBLIN: B.J. Thomas: Oklahoma's 'lonesome' troubadour

MIKE WINDLE | Getty Images for SeriousFun Children’s Network/TNS

B.J. Thomas, born in Hugo, Oklahoma, performs onstage during the SeriousFun Children’s Network Los Angeles Gala on May 14, 2015 in Hollywood. 

I felt saddened to learn of the loss of another great Oklahoma musical artist, with the recent passing of B.J. Thomas.

Thomas was born down the highway in Hugo, Oklahoma, in 1942. He grew up in Texas after his family moved south of the Red River, still close enough to retain those down-home roots.

He came on the national music scene in 1966, when a record label picked up his version of the Hank Williams song, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

Amazingly, given the numerous times the song has been recorded, only two artists have taken the song into the Top Ten: Hank and B.J.

Hank recorded the song in 1949, not in Nashville, but in Herzog studios in Cincinnati, Ohio. He used a fully-formed band, the Pleasant Valley Boys, to back him up in the studio.

While it’s now considered one of the greatest songs of all time, when Hank finished with his recording, record executives put it on the “B” side of the single, with “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” designated as the record’s “A” side. They wanted a faster song to put on juke boxes — not Williams’ mournful ballad.

Hank didn’t even write “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It.” It’s credited to “Williams,” but that’s Clarence Williams, not Hank. It’s even doubtful that Clarence Williams wrote the song, since there were records of it by other artists before he copyrighted his version.

The double-sided single made it to #4 on the country charts of the time — only four steps higher than Thomas took the song on the pop charts in 1966.

While few remember Williams’ version of “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” the flip side “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is considered one of the greatest songs ever written. “My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It” is remembered by many Hank aficionados for another reason — the only lead guitar solo Hank ever recorded. 

When B.J. Thomas and the Triumphs recorded their version in 1966, they didn’t rock  it up, but included a descending chord line and even threw in a few minor chords, only hinted at in Hank’s three-chord original. After they recorded their version back in Texas, it caught the ears of executives at Specter Records, not to be confused with Spector Records, the label associated with the infamous producer Phil Spector.

B.J. Thomas brought his blue-eyed country soul to his version. When he got near the end of the song and hit the word “cry,” he launched into a near operatic ending which gave the song a little something special.

When I first heard the B.J. Thomas version, I already knew the song well, practically wearing out an album of Hank’s called “I’m Blue Inside” which included his original take on the song.

Even before I heard Hank’s original cut of the song, it had been included on one of my favorite albums as a kid: “Now, There Was A Song!” by Johnny Cash, the album’s final track.

As much as I’ve always liked the B.J. Thomas version of the song, I wondered why he changed the last line of the second verse — which rendered it less powerful than the way Hank wrote it.

 B.J. sang “The moon just went behind the clouds; I’m so lonesome I could cry.” But in Hank’s version, he sang the moon went behind the clouds “to hide its face and cry.”  No wonder Hank’s been dubbed the Hillbilly Shakespeare.

I always wondered if that was an intentional change by B.J., or if he forgot the original line.

It must have been considered quite a gamble for the record label to release “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” — a country song recorded by an unknown Texas group — at the time, but the record soon began its climb up the charts.

It finally peaked at # 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 during the week of April 9, 1966.

That’s quite an achievement for the Hugo-born Thomas given the competition in the Top Ten that week, which included a couple of British bands you may have heard. The seven songs and artists in the Top Ten ahead of Thomas that week included:

• At # 7 — “Secret Agent Man” by Johnny Rivers.

• # 6 — “Nowhere Man” by The Beatles.

• # 5 — “The Ballad of the Green Berets” by Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler.

• # 4 — “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down” by Cher.

• # 3 — “19th Nervous Breakdown” by The Rolling Stones.

• # 2 — “Daydream” by The Lovin’ Spoonful

• # 1 — “(You’re My) Soul and Inspiration” by The Righteous Brothers

Just behind B.J. Thomas on the charts were Gary Lewis and the Playboys with “Sure Gonna Miss Her,” with “California Dreamin’ “ by The Mamas & the Papas rounding out the Top Ten.

Thomas had more big hits in the 1960s, including “Hooked on a Feeling” — a number 5 hit in 1969.

His 1975 hit “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” went all the way to # 1 — and has the distinction of being the longest-titled song ever to hit #1 on the charts.

Still, that wouldn’t be his biggest hit. That distinction goes to be “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” — the theme song to the 1969 mega-hit movie “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford.

Written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” won a nomination for Best Original Song.

Thomas gave an outstanding performance of the song at the 1970 Academy Awards show, except for a minor lyric flub after, the show’s producers decided to make the song an upbeat, production number.

It started with Thomas walking onstage dressed as a cowboy, pulling out a “gun” and fanning several shots. He then went into the song — but as he strolled up the stage and sat down, he began to sing the second verse twice, with the orchestra headed toward the bridge, which begins with the lines “There’s one thing I know.” 

Instead, Thomas started to sing “I just did me some talkin’ to the sun” again, but caught himself just in time. It came out as: “I just... thing I know.” He recovered brilliantly and finished the song with no farther hitches — quite an achievement, since there were acrobatic men and women on bicycles constantly flitting by him and all around him while he sang.

It turned out well, with the song winning the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

B.J. Thomas won five Grammy Awards in his lifetime —  from 1977 through 1981 when he began recording Christian music‚ including four Grammys for Best Inspirational Performance and a group award for Best Gospel Performance, Contemporary.

He continued recording and performing until recently, when he announced he was battling what ended as a terminal illness.

Even though “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” did not win a Grammy Award to go with the Oscar upon its initial release, the Grammys weren’t through with the song. In 2014, “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” won induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

I said at the beginning how I’d been saddened to hear of B.J.’s passing on May 29. The recent multiple days of rainy weather made it seem even grayer.

For a few seconds, I felt so lonesome I could... well, you know. I didn’t though. Raindrops kept falling from my eyes.

Contact James Beaty at jbeaty@mcalesternews.com.

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