B.J. Thomas remembers his first #1 hit, with a little help from Burt Bacharach, Hal David, Phil Ramone and Ray Stevens.
By Robin Platts
Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach were in the 54th Street offices of Scepter Records in New York City, when a delivery arrived from the RIAA. Noticing the two gold record plaques being carried in, Warwick had walked into the room where Bacharach was.
“B.J.’s got two million sellers,” she told him. “You’d better write this guy something!”
“B.J.” was Scepter artist B.J. Thomas who had, by that point, racked up a total of four gold discs for the label. Being on the same label as Burt Bacharach/Hal David mainstay Dionne Warwick certainly made him a logical candidate for a song from the duo.
“I was kind of in the back of [Burt’s] mind,” Thomas recalls. “He was possibly going to write me something. We had kind of been politicking him and trying to get him to do a session with me, really, ever since I got with the record label. A guy named Steve Tyrell had been working on it and so had Paul Cantor - he was Dionne’s personal manager and he was my personal manager at the time, too.”
An offer eventually came while Thomas was on the road, doing a three-week tour of the Midwest. “I got word from Paul Cantor that, when I finished that string of dates, I was going to California and that I was going to get a session with Burt Bacharach. He said, ‘We’ve got this song in this Paul Newman movie’.” As soon as the tour was over, Thomas was on a plane to Los Angeles.
Arriving late at night, the singer caught a taxi at the airport and was soon heading up Mulholland Drive to Bacharach’s house. Although a celebrity in his own right, the Texan found himself a little out of his element.
“It was dark and it was late at night and I couldn’t find the doorbell. I pushed this button and the garage door went up. And then, out of the kitchen door, came Angie Dickinson, just looking every inch a movie star. She brought me in the back and I went down to the basement music room that he had and rehearsed with him. I’ll never forget that.”
Bacharach and lyricist Hal David had written the tune for the new Paul Newman film, a lighthearted Western entitled Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. (Co-starring with Newman was a young actor called Robert Redford, whom the picture would transform into one of the biggest stars of the ‘70s.)
Thomas had a distinctive singing style, which had brought him plenty of success, but he found that Bacharach was not much interested in any reinterpretation of his and Hal David’s work.
“And he just told me straight out. He said, ‘B.J., after you do this song and all the notes exactly like I’ve written them, if you have any space to do that, well, feel free.’ So really the only place where I could kinda play with the melody was at the end, where I did the (sings) ‘me-e-e-e-e-ee...’ And when I did that in the studio, he was conducting the orchestra and he kind of looked over his shoulder at me, and kind of looked and he said, ‘Oh, okay, that works.’ So, he didn’t allow me to use much of my style. Basically, I just sang his notes.”
Raindrops was recorded twice. The first version was recorded in L.A., to meet the film’s production deadline. “I was a little under the weather when I did the soundtrack,” Thomas recalls. “You know, back in those days I kind of burned the candle at both ends. By the time I finished that tour, my voice was really shot.”
This somewhat hoarse version appeared in the movie, underscoring the famous bicycle riding sequence. (It also appears on the soundtrack album, as On A Bicycle Built For Joy.)
“Burt had written the tag on the end, so we went into Columbia studios on Broadway in Manhattan and recut it,” Thomas explains. “And that’s the single version. However, the kind of scratchy version is the one in the movie.”
On his first session with Bacharach and David, Thomas was acutely aware that he was now in the big leagues. Thomas sang the song and the musicians played live, as the famous bicycle sequence rolled in front of them.
“There was a lot of tension in it and, really, self-imposed pressure for me. Just a few years previous to that I was just singing with basically a garage band in Texas. It was really an exciting session. We did the song against the bicycle scene where Paul has Katherine Ross on the handlebars. It was a big band, a huge orchestra; back in those days you used all live musicians. So it was a real exciting thing.”
