BJ Thomas, who has died of lung cancer aged 78, was an American singer who had a string of Top 10 hits in his home country and became known worldwide for the song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” which appeared in the classic 1969 film western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
After being turned down by Bob Dylan and Ray Stevens, lyricist Hal David and musician Burt Bacharach chose Thomas to sing their composition, a quaint, easy-listening, optimistic ballad with an orchestra backing the relaxed vocal.
For the film, it included a trumpet solo that accompanied a scene of Paul Newman performing bicycle stunts while on a romantic ride with Katharine Ross. Thomas, suffering from laryngitis, recorded the song that bookends it in seven takes after Bacharach was unhappy with the first six.
The voice was less husky when he returned to the studio two weeks later to lay down a new version for a single that retained the ukulele introduction and orchestra while dispensing with the trumpet instrumental.
Released in late 1969, it became the first US No 1 single of the 1970s, keeping acts such as Diana Ross, The Jackson 5, Led Zeppelin and Elvis Presley off the top of the charts.
Like the film, starring Newman and Robert Redford, the song won an Oscar, but Thomas’s single peaked at only 38 in Britain – after Sacha Distel’s cover version came out a month earlier and reached No 10.
More concerning for Thomas at the time was a drug habit that became a threat to both his life and his relationship with Gloria (née Richardson), whom he married in 1968. He was spending thousands of dollars on cocaine every day and overdosed several times.
In his autobiography, Home Where I Belong, he recounted waking up in hospital after one such occasion three years earlier. “I remember asking the nurse why I was still alive,” Thomas wrote. “She responded: ‘God must want you to accomplish more here in this world.’”
On arriving home in early 1976, his wife told him that she had embraced Christianity and introduced him to an evangelical rodeo worker who helped him to turn his life around.
Thomas’s 1976 album, also titled Home Where I Belong, was credited with launching “Jesus Rock”. It topped the gospel chart, won a Grammy Award and resulted in the singer landing a $1m contract with MCA Records.
Although he found a new audience, he had a love-hate affair with gospel music. He complained that Christians “can’t seem to hear somebody sing – it’s always got to be some kind of Christian cliché or Bible song”.
So he brought pop and country songs back into the mix and found a wide audience with “As Long as We Got Each Other” (1985), the theme song from the sitcom Growing Pains.
Billy Joe Thomas was born in Hugo, Oklahoma, to Geneva (née Talbot) and Vernon Thomas, and grew up in Texas, first in Houston, then in Rosenburg, where he attended Lamar high school and was given the nickname BJ while playing baseball.
He joined his church choir at the age of 14 and, shortly afterwards, became featured singer in his high school choral group before forming a group called The Triumphs with his older brother, Jerry, to perform at parties and dances. They had local hits such as “Lazy Man” in 1965.
Thomas was spotted by a record company’s talent scout and signed to a contract, with his band backing him for the first few singles. BJ Thomas & The Triumphs made the American Top 10 with “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (1966), the most successful version of a much-recorded heartrending country song written by Hank Williams. It also hit the No 1 spot in Australia.
After going solo, Thomas was a major attraction at nightspots such as New York’s Copacabana, San Francisco’s Fairmont hotel and Los Angeles’ Century Plaza, and a regular in the American charts with singles such as “Hooked on a Feeling” (1968), “I Just Can’t Help Believing” (1970, a British hit for Elvis Presley a year later), “Rock and Roll Lullaby” (1972), which featured Duane Eddy and his “twangy” guitar, and “Don’t Worry Baby” (1977).
He also had another No 1, with “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” (1975), which won the Grammy Award for Best Country Song.
His later American hits were in the country chart, where he hit the top twice in 1983, with “Whatever Happened to Old Fashioned Love” and “New Looks from an Old Lover”.
In all, he won five Grammy Awards and had 10 albums in the American charts, most successfully Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head in 1970.
Thomas is survived by his wife and their three daughters, Paige, Nora and Erin.
BJ Thomas, singer, born 7 August 1942, died 29 May 2021