How a tribute to BJ Thomas came to a religious community in Peoria, Arizona


When BJ Thomas passed away in May, Tim Wright decided not to deliver the sermon he had prepared for next Sunday’s service at the Community of Grace Lutheran Church in Peoria.

Thomas was practically part of the family.

He had performed it several times at Wright’s request since he befriended when the Reverend brought the five-time Grammy winner to entertain another Arizona congregation, Community Church of Joy, in 1999.

“He passed away on a Saturday and we had a church the next day,” Wright recalls.

“So instead of preaching my sermon, I spoke to BJ’s congregation about the impact they had on his life and his love for them. It was really moving for me and is. always. It’s hard to think he’s not here to make his music. “

Thomas had told him he wanted to sing until he was 80.

“And he still had it,” Wright said.

Thomas was 78 at the time of his death on Saturday, May 29, two months after publicly announcing that he had been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.

Saturday, November 13, Lutheran Church of the Community of Grace will host an online tribute to the star called Legacy: Celebrating the Life and Music of BJ Thomas.

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BJ Thomas turned to gospel music in the 1970s

Born in 1942 in Hugo, Oklahoma, Thomas launched his recording career in 1966 with a successful recording of Hank Williams’ country classic “I’m so lonely I could cry.”

He is perhaps best known in the general public for a series of classic pop hits, from the 1968s “Addicted to a feeling” through “Raindrops Keep Fallin ‘on My Head”, “I Just Can’t Help Believing” and his successful 1977 rendition of the Beach Boys song “Don’t Worry Baby”.

A year after topping the Billboard country charts, adult contemporary charts and Hot 100 with 1975’s “(Hey Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song”, the star released her first of several gospel albums, “Home Where I Belong. “

It was the first contemporary Christian album to achieve the platinum record.

By 1999, however, Thomas had stopped performing for gospel audiences.

As the singer explained to the Arizona Republic in 2019, he was fed up with boos when he sang his secular material.

“I think it’s a really sad comment when people who want to refer to themselves as Christian quotes would want to come out and hear someone just to boo them,” Thomas said.

“It’s always been hard for me to deal with, and I just quit making 100% gospel records and just went back to doing what I had always done.”

How Wright came to invite Thomas to his church in Peoria

As a longtime BJ Thomas fan who reconnected with the singer and his music when he released these gospel albums, Wright was in the audience on more than one occasion when the crowd turned ugly.

“I went to a couple of concerts where he was booed off the stage by Christians,” Wright recalls.

“This happened many times in his later gospel career.… But one of the things I wanted to do as a fan was somehow tell him, ‘We’re not. not all like that. “”

This is how he found himself inviting Thomas to give a show in his church.

“We weren’t asking him to do a gospel concert, we were asking him to do his concert, ”Wright recalls.

“And he said, ‘Yes.’ Of course, I found out later that he didn’t want to do it. His wife encouraged him to do it. But he came to our church and it went really, really well. “

It was in February 1999.

“I think for BJ it was a healing experience,” says Wright. “But that’s how it started, my desire as a Christian who loved all of his music to say, ‘Not all Christians are like that. In fact, most are not.’ I think it was really good for him. And it was good for us. “

“I was really convinced that they were kind and loving people”

You might be wondering how the Reverend knew that his congregation would not join the ranks of other Christians booing Thomas at the first sign of “Raindrops” or “Hooked on a Feeling”,

“I was really convinced that they were kind and loving people,” Wright said, pointing to a Peoria Times review of that first show that said the congregation gave the singer six standing ovations.

“So it was a great experience,” said Wright. “To be honest, he got pretty emotional on stage a few times. I think he just realized, ‘Hey, okay, these people, they think I’m fine. “”

Thomas returned to the valley 12 to 15 more times over the next 20 years, becoming friends with Wright along the way.

As Thomas told The Republic in 2019, “Tim and I have a great friendship and he has a great church. I’m not a very religious person, but he has a very open-minded congregation.”

It was last December that Thomas confided in Wright that something was wrong.

“He said he had breathing problems,” Wright recalls.

At that time, we had some hope. He was told after the first round of tests that he had some sort of rare lung disease that was neither curable nor treatable, but it would not take his life. It was not fatal. He could handle it. “

Shortly thereafter, Wright received a call from Gloria informing him that Thomas had been diagnosed with stage four cancer in his lungs.

“It was such a blow,” he says.

Wright says he’s pretty sure the last conversation he and Thomas had was in April.

“And at that point, it was texting,” Wright said. “I had heard from him, I think, in March, and he could barely speak by then. The cancer was quite lodged in his lungs.”

How the Peoria tribute came together

Thomas didn’t want a funeral.

When a mutual friend of Thomas and Wright suggested that the church pay homage to his life and music in another way, Wright called Gloria Thomas, the singer’s wife since 1968.

“I wanted to make sure everything was okay,” he says.

“Because BJ was pushy enough. No funeral or anything. But she said, ‘It’s in months. It’s a tribute. It’s not really a funeral.’ So she gave me some names of people close to BJ. And we just put together a list of panelists. “

Most of the speakers will appear as pre-filmed testimonials due to health concerns related to COVID-19.

“When we started planning this, in the summer, we were hoping COVID would be a little less than it is now,” Wright said. “So some of the people who were going to live with us decided to make a video instead.”

Among those scheduled to appear by video: Burt Bacharach (who co-wrote “Raindrops”), producers Steve Tyrell and Steve Dorff, Don Drachenberg (who played in Thomas’ first band, the Triumphs) and Sara Niemietz (who joined Thomas in 2013 “Salon sessions”).

In addition to Wright, at least two other speakers will be on hand, delivering their testimonials in person – Thomas Road Director Tim Bowers and Jeff Santo, who wrote, directed and produced “Jake’s Corner”, a film that Thomas filmed in Arizona.

The tribute also includes several unreleased recordings that Thomas captured during the lockdown, including a new version of “Raindrops” and “I Just Can’t Help Believing”.

There is a recurring theme that Wright says he noticed in the testimonies he saw.

“It’s an old-fashioned word,” he says. “But he was a real gentleman.”

He was also very down to earth and caring with his time.

“He’s an ordinary everyday guy, right? But he was BJ Thomas, for heaven’s sake. He was a great, great artist. And he was so lovable. He was a man of deep faith. , a husband, a father, a grandfather and a singer. And all of those things were important to him. “

Legacy: Celebrating the Life and Music of BJ Thomas

When: 2 p.m. Saturday 13 November.

Or: Community of Grace Lutheran Church, 10561 W. Pinnacle Peak Road, Peoria, live broadcast on church site Facebook and Youtube pages.

Admission: Free online; $ 15 to attend in person, with all proceeds going to the St. John’s Lutheran Church Food Bank, available for purchase at boldrecklessgrace.org/BJThomas.

Details: 623-572-0050, boldrecklessgrace.org/BJThomas

Contact the reporter at [email protected] or 602-444-4495. Follow him on twitter @EdMasley.

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About Jefferey G. Cannon

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