In 1969, BJ Thomas, who has died of complications from lung cancer aged 78, spent four weeks at the top of the US chart with Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head, from the soundtrack of the popular film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It is the song he will always be synonymous with, but he nearly didn’t get to sing it.
As Thomas recalled, its composer Burt Bacharach originally wanted Bob Dylan to record it, but Dylan could not or would not oblige. Then Ray Stevens was offered it, but he too declined. When Thomas was at last given the job, he was warned not to sing by his doctor because he was suffering from laryngitis. “I had come off a two-week tour and had laryngitis and was barely able to eke out the thing for the soundtrack,” he remembered. Somehow he managed to battle his way through five takes in the studio and produce a result that the exacting Bacharach was happy with for the film. A recovered Thomas recorded a new vocal for the song’s release as a single.
Raindrops won an Oscar for best original song and Thomas performed it at the 1970 Academy Awards ceremony. Although it only got to No 38 in the UK singles chart, its popularity was enduring through regular radio play over the decades. It was his first US No 1 hit, following other chart successes including his Top 10 version of Hank Williams’s I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry (1966), The Eyes of a New York Woman (which reached No 28, 1968) and Hooked on a Feeling (No 5, 1968). The last of these earned Thomas a season of performances at the Copacabana nightclub in New York.
Blessed with a voice that brought a hint of soulfulness to its easy-listening smoothness, he would enjoy further pop hits into the 1970s including I Just Can’t Help Believing (later a hit single and in-concert favourite for Elvis Presley) and No Love at All (1970), the exuberant gospel-styled Mighty Clouds of Joy (1971) and Rock and Roll Lullaby (1972), and would top the US pop chart again with (Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song (1975).
The last of these also topped the US country chart, where he would make numerous appearances, including the No 1 hits Whatever Happened to Old-Fashioned Love and New Looks From An Old Lover (both 1983). In 1981 he was invited to join the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. In the late 70s and 80s, he scored a string of hits as a gospel and inspirational singer.
Billy Joe Thomas was born in Hugo, Oklahoma, the second of three children of Vernon and Geneva Thomas. He grew up in Houston and then Rosenberg, Texas, graduating from Rosenberg’s Lamar consolidated high school.
He was dubbed “BJ” when he played Little League baseball at school, to distinguish him from several other players called Billy Joe. Thomas described how, later on, “I went through years of intense alcoholism and drug addiction” and it was music that served as his lifeline.
He had sung in church as a child, and later drew inspiration from singers including Williams, Mahalia Jackson and Jackie Wilson. He especially took to heart the uplifting message from Wilson’s song To Be Loved. With his older brother Jerry, he joined a local pop band, the Triumphs, while he was in high school. They recorded I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry for the Pacemaker record label, which became a million-selling hit after it was picked up by New York’s Scepter Records, home to such artists as the Isley Brothers, Dionne Warwick and Tammi Terrell.
Thomas’s success meant that he was in demand internationally and was frequently on tour, but his problems with drugs reached life-threatening proportions in the early 70s. He told the Associated Press: “I had begun to overdose a few times. They had to hook me up to a machine to keep me alive. Once I was pronounced dead. My marriage was a failure. Finally I was totally at the bottom in my life.”
He reconciled with his wife, Gloria Richardson, whom he had married in 1968, and with her help gave up drugs in 1976. He found religion too, and made his first gospel-styled album Home Where I Belong. It won him the first of his five Grammy awards in 1977, and that year he sang at the memorial service for Elvis Presley. Thomas described his personal struggles in his autobiography, Home Where I Belong (1978).
He made a couple of forays into acting. He played the gunslinger Jocko in a western called Jory (1973) and appeared in the comedy-drama Jake’s Corner (2008). A more rewarding screen-related venture was his performance of As Long As We Got Each Other, the theme song to the 80s TV sitcom Growing Pains.
This took on a life of its own, being first recorded by Thomas solo, then in a duet with Jennifer Warnes for the show’s second season, then in an extended version sung by Thomas and Dusty Springfield. This last incarnation appeared on Thomas’s album Midnight Minute (1989) and was a hit on the adult contemporary chart.
He kept touring and recording, and The Living Room Sessions (2013) comprised acoustic versions of a dozen of his hits, with guest appearances by Lyle Lovett, Vince Gill, Richard Marx and others.
Thomas is survived by Gloria and their daughters, Paige, Nora and Erin.
• BJ (Billy Joe) Thomas, singer, born 7 August 1942; died 29 May 2021