During a four-decade career, Billy Joe Thomas has been able to effectively straddle the pop and gospel fields unlike most any other recording artist. But it hasnÕt been without pain, as he points out in two autobiographies, Home Where I Belong and In Tune: Finding How Good Life Can Be.
Thomas survived a decade of addiction to cocaine, Valium and amphetamines. During a nearly yearlong marital separation, his wife, Gloria, became a Christian. After Thomas subsequently accepted Christ as his Savior, he quit drugs cold turkey and had no withdrawal symptoms.
After conversion, Thomas began to record gospel music, which featured the same natural, relaxed sound that had led to secular music popularity. But during the early 1980s some Christians walked out of concerts, complaining that Thomas should sing only songs about faith.
Through it all, Thomas has endured, en route to selling an amazing 70 million records. His signature song, ÒRaindrops Keep FallinÕ on My Head,Ó spent four weeks as the nationÕs top single in 1970. A decade later he had a number one Christian hit for four weeks in a row, ÒJesus on My Mind.Ó He went on to win five Grammys, collect 11 gold and two platinum records and have 15 top 40 pop/rock hits. He remains the only artist to ever have a ÒSong of the YearÓ on pop, country and gospel charts. He also sang the theme song to the long-running ABC series Growing Pains.
Thomas, 64, recently spoke with News Editor John W. Kennedy.
tpe: Your recent We Praise! Worship in Song CD/DVD project in a way is a return to your musical beginnings.
THOMAS: It was a real pleasure to record traditional church and gospel songs like ÒThe Old Rugged CrossÓ and ÒI Surrender All.Ó Initially my brother Jerry and I gravitated to the church because of the music. This is the first music I learned to sing, when I joined the church choir at 14. These songs still inspire me today.
tpe: During your pop heyday, like a lot of other singers, you had difficulties with drugs and depression.
THOMAS: I had the same problems that a lot of people deal with growing up. Some people succumb to them worse than others do. My dad had some problems in that area, and as I grew up I had personal trials with them, too. The music business amplified the problem. This is a business where you donÕt have to be sober to do what people are asking you to do.
tpe: Your decision to sing Christian songs came after you and your wife both turned your lives over to Jesus Christ.
THOMAS: I asked Jesus to become my Savior when I was 13, but I never allowed Christ to become my Lord. At 33, I asked the Lord to come into my heart and make me new. That decision brought me back from — I shouldnÕt sugarcoat it — some really tough times of drug addiction and alcoholism.
After Gloria and I had a spiritual awakening to our roots, I started making gospel records. I had the first platinum (1 million copies sold) gospel album in history (Home Where I Belong).
tpe: You had Grammy nominations in the inspirational performance category seven years in a row.
THOMAS: And we won four times [ÒHome Where I Belong,Ó ÒHappy Man,Ó ÒYou Gave Me Love (When Nobody Gave Me a Prayer)Ó and ÒAmazing GraceÓ]. The music came at a time when people needed someone from the mainstream to come in. Not that it didnÕt have validity before. That kind of music has always been relevant. Sometimes an old gospel standard is the only thing that will cut to someoneÕs heart and make them see the light. Our involvement helped a lot of other artists to become involved.
tpe: When you started doing gospel concerts Christian audiences didnÕt behave all that charitably toward you.
THOMAS: When we began making music with Christian messages the sound was just like the songs I had been singing before. Some of it was pop, some of it was rock and roll, some of it was country. It was a new thing for gospel, and we were misunderstood. Anytime something new comes along in a field as traditional as gospel music, itÕs looked on as a threat or something thatÕs just not right. There was a resistance to what we were doing.
But I felt like this was a harbinger of a new way to do that kind of music, a way to reach more people and have a deeper meaning to it. There was a lot of heartbreak, but it turned out well. That was a long time ago. The whole experience helped crystallize and define GloriaÕs and my spirituality. We donÕt have any negative feelings as we look back on it.
tpe: Some pop artists have ventured into Christian music and become disillusioned.
THOMAS: When I was a kid, a lot of highly successful country and pop artists did an occasional gospel or spiritual number. Elvis Presley, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Jim Reeves and Eddy Arnold are examples. But somewhere along the line the environment changed for mainstream musicians who entered the Christian music world and the acceptance wasnÕt there. A lot of rock and pop musicians have tried to make statements in the Christian community and they have been rejected.
tpe: Why do you think God blessed you with your singing ability?
THOMAS: IÕve always been grateful for GodÕs grace and sensed that He has a purpose for me. Ever since the beginning IÕve tried to do positive music, even though it has meant a lot of struggles against record companies and producers. I want my music to have a positive effect on people. When I perform live I hope the audience will leave with their heads lifted up.
tpe: Talk about your faith today.
THOMAS: Gloria and I have a deep faith we live by. We believe Jesus showed us His love when He gave His life. All of us have problems that are major to us, sometimes ongoing problems. But Jesus gave hope in all situations and that never changes.
Gloria and I will have been married 38 years in December. We often talk about how blessed we are and what a great life we have, apart from the music. We have three grown daughters and one granddaughter. Life has been good.
tpe: What are you working on now?
THOMAS: I just finished working with Chips Moman and the American Studio recording group. There was a time in the late Õ60s and early Õ70s when Chips Moman and the American Studio group produced 20 percent of the pop charts at the same time. These guys played on all the Elvis comeback songs.
We hadnÕt done anything together since I cut ÒHooked on a Feeling,Ó Ò(Hey WonÕt You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong SongÓ (another chart topper) and ÒI Just CanÕt Help BelievingÓ with these guys. I called Chip up; heÕd pretty much been out of music. But we did a live show and shot a DVD that should be out later this year. I still do about 70 to 80 concerts a year.
tpe: What goals do you have for the rest of your life?
THOMAS: Like most human beings, I want to be a better person; I want my family to be happy. There is always a need and a hope to be better than I was yesterday. I still have a lot of music that I want to make.
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