Grammy-winning recording artist B.J. Thomas is heading back to Nashville for his first album of unplugged, acoustic recordings with indie label Wrinkled Records.
Appropriately titled The Living Room Sessions and expected to hit stores on March 26, the project features 12 of Thomas' greatest hits, including "Hooked on a Feeling", "Eyes of a New York Woman", "I Just Can't Help Believing", and "Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song". Incidentally, all were produced, arranged, and performed by one of the most consistent hit-making teams in recording history, Chips Moman and the Memphis Boys.
The catch is...most were reimagined as duets with such notable guests as Vince Gill, Lyle Lovett, Richard Marx, and Thomas' longtime friend, producer, and current crooner, Steve Tyrell. Thomas also throws a few curve balls, recruiting blues musician Keb' Mo' for an impassioned "Most of All" and alternative rocker Isaac Slade, lead singer of The Fray, who delivers a mournful, effective rendering of "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."
Sandy Knox, originally a hit songwriter for Reba McEntire and now president of Wrinkled Records, admitted in a recent conversation that "the concept of doing B.J.'s big hits in a relaxed, acoustic setting was my idea. My thought was that if I had a laid back, pot luck dinner party with B.J. and Gloria [Thomas' wife], after dinner everyone would pull out their instruments, which they just happen to have with them, and sing B.J.'s tunes."
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Thomas successfully straddled the line between pop, country, gospel, and adult contemporary in his impressive 50-year oeuvre, notching significant hits in each genre (46 to be exact). Thomas' country success mostly arrived in the early '80s with jewels such as "Two Car Garage", "Whatever Happened to Old-Fashioned Love", and "New Looks from an Old Lover."
He also refuses to accept early retirement and simply coast on his past triumphs, instead maintaining a passionate artistic vision in the studio that continues to mature with each new project that comes his way.
Thomas first broke the news of the impending Living Room Sessions in a July 2012 interview with this writer ["Just a Regular Guy With a Burning Desire To Sing..."]. In it, the "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" singer discussed his entire career in an enlightening 8,000 word profile that is by far his most wide-ranging conversation in quite some time.
Read on as the legendary song interpreter sets the record straight concerning The Living Room Sessions, admitting how a longstanding friendship with country songwriter/producer Larry Butler ultimately led to Wrinkled Records signing him.
Thomas then reveals why he decided to revisit his greatest hits with co-producer Kyle Lehning. In addition, he discusses the guests on the record, what genre(s) he would like his next record to consist of, and relays a special message to his growing legion of fans.
The B.J. Thomas Interview
How were you signed to Wrinkled Records?
I originally did a project with producer/songwriter Larry Butler down in Muscle Shoals, Alabama [along with Chips, Larry was the co-writer of the “Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song”].
Larry sadly passed away in January 2012, and the album remains unreleased. Someday I think my collaboration with Larry will see the light of day. It had some excellent songs going for it. Perhaps it was a bit more country than what Wrinkled was looking for.
Anyway, the folks at Wrinkled [i.e. Sandy Knox, Katie Gillon, and Stephen McCord] heard the songs I recorded with Larry. While they may not have necessarily liked the project, they really liked the way I still sounded. So they asked me to come aboard and start a fresh, unplugged project with producer Kyle Lehning [e.g. Randy Travis, Ronnie Milsap, and Waylon Jennings].
Was there a concept in mind when you first started working on The Living Room Sessions in March 2012?
First of all, it was a unique project for me and my first album since the Brazilian-themed Once I Loved in 2009. We cut 12 of my greatest hits in an unplugged setting in Nashville at Sound Stage Studios.
There was a simple concept—to introduce me and my songs to people who perhaps aren’t as ‘up’ on me right now, and to refresh the minds of others about these great songs that I have had the privilege to record and sing in concert for so many years.
A lot of my peers and veteran artists I know who perform their old hits in concert tend to get bored with the material and start phoning it in, but the biggest blessing for me is that I never get tired of it.
I still feel an emotional connection to the songs, and as they bring back great memories for me, they affect me the same way they might touch a longtime fan of my music. I never planned any of this out, so to be able to express myself in music and have that as a vehicle for my life for as long as I have is something I am always grateful for.
I co-produced The Living Room Sessions with Kyle. We work very well together, and I had a wonderful time. While most producers will sit behind the console listening and directing the sessions, Kyle took a seat in the studio with myself and the band, and became even more fully immersed in the moment. We nailed each song in at most two or three takes. Everything was real simple and organic, and we didn’t labor on anything too long to get things right [Author's Note: Portions of the above remarks came from the official Wrinkled Records press release].
Some of the best studio musicians the city has to offer played on the record, including Bryan Sutton on acoustic guitar, mandolin, banjo, gut string guitar and dobro, John Willis on electric, acoustic and gut string guitar and dobro, Viktor Krauss on upright bass and Steve Brewster on drums and percussion. By the way, Viktor’s sister is a star in her own right – Alison Krauss.
The session really came off just like we had hoped it would. Off the top of my head, “New York Woman,” “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Old-Fashioned Love,” and “New Looks from an Old Lover” [co-written by my wife, Gloria, Red Lane, and Lathan Hudson] sound exceptionally well. I’m also quite proud of “Lonesome,” which we rearranged a bit, creating a cool guitar and vocal only version.
Who did you get to duet with on the record?
Vince Gill [“I Just Can’t Help Believing”], Lyle Lovett [“Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head”], Richard Marx [(“Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song”], and my longtime friend Steve Tyrell [“Rock and Roll Lullaby”] immediately come to mind. Tyrell produced the original single in 1971, and this is really the first time we have sung together in the studio.
