Gary James' Interview With
He's sold more than 70 million records. He's had 15 Top 40 hits. He's won 5 Grammys and 2 Dove Awards. He has 2 Platinum and 11 Gold records. He's had 10 Top 40 hits on the country charts. He became the 60th member of The Grand Ole Opry on his 39th birthday in 1981. We are talking about Mr B.J. Thomas.
Q - B.J. what is your association with Cleopatra Records? Is that your own label?
A - No. I don't know anything about Cleopatra Records. There are a lot of labels out there with compilations and things. We're not in control of those old masters. So, that's probably what that is.
Q - So, as we talk today, do you have a record deal?
A - Well, I've just finished a new project with Chips Moman and the American Studio Group. We're shopping the album right now and we'll see. But, I'm not signed to anyone right now. We just signed a deal with Warner-Curb a couple of months ago for a "live" recording of the gospel music. I assume that's going to be out the end of Spring (2005) sometime.
Q - So, there's no B.J. Thomas Records?
A - No. We don't do that. But, we might make a "live" CD here and there for our merchandise which we carry on the road. But, as far as having a record label, no.
Q - You pretty much tour the world these days, do you?
A - Yeah. We pretty much tour all over. I'm gonna do probably 75, maybe 80 one-nighters this year. That's about what we usually do, although the business is kind of down as we speak.
Q - What would be the reason for that?
A - I don't like to get political, but, it's just the political state of our country or just the continued effects of 9-11. I think the economy has changed. Some people say there are more jobs now, but most people say there are less jobs. I think it's just the employment situation. Things are different now. I'm not sure how long it will be before they're back to what we call the same or normal. It may be a long time before (that happens). We may have to resolve our war issue and a lot of our economic issues before it's back to what we used to call normal. It's different now. People just aren't spending the money they had spent. There's a little more of a tense feeling with people. More stress if you will. So, the climate is just different. It's just what's going on in the world. We'll just have to hang in there before it gets back to what we call normal. I can't exactly put my finger on what it is. I think it's just a combination of a lot of things.
Q - What kind of venues would you be performing in today?
A - We do a lot of theatres. Every two or three years, we might do the odd cruise just to go out and have a little vacation. We'll play some clubs. This Summer we'll be doing a lot of fairs. You know, just the usual stuff.
Q - Let's travel back in time and go back to the beginning. Before you went solo, you were part of a Houston group called The Triumphs. Tell me about this band. You had a number of regional hits with the band?
A - Yeah, we did. We had a lot of regional records that they call Gulf Coast music now. Kind of like the beach music in Myrtle Beach. In Texas, they call it Gulf Coast music. I don't know if you know exactly what that means. But, we did have a lot of regional hits with the band. It was a little rock 'n roll band. The band formed right at the inception of what they called Top 40 radio and we just learned the songs on those charts. We'd play dances out in the boondocks. We didn't play a lot in Houston. We played there occasionally during the year. Actually the band was formed out of a couple of towns called Richmond, Rosenberg, which were West of Houston about 30 miles. It was a place where our family had moved when we were, I think, sophomores in high school. My brother was a junior. My brother had a group of friends that were putting a band together and he took me over to sing with 'em. I started singing with 'em and that's just how I got started.
Q - Did you ever open for the top groups of the day when you were in this band?
A - We did. Houston had an end of school, rock 'n roll show. And they had a back to school (show). Those were the two major shows of the year. And we would usually play on that show. There would be any number of people from (Roy) Orbison to Johnny Cash, Dave Clark Five, The Four Seasons. We had the pleasure of playing with those people. It was a lot of fun. Of course, people in the music business are huge fans of music and other groups. At least I am. It was a real great learning situation for us. We got to watch these guys that had hits, who were big names to us. We kind of watched how they did their thing and how they carried themselves and how they did their music. It was a great thing for us to be involved in.
Q - Did you get to meet the "stars" backstage or hang out with them for a little bit?
A - Yeah. Since we were on the show, we had the backstage privileges. We did try to make sure we at least got to meet everybody we could. Some people were harder to meet than other people. Most people in the entertainment business are real approachable and free with their time when they can be. So, we got the chance to meet most people. There were some great moments in that time. I remember one time we were backstage, in the dressing room. We had already done our time and the Four Seasons were headlining and loosening up in this big shower...loosening up their voices. We were watching them. They said "Hey, would you like to hear our new record?" Yeah. And they sang out "Rag Doll". And it was quite a moment for a bunch of kids to see something like that, and have somebody of their stature just sing their new record for me and a couple of buddies. There were some great memories there. It was really quite an experience.
Q - When did you decide to go solo?
