Copyright 2000Photos courtesy B.J. Thomas Fan Club site
Rockabilly Hall Of Fame and Barry M. Klein
All Rights Reserved
"Hi Barry, it's B.J.", said the voice on the phone. From that moment, I knew I was speaking to a very down-to-earth, natural person. A veteran country singer, B.J. Thomas has had many successes, excesses, high points, low points and points of view. When I asked B.J. if he wanted to hear a few questions I had jotted down in advance of this interview, he said, "No - I just like to 'wing it' and be spontaneous. Ask me anything!" So here it is, B.J. talking about himself, his early career and influences, his new CD, and an insider's look at the current state of country music.Barry Klein: We now have, talking to us from Arlington, Texas, B.J. Thomas.
B.J., there are a lot of achievements that come after saying "B.J. Thomas": Member of the Grand Ole Opry, five time Grammy Award winner, a man who sold over 70 million records worldwide, a man who sang the song that won an Academy Award, the person who wrote a song, "America", that was made the official song of the Ellis Island Foundation where the Statue of Liberty is, and a man whose name has recognition in all kinds of musical genres. It's nice to be talking with you. What were your earliest musical influences?
B. J. Thomas: Probably my earliest were country singers. My dad loved country music and so was kind of always playing Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell and those guys. He loved those guys. Back in the 50's you know, the Grand Ole Opry was really, I believe, a lot bigger than it is now. Almost every person on there from Minnie Pearl to Red Foley and all those people were big stars. So that's what he listened to, and that probably was the first music I heard. Probably the first real impression I got was when I saw Hank Williams sing when I was just a kid, probably 8 or 9 years old. Then I got - you know Elvis Presley's first record came out when I was probably about 11 or 12, and that had a huge influence on me also.
Barry Klein: You are a native of Oklahoma, right?
B.J. Thomas: Well I'm a Texas native. I spent a couple of weeks in Oklahoma. My grandmother delivered me up there. But our whole family is from Texas and I grew up in Houston, Texas.
Barry Klein: That's where you got your musical start - in Texas?
B.J. Thomas: I think that is why I have a lot of R&B. I like Rhythm and Blues, and that was just really a big kind of music in Houston. There were a lot of R&B singers there. Of course, Lightning Hopkins was one of the guys we used to go see all the time. When I was just 13 or 14, I would sneak out of the house and hitchhike downtown to Houston, and I would go see Bobby Blue Bland or Little Junior Parker or some of these guys. And that probably, along with the initial country influences, that's probably the biggest influence on me - Rhythm and Blues. Of course, I think Elvis kind of had that too.
Barry Klein: Well Texas is such a cornucopia for different kinds of music. People sometimes associate it only with country. A friend of mine, "Kinky" Friedman, did a documentary that is shown on "Bravo" sometimes called "Texas Saturday Night" and he goes all over the place from West Texas and Jimmie Dale Gilmore to ...
B.J. Thomas: They go all the way you know from Buddy Holly to Roy Orbison, we just has some great singers here. I think, especially now it's probably more Austin, but back when I was a kid, Houston was just really a rich musical location. I kind of got in my first band when I was about 15 and that was kind of right at the inception of "Top Forty Radio" they used to call it. A guy named Gordon McClendon formed a station KIOT in Houston Texas and Top Forty played all the music from all the genres, and I think that's why I do a lot of different genres in music. I was never really locked into one kind of music when I was a kid, and I'm still that way.
Barry Klein: Was your first band the Triumphs?
B.J. Thomas: When I was 15 years old some friends of my brother Jerry, actually he was ... my dad was an influence to be a singer along with the people he liked, but I guess Jerry really gets the credit for getting me in a band. Some friends of his started a band in Rosenberg, Texas, a little country town west of Houston. We moved out there. My dad and his brother started a business out there. Anyway, some friends of my brother started a band and they didn't have a singer. He took me over there and I did a little singing, although I never really - I don't know if it was just fear or denial - but I never really thought of being a professional singer at all until he took me over there and I sang with the band. They liked me and I liked them, and we kind of start doing dances together, and that is just all I have ever done now.
Barry Klein: I read somewhere that you knew Roy Orbison and the Teen Kings and all kinds of bands that you played with when you were in the Triumphs.
