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A Conversation With BJ Thomas: Love, Near Tragedy And A Song That Saved

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For the series It's About The Words & Conversations, BJ Thomas talks about that special night he heard Jackie Wilson sing "To Be Loved" and how thankful he is to have been exposed to those lyrics. They have stayed with and supported BJ through the pleasures of launching a career, falling in love, starting a family and battling addiction.

BJ: I heard Jackie Wilson sing "To Be Loved" when I was 15 or 16. Those were the first words that moved me in a significant way. Berry Gordy, who started Motown, wrote them.

Howard: It's so beautifully written. I've always dreamed of finding that and yet, have never really been close. It simultaneously fills me with a renewed hope while deepening the pain of such a long and unfulfilled search.

BJ: It meant something to me on so many levels as I had just begun to be a singer with The Triumphs.

The lyrics were one thing. I really connected with the idea around two people caring for one another and having each other to share the lonely and troubled times.

That has stayed with me throughout my life.

I met Berry Gordy and told him what that song meant to me. It moved me because as a kid I had a troubled youth. And when I grew up I had problems with addiction and alcoholism so I was always...

I guess I was always looking for something.

And this song just went right to my core and somehow I had, as much as I could at that young age, a realization of what it meant to be loved.

And to love someone.

Howard: Did it play a role in how you performed?

BJ: I became a great admirer of Jackie Wilson. He was an unbelievable entertainer. The passion and soul that he would put into something would convey such an emotional feeling.

If he was singing about lonely teardrops, man, you definitely believed he was lonely.

It was the first time I realized that when I'm performing, I need to believe what I'm singing. I've sang very few things I didn't totally believe in or connect with emotionally.

But I connected in another way too.

The song also touches on how some people strive for fame and to acquire wealth but really and truly, when it comes down to it, being loved is everything. It's simply bigger than anything else.

It made me realize that I had to seek that love and learn the way to love other people too. That's what mattered.

Howard: Most teenagers, and especially guys, aren't listening to tunes that rip through their heart and soul and teach them that it is all about love. Can you tell me a bit more about that time and what else was influencing you?

BJ: There are a group of songs and musicians from my childhood that meant so much to me. Mahalia Jackson was on television every day for five minutes and she'd sing a gospel song at 3.30 in the afternoon. I would rush home from school to hear her and that meant something to me. And my Dad was a huge country and western fan and he took us to see Hank Williams sing as little kids.

But nothing really compared to that moment of hearing Jackie Wilson.

It was in the evening and I was listening to the radio. I was just sitting in my room and I kind of had the blues and this song just spoke to me and ah...I'll never forget it.

Sometimes I'll sing it a-cappella in my show.

Howard: I love where a song finds that place in you and takes hold. And when it plays today, it takes you right back to the very time and place you first heard it.

BJ: If you're just sitting around bored or you've got the blues but your mind is in a receptive place -- my mind was just open when I heard it -- and man it just goes right through you and it's a great thing. I've always been very thankful for that moment.

Howard: What I find so interesting is that you heard "To Be Loved" when you were 15 or 16, and went into a career, where, much like the song says, some do seek fame and fortune.

Many of the musicians I've interviewed mentioned the challenges they had entering the music industry at a young age. Being pulled in different directions as I assume you must have experienced.

BJ: Absolutely.

Howard: Yet you had the awareness before you became a huge success that it was about love, not the trappings.

Have you always had love in your life to carry you through?

BJ: Well, no. I feel it could possibly take a lifetime to get to where you understand the concept of love for other people and yourself. It wasn't something that I really had...but that song was that first little inkling, that first little opening of my mind.

I was raised in a fairly dysfunctional situation and I went through years of intense alcoholism and drug addiction so the song was always a touchstone for me. When you open yourself up to drugs and alcohol at such a young age it becomes something you have to deal with the rest of your life.

I was even thinking about it this morning in relation to our discussion. What a road block and heartbreak and times of failure these addictions have caused me.

But I had that little piece of lightning from that song.

That's the essence of the whole thing. To love and be loved. And that takes a lifetime to accomplish. It's always been an important part of my emotions.