In August Sara Niemietz duetted with me on “Hooked on a Feeling.” You probably don’t know her yet. Believe me you soon will. I first met her in 1997 when she was four years old at a concert of mine in Wheeling, Illinois. I noticed her singing the words to “Feeling,” and I brought her up onstage. She had an amazing voice even then. Her family and I have stayed in touch over the years.
There were some great, surprising moments as well, particularly on Isaac Slade’s fine interpretation of “Lonesome” and the dynamic singing by Keb’ Mo’. He is so much more than a blues musician. He originally wanted to do “Hooked”, but I wanted to save that for Sara, so I gave him “Most of All.” Keb’ came in not knowing the song at all, but he sat down, learned it, internalized it and put in the work it took to make it magical.
Dr. John and Alison Krauss were originally supposed to be on the record. Unfortunately, scheduling conflicts made this impossible. I would still like to work with them someday.
I ultimately sing “Eyes of a New York Woman”, “Everybody’s Out of Town”, “Don’t Worry Baby”, and “Whatever Happened to Old-Fashioned Love” solo.
I plan on including some of the unplugged versions in my show, since I still play between 60 and 80 shows per year. I want to team up with some of my duet partners for some special performances. Hopefully, The Living Room Sessions will open up the doors for additional projects. I think my fans will like it. Look for it in March 2013.
What other projects would you like to tackle with Lehning?
I would like to do an album containing all-new material. Several of my compositions that not many people have heard – “Hands on Me Again” and “Back Against the Wall” [the title cut of Thomas’ 1992 album], are songs I hope to record for this project.
A classic country album is another idea on the drawing board. I’d especially like to cut a classic soul/R&B album featuring songs that I grew up with. I have no idea why I haven’t recorded an all-R&B project. That just seems like a no-brainer [laughs]. Going back to the early ‘60s, I’ve done songs with soul origins on nearly all my records.
One reason it may not have happened yet is that when you have so much success with a certain kind of song, producers only want to cut that kind of song on you. I never had any successful R&B or straight up rock and roll singles.
All the stars have to line up for things to happen in a certain way. Fortunately, I’m with some terrific friends at Wrinkled who are old-school record people who listen to their artists. Their goal is to produce great music. I’m looking forward to tackling these projects soon.
Is there anything you would like to say to your fans?
I appreciate my fans a great deal. Every day I think about how lucky I am to have had the support I’ve had over the years from the people who have bought my records. It means a lot to me. And of course, I want to thank everybody reading this.
Author's Note: Don't forget to investigate the 6-image slideshow accompanying this article. Featuring exclusive images of Thomas' sometimes elusive wife of 44 years, Gloria, recording The Living Room Sessions at Sound Stage Studios in Nashville, and celebrating his 70th birthday (looking handsome as ever) with the staff of Wrinkled Records, there is definitely something for everybody...
The Living Room Sessions: Track-listing
- “Don’t Worry Baby” [SOLO: No. 17 POP, No. 2 AC, June 1977]
- “I Just Can’t Help Believing” [feat. Vince Gill: No. 9 POP, No. 1 AC, June 1970]
- “Most of All” [feat. Keb' Mo' : No. 38 POP, No. 2 AC, November 1970]
- “Eyes of a New York Woman” [SOLO: No. 28 POP, June 1968]
- (“Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song” [feat. Richard Marx: No. 1 POP, C&W, and AC, February 1975]
- “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” [feat. The Fray’s Isaac Slade: No. 8 POP, February 1966]
- “New Looks from an Old Lover” [feat. Wrinkled Records recording artist Etta Britt: No. 1 C&W, July 1983]
- “Rock and Roll Lullaby” [feat. Steve Tyrell: No. 15 POP, No. 1 AC, February 1972]
- “Whatever Happened to Old-Fashioned Love” [SOLO: No. 93 POP, No. 1 C&W, No. 13 AC, February 1983]
- “Hooked on a Feeling” [feat. Sara Niemietz: No. 5 POP, November 1968]
- “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” [feat. Lyle Lovett: No. 1 POP, No. 1 AC, November 1969]
- “Everybody’s Out of Town” [SOLO: No. 26 POP, No. 3 AC, March 1970]
Further Reading: Jordanaire Ray Walker recorded and performed in concert with B.J. Thomas, Rick Nelson, and Elvis Presley for decades. In a 2011 article written by this writer, the genial bassist recalled what it was like to sit front row center during an Elvis recording session. Things got pretty crazy when the "Alabama Wild Man", Jerry Reed, unexpectedly showed up to add some patented gut-string guitar to a few country rock numbers. Visit the following article, "Jordanaire Ray Walker Recalls Studio Nights With Elvis Presley and Jerry Reed," for the complete lowdown.
Exclusive Interview: Trailblazing Cleveland deejay Tommy Edwards was the first deejay in Cleveland to actively promote Elvis Presley. His bold efforts ultimately broke Presley north of the Mason-Dixon Line, virtually a racial divider during the '50s. The deejay also had a prominent role in the highly sought after but still lost concert film, 'The Pied Piper of Cleveland', which documented the first time Presley was filmed by a professional camera. To read about the King of Rock and Roll's meteoric rise to worldwide fame, and why one prominent authority controversially believes "Mystery Train" was the singer's last honest recording until he returned from the Army in March 1960, visit the following link: ["On The Brink of Becoming An Artistic Phenomenon..."].
*****Whether you enjoyed or disliked this article, don't hesitate to leave a comment. You can also receive email alerts when new articles are available. Just click on the "Subscribe" button next to my name at the top of this story.
© Jeremy L. Roberts, 2013. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed in full without first contacting the author. Headlines with links are fine. In addition, posting any links to Twitter or Facebook is sincerely appreciated.