Ace Records 2004
B.J. Thomas was one of the most consistent - and consistently good! - purveyors of American pop for more than a decade. A major chart star for most of the second half of the 1960s and through to the mid '70s, B.J.seemed to always be able to anticipate the needs of the US Top 40 at every career twist and turn, and his great records like Hooked On A Feeling and Mighty Clouds Of Joy were ever a positive enhancement to the AM radio waves of their time (as they are to oldies FM radio stations across the USA in the 21st Century). For around eight of those years, B.J. recorded exclusively for the go-ahead, New York-based independent Scepter Records, and its his best recordings for Scepter that are the subject of Ace's first-ever UK anthology to seriously appraise, and afford historical significance to, Billy Joe Thomas.
Born in Oklahoma and raised near Houston, B.J. had been a local East Texas phenomenon for a few years when Scepter picked up his locally-released, blue-eyed soul revival of Hank Williams, Sr's I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry and turned it into a national Top 10 hit. From then on in he was the world's property, scoring again and again on the national and international charts with the tracks that form the bulk of this compilation. (Rather strangely, the majority of his Scepter 45s did not make the UK charts. This is not a comment on their quality - as you'll hear, they have 'quality' in abundance! - but rather on the restrictive nature of UK radio in the late 60s and early 70s. That, and the taste of a public that could regularly chart Des O'Connor and Val Doonican in 1967 and 1968 but that could seemingly find no room for Hooked On A Feeling until it was massacred a few years later by Jonathan King.)
This is the most comprehensive collection of B.J. Thomas' Scepter hits and significant sides to be released on CD to date. It's the only one that encompasses his first success for the label and his final ones. The track selection serves to remind the listener that he might just have been the most versatile pop singer of his generation, able to move, seemingly effortlessly, from blue-eyed Texas soul to Bacharach-David singalong to Memphis pop with country overtones and make it all sound great.
Highlights of this CD include a trilogy of Memphis-recorded songs that tend to be associated with the late Elvis Presley, but it was B.J. Thomas who cut the original, and in every way superior, versions of It's Only Love and I Just Can't Help Believing. Had things gone his way, B.J. might also have been the originator of Suspicious Minds, but his regular writer Mark James had already given The King first refusal - and the rest you know. As you'll hear, though, B.J.'s own version (with its 'suspicious'-ly similar backing track!) is no mere 'make do'. Scepter would regularly send B.J. to Memphis or Muscle Shoals in his hitmaking heyday, and the presence of some great Southern musicians make these, and great recordings like The Eyes Of A New York Woman and Most Of All, even greater than they would have been if cut elsewhere.
More great stuff can be found in the first section of this CD, recorded when B.J.was still working out of and around Houston and still infusing his sessions with a mixture of the sounds and styles he heard while growing up in East Texas. Among these tracks you'll find bluesy workouts of country classics (Tomorrow Never Comes and I Can't Help It), pacey Northern Soul-style pop (I Don't Have A Mind Of My Own) and two of the more interesting 'death discs' you'll ever hear, Billy And Sue and Plain Jane - the latter of which surely influenced Stephen King's 'Carrie' in many ways!
Further highlights here include another unofficial 'trilogy', this time of Bacharach and David songs. Everyone surely knows Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head and here it is, on this CD, in its definitive B.J.Thomas version. Even better, though, are the ambitious Long Ago Tomorrow and the quite wonderful, and brilliantly scored, Everybody's Out Of Town. Collectively they are three of the best late-period B & D songs, and it's hard to imagine anyone putting them over better than B.J. Thomas does.
Much the same could be said about any of these songs, and BJ's performances thereof. Whether dipping back into vintage country via Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb, putting his own spin on a then-unreleased Stevie Wonder masterpiece or dipping into the stellar catalogue of Brill Building giants Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, B.J.Thomas makes his versions count in a way that lesser singers could only dream of doing. That's why these recordings sound as vital today as they did more than 30 years ago. That's why any serious connoisseur of American Popular music will need to find space on their shelf for this 'must-have' CD. And that's something I'd be prepared to say regardless of whether or not I compiled and/or wrote the notes for it (which I did).
If you know the name, but not the music, there's never been a better time to get 'Hooked' on B.J. Thomas than now - and here!
By Rob Finnis (Ace Records)