by Norm Winick

B. J. (Billy Joe) Thomas is best-known as the performer who sang while Paul Newman rode his bicycle in circles. The scene from the 1969 classic film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, introduced the voice of Thomas to a new and much larger audience. The song, ''Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,'' won the Oscar that year and Thomas performed it at the Academy Awards.

Thomas will be in Galesburg Saturday, January 22nd for a show at the Orpheum Theatre.

He said in a telephone interview Tuesday that he still does 155 shows a year all over the country. Unlike many other country performers, Thomas doesn't perform primarily in Las Vegas or Branson. ''A few years ago, we came real close to closing a theater deal in the Smokies but I wasn't ready to settle down.''

Accompanying Thomas will be his band that he's travelled with for over 20 years. He says they'll play an eclectic mix of music including country, gospel, pop and classic rock. ''There will be some songs I've written and recorded, new ones and old ones. I'm not big on the theatrics. What we do is in the singing mode. I don't change outfits or anything like that; that's not my style. What we do is very entertaining; I'm very open with the audience.''

The Hank Williams standard, ''I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry'' was Thomas' first hit. ''I grew up listening to Hank Williams and Elvis. Back then, everyone sang other people's songs; it was a sign of flattery. That was also in the days of Top-40 radio where hits were hits and the radio stations all played them. Now it's so specialized, if you're categorized as country -- or gospel, or pop -- only certain stations will play your songs.''

It wasn't country music that Thomas' first band played, it was rock 'n' roll. ''Back in the late 1950s, we lived in Texas and my brother was in a band. Their singer was an Elvis impersonator -- hey, he might have been the first one. Other members of the band thought they needed to do a wider variety of music and my brother, Jerry, blurted out, 'my little brother, B. J., can sing.' He had to threaten to beat me up to get me on stage but they liked my singing when I finally agreed to do it. We played all sorts of music, whatever songs the Top-40 stations were playing, we'd learn.''

Thomas' voice, especially his rendition of the Williams' songs, attracted the attention of a record company producer and he signed a contract. From there, Thomas recorded country, gospel and pop tunes. Besides ''Lonesome,'' Thomas recorded four gold records before he broke into movies. ''I had contacted Burt Bacharach about songs because he had so many hits and I loved his music. But, it seems that Dionne Warwick got to perform all his songs. Then, in 1969, I got a call. It seems that Bacharach and Hal David had written the score and a song for Butch Cassidy. They had already shot the movie but they needed a male voice to sing one song and they wanted to know if I was interested. I sure was. They sent me the lyrics and music and I flew to L.A. to record ''Raindrops.'' Like just about everything else they had written, it was a great song. I rehearsed it with Bacharach and David, then they put me in a special studio and they projected the scene with Paul Newman on the bicycle in front of me while I sang. I sang along with the movie and I really liked the way the bicycle scene and the song worked.''

''I never did meet Robert Redford or Paul Newman, though. At the Academy Awards I was performing and they were in the audience. Bacharach and David received the Oscar. I once lived in Connecticut about ten minutes away from Newman but I never met him there, either.''

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online January 8, 2000

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