A - We had a number of regional hits and we had a number one record with a thing called "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry", which is an old Hank Williams song which we had done when we had the chance to do our first album. When it went to number one, it got leased nationally to Scepter Records out of New York. I got an offer to go on tour with Dick Clark because of "Lonesome". It went on to be a million-seller. Of course, I had a band and he wanted me to come and have my band back-up the rest of the acts on the show. For some reason, the guys of the band had an aversion to doing that. They said "we just want to do with you." Some of 'em were going to college and had jobs and had certain reasons why they didn't want to go. I said "hey, I love you and we've had a great time, but I'm going, so just tell me if you're going or not." They said they weren't going. So, I put another band together and went out and backed the show. That's how it started nationally. That's how we split up.
Q - How'd you like doing the Dick Clark tour?
A - That was another great experience as far as memories and a way to study other artists. My first with those guys, Gene Pitney was the headliner. I guess he'll always be at the high water level to me about what it is to be a professional and how to conduct yourself. I would study those guys just like I was in school. I would study their moves, how they conducted themselves, how they did their show, how they were with other people. It was wonderful.
Q - Who else was on that tour bus of Dick Clark's?
A - Oh, gosh. Len Barry, the guy who had "1-2-3". I think Chad and Jeremy. A very obscure lady I'd never heard of before or since, a girl by the name of Norma Tanega*, who had a record called "A Cat Named Dog". You really have to study the old music to have known who she was. She was on that tour. The McCoys were on one of the early tours. Back in those days, I went out on one of my first tours with James Brown. I worked with Jackie Wilson. I did a show with Johnny Mathis. When I first started hitting and selling records, the industry thought I was a black guy. So I was booked on a lot of shows with some of the R&B and Black artists of that time and gosh...they were my heroes. That was another great thing too. Just great days.
Q - Did you work with The Supremes?
AQ - No. I didn't do any Mowtown shows. I was with Scepter Records from '65 to '72 or '73. They had The Shirelles, Chuck Jackson, Dionne Warwick, Ruth Brown. Just a lot of great people. So, the black singers and R&B singers were my biggest heroes then. So, that was still a great time.
Q - Your voice is rather unique. I can always tell when it's you that's singing. There's almost a sadness in your voice. I hear that in the early Elvis records. Has anyone ever brought that up to you before?
A - Yeah. Sometimes people have mentioned that. I think what the people connect with, with me, not that I would really know, when I first started and because I really loved the soul singers and the R&B singers, the one thing that stood out to me, aside from how good they sang, people like Jackie Wilson was probably my biggest idol. I can just so connect with the emotion and it seemed like the sincerity of what he was singing and just how he made you believe that he absolutely believed and was feeling everything he was singing. One of my first things that I locked onto was that emotion and that was in that R&B music. Even Ray Charles would convey to you a feeling that he absolutely believed every note that he was singing. So, I tried to do that myself. I tried to stay away from things that didn't mean anything to me and tried to sing things that connected to me in an emotional sense. So, I think that's part of what you're hearing.
Q - Your appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show when the umbrella was over your head as you were singing "Raindrops"...did you like that?
A - I thought it was the most singular dumbest thing that anybody ever had to do. I know that when we did rehearsal and had the soundcheck and were running through the thing and they told me "this is what your going to do", I talked to my people from the record label. I said "gosh, I don't want to do this. I don't want 'em to dump the water on my head." I had to kind of go along with what was being done. Ed's son-in-law, a guy by the name of Bob Precht, was the producer and director. So, I had to kind of go along with it.
Q - But, it was kind of funny, wouldn't you agree?
A - Yeah. (laughs)
Q - It was almost like Elvis on the Steve Allen Show singing "Hound Dog" to a hound dog.
A - Absolutely. If you go back and see that with Elvis, you see that he's just being a good sport about it, and that it wasn't exactly what he would have chosen to do, to make fun of himself. I kind of was doing that too. I was just trying to be a good sport about it. I wasn't exactly thrilled to do it.
Q - Was "Raindrops" your first big national hit?
A - Well, I'd had four Gold records then. I had done a number of Dick Clark shows and television shows, so I had kind of an experience with having some national hits. That was kind of an exceptional record in that, I had some million sellers, and some records that sold a couple of million copies, but nothing like "Raindrops". It was a first kind of across the board song that I had. Kids loved it. Older people loved it. Teenagers loved it. It was just one of those exceptional songs.
Q - Why would "Raindrops" have been used in the movie Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid? I could never quite make the connection there.
A - Well, I don't know if it was just kind of suggesting what kind of an attitude Butch Cassidy had that, even though times were hard and people were after him, that he still had a great attitude and he was free and was still a guy who lived life to the fullest. I remember recording "Raindrops" for the soundtrack in California. They ran that scene (Paul Newman and Robert Redford riding bicycles) while we recorded against it, and I think it really worked for some reason. Bacharach and David (the song-writers of "Raindrops") were maybe the first masters of putting two unexpected things together to reach a certain point.