B.J. Thomas: You know it wasn't so much that back in the days before I had my hit records out, I really didn't know these guys, but we did appear on the back to school show, and the end of school show, and all the summer shows in Houston, but we got a chance to work with Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison, the Dave Clark Five, and just all kinds of people around the world that came in there to do those shows. We would be the local band and we would use that to come on first and we would play with those guys.
Barry Klein: You know, you're much younger than he is, but George Jones sort of got his start with Pappy Daily in Houston too, didn't he?
B.J. Thomas: You know, I knew George back then. I did know George back then before I had hit recordsÖnot really know him, but I was an acquaintance of his and we were on a number of shows that George was on and I got the chance to be around him quite a few times at after-show parties and certain things. He has always been a big inspiration for me as far as country music goes. Probably, today, since maybe MerleÖ Merle is still a great singer, but I think maybe George probably is the greatest living country singer today!
Barry Klein: I can't argue with you, although you're talking to a man who's only a fanatic about two things in life - fanatics and Merle Haggard!
B.J. Thomas: I love Merle Haggard. I really admire the music he has done and he is a great songwriter. He's a great musician. [Barry: B.J. goes off the record here, but in essence, B.J. feels that Hag's years of sin have adversely affected his voice in recent years, to a greater extent than George Jones, and as much as Hag is my all-time country favorite, I can't disagree. To see my review of Merle Haggard's 3-hour TV special last October, viewed from the first row, click here].
Barry Klein: Well I can say this on-the-record, I don't think Merle has aged real well. Well, we all have our blips. You're talking to a guy born maybe four years after you, same month, but I spent the summer of '67 in Haight-Ashbury. I had a rock band in the 60's, and so we have all had our share of "touch and go" growing up.
B.J. Thomas: I've had to deal with addictions and things all my life, but just as we speak, I'm two years sober. So 58 years old, two years sober, that's not very good.
Barry Klein: We'll ...
B.J. Thomas: You do those things when you're young and they kind of take hold of your habits or your life, and you kind of have to deal with them the rest of the time. So you take it one day at a time.
Barry Klein: Well I read somewhere, B.J., where even back in the 70's there was some other type of substance abuse problem, but you had a vision of God and it changed your life quite a bit.
B.J. Thomas: I didn't have a vision. I just had some people talk to me about kind of changing my ways, and I had always been kind of raised around the church, so I always had those beliefs. I just kind of returned to my faith along with my wife Gloria, and that helped me all the way down through, even though I did fall into drug addiction again for a number of years. But that's just the way that goes.
Barry Klein: It happens to many people, and it's an occupational hazard, particularly in your profession. It happens enough to people with white-collar jobs like mine.
B.J. Thomas: I think it is kind of across-the-board now. Drugs have affected almost every walk of life. That is just part of our society now.
Barry Klein: I have read that you were doing more gospel music in the 90's ...
B.J. Thomas: I really haven't done - I did a little gospel thing for Warner Brothers in '94, but that's the only thing I have done gospel in like 15 years. I do think that gospel was some of the best music I ever did, and I did win five Grammy's for that. Trying to exist and get along in the Christian music business is just almost impossible. You know, they didn't like me and it got down to the point where we were having death threats. I never did just do only gospel music. I just did my regular show and I would add gospel music, so we really went through some heartbreaking times in that music. So I had to kind of get out of gospel, although I still love to sing it and I still do sing it and with the country thing, I've never had a "crossover" record. All my biggest records were pop records back in the time when I had "I'm So Lonesome". Country people wouldn't play anything that had strings on it. So it has always been pop records. I never had a country record that went "pop", although I have had a few of my pop records go country like "Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song". In the 80's I had just some purely country hits. So, it's been a real rich involvement from me, and I have been really fortunate and I'm very thankful for the things I've been able to do in music. That's one of the great things about the music business. You might have some down times, but you might have a thousand different chances to make it, and there's always a chance to come back. That's why I love it so much.
Barry Klein: B.J., you know we were talking about pop and crossover in country. How would you describe yourself? You do have, I believe, an audience that may not consider themselves all the time as country fans. I do think your records sell sort of universally. How do you describe yourself? Are you a country singer?
B.J. Thomas: Well you know I think it kind of goes like this... I just kind of look at myself as a singer. I've always just done different things, but I always approach them - gospel, country, rock or pop - with the same attitude. But, I think you will find that country fans take me country, pop fans consider me pop, gospel fans consider me gospel, and so that really works for me.
