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Fans still savor smoothness of singer B.J. Thomas

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By Sarah Sue Ingram, Beacon Correspondent

When B.J. Thomas came to Odell Williamson Auditorium for a concert last Thursday night, it wasn’t for the audience to stand up and dance.

It was to sit back and savor.

The smooth singer enthralled the crowd that had come to the theater on the Brunswick Community College campus.

“We saw him in the ’70s, and he sounds just like he did then,” said Gwen Wyatt of Calabash. “If you closed your eyes, you’d think it was the same.”

“It was definitely a trip down memory lane,” agreed Tom Burns of Calabash. “I knew every word.”

Thomas didn’t make the audience wait long to hear those familiar lyrics and melodies. He sang back-to-back “The Eyes of a New York Woman,” “Most of All,” “Rock and Roll Lullaby,” “I Just Can’t Help Believing,” “Hooked On a Feeling,” “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song,” “Whatever Happened To Old-Fashioned Love” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

He saved his best-selling record for near the end.

“We play old-school, so let’s just have a good time,” Thomas said before launching into his string of hits.

Dressed in a charcoal-gray jacket, gray slacks, blue dress shirt and blue handkerchief protruding from his breast pocket, Thomas performed for 90 minutes without an intermission. The 71-year-old singer joked that he used to dance around the stage but now he stands there.

So there he stood in the spotlight in front of a band with two guitar players, a drummer and a keyboard player. His bass guitarist, John Francis, is from Fayetteville and has been in Thomas’ band for 38 years.

Early on, Thomas said, “Thanks for coming to see us” when he could have said “me.”

The singer, who has recorded 48 albums and won five Grammys, last performed at BCC in 1997, theater director Mike Sapp said when introducing Thomas.

The opening chords of “Hooked On a Feeling” brought screams of recognition from the audience. Thomas hit the high notes to bring the house down, proving he still has pitch and projection.

A lot of singers sound alike, but nobody else sounds like B.J. Thomas.

“I used to sing with a little band called The Triumphs,” he told the audience. “It was a garage band we formed in 1958. We played out in the boondocks.

“We cut our first record in 1960. That was right at the inception of Top 40 radio. It’s not like now — if you have original songs on, they’ll play you,” he said, drawing chuckles from the crowd.

The band had been recording its first album all night, and it was 5:30 in the morning when Thomas said he remembered a promise he had made to his dad.

As he was pulling out of the driveway of their Texas home, his dad said, “Son, if you don’t do something country on this album, don’t come back to this house.”

Band members had just seen the movie “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” and one suggested they cut the Hank Williams classic, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” So they did.

“Somehow it went to No. 1 in Houston,” Thomas remembered. The single sold more than 1 million copies and was awarded a gold disc.

“And then they booked me with James Brown,” Thomas said. “He was like a god to us and treated us so great.”

Thomas said his heroes growing up were rhythm-and-blues singers.

Thursday night at BCC, he didn’t do show tunes or opera, but he sang just about every other genre: country, gospel, Motown, rock’n’roll and rhythm-and-blues.

Thomas spent five years of his career recording gospel music. Thursday night he sang one of those hits a cappella: “You Gave Me Love (When Nobody Gave Me a Prayer)” with the lyric “That’s why I call you Savior.”

He followed that with “Home Where I Belong” and “Mighty Clouds of Joy.”

Then, with a touch of irony, he said, “We want to do one for Wall Street,” and sang “Mr. Businessman” with the lyrics “You can wheel and deal the best of them and steal it from the rest of them.”

“That was the great song by Ray Stevens,” Thomas said, adding that Stevens played organ and arranged on one of his recording sessions.

Fame put Thomas on the bill with several of his heroes, including Johnny Mathis and Jackie Wilson.

Thomas said Wilson, a quintessential tenor, was “the most handsome guy, the best singer, the best dancer and a great guy.”

Thomas then sang his second song a cappella: Wilson’s standard “To Be Loved.”

After singing “Just My Imagination,” the versatile Thomas said, “I loved Eddie Kendricks. The Temptations were the greatest group of all time.”

Thomas won his Oscar for Best Original Song in 1969.

“I was so fortunate to have this song,” he said as he introduced it. “I was on tour, and they called and said, “We’re going to fly you out to the West Coast to do a session with Burt Bacharach and Hal David for a cowboy movie starring Paul Newman. I didn’t even know who Robert Redford was then. Robert Redford was dead-set against this song …

“The redhead went with me to California. I’ve been married to the same beautiful girl for 45 years. Back then, I liked to have a good time, and I had been having a really good time for about three weeks. She had a real sobering effect on me.”

“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” drew the biggest roar of the night at Odell Williamson Auditorium.

Marlene Hahn from Holden Beach said it was her favorite B.J. Thomas song. The song hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts in January 1970.

David and Mildred Marshburn drove all the way from Burgaw — getting tied up in traffic in Wilmington to make it a two-hour drive to Bolivia — to see the singer.

“We enjoyed the whole show,” Mildred said.

David nodded, saying, “His voice is still strong.”

Thomas asked the audience for an assist on one song, and there ensued a resounding chorus of “Hey, won’t you play, another somebody done somebody wrong song, a real hurtin’ song, about love that’s gone wrong.”

“Raindrops” was the 17th song Thomas sang in the 19-song concert.

Thomas said some of his fondest memories were recording in Memphis, Tenn., and he wanted to record one song after hearing the demo, but the songwriter said, “I wrote this for Elvis.”

Thomas than sang “Suspicious Minds.”

A standing ovation from the auditorium brought the singer back on stage for an encore. What had been a laid-back pace in a cozy setting took a tempo crescendo culminating with Thomas belting out Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose.”

 

Sarah Sue Ingram is a correspondent for the Beacon. She was a member of the board of directors of the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in the 1990s.