Q - After "Raindrops", how did life change for you? You must've headlined where in America?
A - Oh well, I moved from, like, the Dick Clark situation and like, just a lot of little clubs, to some major colleges. I headlined at the Copacabana in New York, where a lot of the legendary singers had been. It was a personal and professional challenge. I had to kind of pick up my game a little bit and move to that next step.
Q - So, let's advance to 1972. You were booked to perform at the New York State Fair that year. I went to see you and you were a no-show.
A - (laughs)
Q - Whispers were starting to go through the crowd that B.J. Thomas was holed up in some motel taking drugs. I thought "how mean can people be?"
A - Well, they were pretty perceptive.
Q - They were and I didn't realize it until I read your autobiography many years later, in the early 1980s.
A - Well, that was kind of the first conclusion that you would jump to in a situation like that. Most of the time you would be correct, because somebody didn't show up and there had to be some reason. And that was the most obvious reason. From that generation and that time, a lot of times it was true.
Q - As I recall, between your management ripping you off and the money you spent on drugs, you went through $13 million. Is that accurate?
A - Oh, gosh. I don't know...probably. That's kind of something that happens in the industry too. If you don't really have honest people doing your business, there are gonna be situations like that. For me speaking to you now, that was a long time ago and that kind of memory doesn't hang with me as significantly as The Four Seasons singing their song in the dressing room. So, I don't hang onto that stuff and I don't kind of live in that particular moment. I'm sure there were lots of financial improprieties that went on. Lots of things happened in those days because the business just wasn't being done up to standard.
Q - I didn't realize there was that much money to be made by a singer back then.
A - There was a lot of money to be made.
Q - Your drug of choice at the time was amphetamines or speed?
A - Yeah, I guess so.
Q - So you were under a tremendous pressure to keep up with all the demands of success, weren't you?
A - Yeah. That was a generation where there was a lot of alcohol abuse in those days. That was kind of a part of my youth. That's kind of how that stuff started. We didn't really have the knowledge and education in those days that we do now. So, a lot of times, a young person like I was in those days, might get involved in something that didn't really know what he was opening himself up to. That's kind of what happened to me. It wasn't like I of course planned to have huge problems with those things, but they were things that I kind of opened myself up to, that turned into huge addictions. I went through a number of years where I had to straighten out my addictions and take a little more control of my life. But, it was tough having those addictions and still trying to do the music and the personal appearances and sometimes when those two things were mixed, there will be some things you'll miss and some things you won't get done.
Q - It wasn't until you got religious that you turned your life around.
A - I want to say to you right now that I'm not a religious person as we speak.
Q - You didn't become a Born-Again Christian?
A - I don't think any one spiritual walk is more important than another. I think God is a big sea and all the rivers go to the sea. So, there's lots of ways to find your faith and your spirituality. Yeah, that was what turned us around in those days. That was kind of a spiritual awakening to us, that we found through Christianity. I don't think I ever was a religious person, but there was a spiritual awakening that happened. As you relate back to the specifics of the book, "Home Where I Belong", some things change. Some things even in the time were stated in such a way to be directed to a certain group of religious people or whatever. I'm proud of that book and I think that book and my story might have helped some people and in that way, I appreciate it and I'm glad about it. When you go back and make a lot of specific references to certain things, certain things change, and evolve over the years. I might have been presented as a very religious entity in those days, but I'm not a religious person as we speak. And, I'm not sure that any one religion can serve all humanity. So, I think you have to have your life experiences and you have to dig your faith out of your own heart and your own spirit. So, those things have changed from that particular time in 1976, 1977, when we wrote the book. I still stand by what we said, but there's an evolution and a progress that goes on in a lifetime. So, things are different now than they were at that exact time.
Q - Well, whatever happened, you never reverted back to what you were doing before.
A - That's the truth. I have a lot of respect and wonderful feeling for what happened then. Life is great. Music is great. I think it's the essence of God in things that make things really worthwhile to a person as they live their life and find meaning in things. I so appreciated my music and the things that have happened to me with my music. But, I find my real essence in the fact that I'm just like you. I'm a human being. I'm a husband who loves his wife. I'm a father who cherishes his children. Those things have meant more to me than my music. I've tried to put those beliefs and feelings into my music. But, I've found my essence in life, so to speak.
Q - I almost forgot to ask you...whatever happened to the guys in The Triumphs? Did they ever get back into music?
A - You won't believe this, but those same guys continued to have that band over the years and that band is still a major band in their part of the country, down in the Houston area. They're still together with subsequent cousins and brothers that have taken the guys' places. One of the guys has passed away a number of years ago, but they're still down there doing music.
© Gary James. All rights reserved.
Norma Tanega reached #22 on the Billboard singles chart in March 1966 with "Walkin' My Cat Named Dog"