Barry Klein:That's good. Whoever buys your records, whatever they perceive themselves, you're one of them.
B.J.Thomas: Yeah. I think a lot of times, you know, it's been really hard to continue to be or to get exposure or attention in radio over the last, gosh, you know 15 years. Radio has changed so much. I was just coming out of gospel music. I still travel a lot. I think I sing now better than I ever have. And I have cut some great records too for Warner Brothers. But, it is just hard to do the radio anymore. They only play a limited thing. You know, personally, I think country music, and I think music across the board is in the worst shape that it has ever been in. I think back in our heyday, back in the 50's, 60's, 70's and early 80's, was the best music of all time - even going back in the 40's with Sinatra, Glen Miller and those guys. But I think now, as we speak over the last say 8 or 10 years, the music business is at a real low point - quality-wise and music-wise. I think we are at a real high technically. I think we have technical things that we do a lot better music. But man, I think the attitude of music is just awful now. Sometimes I'm embarrassed to even be party of it.
Barry Klein: Well, it's hard for somebody to get on radio that wants to do real country music in the opinion of others and myself. You know, I did an interview with a guy named Larry Cordle, who wrote some good songs for Kathy Mattea and others, but he actually recorded - he's a blue grass singer - but he recorded s omething called "Murder On Music Row" late last year and Alan Jackson has covered it on the new George Strait album, and it has caused quite a ripple. Have you heard about that?
B.J. Thomas: Yes. I've heard it. This is not exactly the way I remember it. The way I remember the thing that's going on over the last few years is that country went so hard into traditional hillbilly music that people who were kind of popish had no chance to get airplay. Now, from the influence of the woman, the girl singers have really turned this thing around. I think because of Shania Twain we see a real difference in Faith Hill. All of a sudden now she is showing a little sex appeal and her music is very pop, and I think Shania is the one that made the country guys start doing pop music. So now I don't think it's - now it's kind of pop - and maybe they go against hillbilly music a little bit. You know, back when this thing started and country radio changed, it went so hard, you know traditional hillbilly music, that it was really hard for us pop guys to get any exposure. I think Shania turned that around. I don't really agree with that. I think "Murder on Music Row" is gonna be a big record, but for people to think that country is not supposed to be pop, that's just erroneous thinking. When I was a kid I was influenced a great deal by Jim Reeves, Marty Robbins, Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline, and these people all made pop records.
Barry Klein: Ray Price too.
B.J. Thomas: People just go - country people go so hard for the latest fad that they always end up shooting themselves in the foot. Country music is the only genre music that doesn't play its icons and its pioneers. You know you don't see anybody in rock and roll not playing the Stones. In pop music they are still playing Tony Bennett. In country music, they are the only ones that won't play George Jones, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash. It's just really ignorant.
Barry Klein: You're making a fantastic point.
B.J. Thomas: The only genre music that treats its patriarchs and its icons in that manner.
Barry Klein: We at the Rockabilly Hall of Fame feel the same way about our music - you can hardly find it even on the oldies stations ...
B.J. Thomas: I don't think it's as bad as country. I still hear Chuck Berry.
Barry Klein: You're right. You hit it right on the money with country. The icons.
B.J.Thomas: ... and never hear George Jones or Merle Haggard.
Barry Klein: Absolutely.
B.J. Thomas: If you ask them nowadays what music they like, they say, "Oh, I'm a country fan", but they wouldn't be caught dead with a George Jones album. So it's really changed.
Barry Klein: Let's talk about B.J. Thomas and your latest CD which I have here and I have heard twice already, "You Call That A Mountain".
B.J. Thomas: "You Call That A Mountain" is our first single off this album. That was written by Bucky Jones and Michael Garvin. Really, I think it is one of the best ideas and one of the best written songs I have every done.
Barry Klein: I think you're right. I think it's a great song. Let me ask you a question. You did a lot here with 11 songs. You took some of your greatest hits of the - you even go back to one of your first recordings - the Hank Williams song, "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" - you've got some other stuff that you made big hits on before - you have some new songs like "You Call That A Mountain". Let me ask you the question: You've done some 60's, 70's, 80's, you've gone back, you've gone forward. What did you want to accomplish when you went into the studio to do this CD?