The contrast between Bacharach and David’s personalities was quite apparent in the studio. “Burt was more demonstrative in his production techniques,” says Thomas. “Hal is a very quiet mild-mannered person, but he had lots of input in their productions, too, but he had it in a quieter, maybe less showy, way. They worked great together.”
Although neither of them told Thomas at the time, it appears that he had not been Bacharach and David’s first choice to record Raindrops. Raindrops had first been offered to Ray Stevens, who turned it down.
“Ray Stevens came out to California to see the movie and hear the song,” Bacharach says. “And he didn't like the movie and he didn’t like the song.”
“It wasn’t that I didn’t like it,” says Stevens. “The timing was bad. I had just spent weeks in the studio, working on what I thought was a wonderful record of a wonderful song. The song was called Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down, written by Kris Kristofferson. I had so much confidence in that record that I just didn’t want to wait to put it out. And I liked the song Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head. I flew to L.A., went to Burt’s house and he sang the song for me at the piano. I was very flattered to have been asked to do the song. Obviously hindsight is 20/20 and, if I had the chance again, I'd shelve Sunday Morning and do Raindrops instead!"
It’s also rumoured that Raindrops had been written with Bob Dylan in mind. (Although a folksinger may seem an unlikely candidate for a Bacharach/David tune, consider that just three years later the duo tapped Shawn Phillips to sing the theme for their ill-fated movie Lost Horizon.)
“I’m not sure that they pitched the song to Dylan,” says Thomas. “But I know that Burt wrote the melody - and he wrote a lot of his melodies - with Bob Dylan in mind. I’m not sure if it’s because of Dylan’s phrasing or whatever. Burt is a real genius in the way he phrases the melody and the way he fits the lyrics in there. There’s a possibility that they did offer the song to Bob Dylan. You know, that ‘fallin’ on my head’ kind of thing,” says Thomas, emphasizing the line’s Dylan-esque phrasing.
Indeed, there is a curious similarity between the singing styles of Dylan and Bacharach. Neither possesses a great range, but both can convey a great deal of emotion. Thomas agrees. “You know, I think that’s why Burt always liked him, because Dylan’s not really a singer, but he really makes it work. Burt really admired him for that.”
“I tended to sing it, in its original form, sort of like Dylan-esque thing,” Bacharach says. “And B.J. acquired a little of that.”
Hal David points out that ultimately, Raindrops was written not for a particular singer but for a movie character. “We wrote the song with Paul Newman in mind,” he explains. “With Butch Cassidy in mind. In writing for a film, you don’t write for the singer who’s going to sing over the scene, you should be writing it for the character. And that’s exactly why and how the song was written.”
"Raindrops" was naturally selected as a single. After the first batch of 45s was pressed and shipped, Bacharach had a last-minute idea. Listening to the record in England, he decided that the beginning of the track was too fast, and had the first pressing recalled. Twentieth Century Fox protested, but the composer insisted, immediately flying back to New York to replace the first part of the track with an earlier, more laid-back take.
“We had done Raindrops, and we’d made an edit and put the mix out,” recalls Phil Ramone, who was at that time the engineer for Bacharach and David’s sessions. “And it was climbing the charts, into the Top 40 somewhere. And Hal and Burt and I were in England, and we heard it on the radio, and he said, ‘You know, I think you were right: maybe the edit from seven to four is better if we just stick with four all the way.’ We came back and remastered it. And it’s not about ego or craziness or anything. It was just that, in the fast judgement of getting the record out, we had made an edit.”
The revamped Raindrops reached the #1 spot, where it spent four weeks. The Butch Cassidy soundtrack also garnered a few awards to add to Bacharach and David's growing collection. In addition to another Grammy (for Best Soundtrack), the soundtrack also scored big at the Oscars. After three previous nominations (for "The Look Of Love," "Alfie" and "What's New Pussycat?"), Burt and Hal finally won for Best Original Song ("Raindrops"). Butch Cassidy won a second musical Oscar, for Best Original Score.