B.J.Thomas: One of the ways the older guys, and this has been really exemplified by Kenny Rogers, the only way some of us can make a record is if we include some of our classic hits, and that's what Kenny did on this latestest album that has been such a big hit and kind of broke him back into contemporary country music. So that's what we did here. We put a few of our classic hits in with our cuts of new songs. And we will probably come out with one more off of this one.
Barry Klein: Were the older ones that you did on this CD newly recorded? I thought so.
B.J. Thomas: Yeah. We re-cut them.
Barry Klein: It all sounds very well produced.
B.J. Thomas: Yeah. I did it with a guy named Bud Logan, and he really .. man I just loved the way he produced these things and love the sound he got. I did a lot of my hit records with a guy named Chip Moman out of Memphis, Tennessee.
Barry Klein: Oh yeah!
B.J. Thomas: And he was one of the all time greats, and Bud really reminds of him, and I really just sound like myself on these things, and I really like that.
Barry Klein: That's great. Now when is the CD being released?
B.J. Thomas The CD is probably going to be out everywhere by mid-July.
Barry Klein And you are starting to tour now?
B.J. Thomas: Oh yeah! I'm touring all the time anyway, but I'm doing the songs now on tour.
Barry Klein: Now I'm in Michigan and we are doing this interview on June 5th, and in about 3 weeks you are coming to Michigan to perform at Meadowbrook Music Festival, where I hope I get a chance to meet you. You are going to be there with Billy Joe Royal. Are you touring in several places with Billy Joe Royal?
B.J. Thomas: Nationally, we have already done about six weeks with Billy Joe, and that's been a lot of fun because he is a great guy and an old friend of mine. I have been in Michigan a few times already this year.
Barry Klein: Oh! Where are you going to be over the summer?
B.J. Thomas: Oh man! I will just be everywhere. I'm headed out later this week to Birmingham, Alabama, and we are just gonna be all over.
Barry Klein: I assume it won't slow down.
B.J. Thomas: I left my itinerary on the web.
Barry Klein: Where is your web site.
B.J. Thomas: http://www.bjthomasfanclub.com
Barry Klein: Okay. We will include that and make sure everybody gets the tour schedule. I don't imagine your touring schedule is going to slow down with the release of your CD in about a month.
B.J. Thomas: You know, I have been doing around 100 to 110 shows a year. I am maybe going to cut back to about 80 next year, but that's still plenty.
Barry Klein: Well that's great. Well B.J. What have we left out here that you would like to say?
B.J. Thomas: Well, really I guess I should take this opportunity to thank all the people that are going to read this and thank them for buying my records all these years, and being so faithful To the music fans of mine, I sure appreciate it. I could never begin to repay my fans for what they have given me.
Barry Klein: Well, that's wonderful to hear. B.J., you have been through a lot, you have had a wonderful career. It doesn't sound like success has gone to your head, nor do you take it for granted, nor do you settle for second best. It seems like you are still out there performing and doing what comes naturally for you and your talent.
B.J. Thomas: Well you know when I think man, when I kind of stopped getting airplay and my self-esteem wasn't just on how many records I was selling, I think because of that I was reminded how much I loved to do what I do. I just dearly love to sing, I love to travel and do the shows, and I was glad - it kind of reminded me of that because sometimes recording artists - we think it's all about money and all about where we are on the chart when really - what it's all about is the music and how it affects people. So it's great to be involved in something that can move people or change people or effect people in that way.
Barry Klein: Well you know, radio today is pretty bad - by and large - the country stations, like you say, don't play the icons, etc. But we have a weapon and this interview is gong to be appearing on two of these "agents of weaponry", and that's The Internet - The Rockabilly Hall of Fame and Gritz.net, the Southern Music Magazine. So we wish you a lot of luck with this and I hope ...
B.J. Thomas: I appreciate your contacting me and it's been great talking with you. Now I'm definitely going to make time to meet you now when I come up to there [to Michigan on June 26]. I will see you back stage or at the bus!
Editor's Note: Barry Klein writes for the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and his book, "Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll", was published in 1997. To contact Barry, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org For a listing of Barry's other articles for the Rockabilly Hall of Fame http://www.rockabillyhall.com/BarryKlein.html