You know for some people music is money or getting some women or whatever else but music to me has always been an emotional thing and I know I got that from Jackie Wilson. It's hard to describe him because he was so brilliant -- he was the best looking guy, the best dancer, the best singer, the best entertainer so there was something about his emotion that I felt hearing that song. That has always stuck with me.

Howard: Please forgive me if this sounds naive because I want to ask you about the role of love in battling addiction. The idea of loving people.

BJ: The most important thing is the love, respect and appreciation of yourself. That was something I never had. My childhood really didn't instill a lot of self-esteem and self-love. That was something I had to learn and gain possession of as the years went on.

That's one of the main things about addiction is that you think you don't care.

You say "Well, you know if I do this, it's probably going to kill me" and you go "Ah, I don't care."

And that's the addiction talking, not really you. Finally you have to get to the point where you realize,

"You know what? I don't want to die. I want to live."

And I've been very fortunate. There started to be reasons for me to keep living and music was probably the first one. And I've always had a wonderful wife and children and so you finally have to learn the only way you are ever going to give them the devotion and love they need is if you find that love for yourself.

And that is the mystery for so many. They don't realize they have to get to that place where you can love yourself.

Some people have this instilled in them from childhood and it sounds like your parents did a great job instilling that in you.

Howard: Yeah.

BJ: It's not something I had from the get-go and the music was always a way I could feel those emotions.

In music I could feel what I'm singing about. This guy loves this gal, or this girl has broken my heart or just certain emotions that for me growing up weren't a part of my life. So the music has always played such an important part.

And realizing that I love myself enough that I was going to stay alive to be loved and I was going to stay alive to love.

Howard: BJ, I am going to ask you something but please feel free to tell me if it's too private or if you are not comfortable. You mentioned a few times that you were open to receiving this lyric because something in your upbringing caused you to be open to it at a young age.

BJ: Yeah. I'd be open about that.

My dad was a serious alcoholic and I've known lots of people who have had drinking problems. I've never seen one that approached my father. And he seemed not to care about anything... except alcohol.

And because of the alcoholism, it meant he didn't care anything about me or my mother or our life and I picked those feelings up. My dad seemed not to care about himself so, in connection with that, you know, I didn't really care about myself and the only times that I would ever kind of light up or feel a connection with something worthwhile was through music.

We could talk about music for 24 hours straight and never really capture what that mystery is about. Music cuts through all the literature and all the sermons and all the discipline and everything. It cuts right through to your spirit -- certain melodies and certain lyrics -- that was the thing I began to pick up and I think that's why I eventually got to a place where I could appreciate myself, love myself and respect myself as a human being and pass that onto my children and my wife.

Howard: Do you feel perhaps the positive outcome of seeing your dad's issues was that it served as a catalyst for you becoming an artist? Someone to sing and perform in order to uplift others. Do you believe that could be a link?

BJ: I do believe there is always a silver lining. I remember the look on my Dad's face the night we saw Hank Williams -- I remember my Dad loved to have a good time and he was always happiest when he was with music and he was dancing around or singing and so I think you are exactly right -- that is where I got that from.

If it hadn't have been for that I probably would have ended up going to college or being a working man in Houston.

But I think you are exactly right -- it was the thing that became the whole driving force behind my wanting to feel this emotion and pass it on.

Howard: You were instilled with some hurt and some need to find love at a very young age and perhaps that was a big part.

BJ: That's true. You know I had many years of ODs and near death experiences. I've had many years of detoxes and things like that. And many people that we are familiar with didn't make it.

So we know it's not easy and I've been lucky. I had the music and then I got married. I've been married 45 years and I believe that my wife Gloria has been the pillar and the spiritual core for me because she could always see me for who I was and not who I thought I was or by how I was acting.

Howard: It's amazing how it can work. I too have been hugely affected my whole life by lyrics and music. When I first began to read lyrics, I didn't realize I was listening to someone with a point of view that was from a much older circumstance. I was hugely impacted.

One of the first lyrics that moved me was "I'm OK" by Styx. It is similar thematically to what you just said. The opening lines ask you to look at how you are acting. Are you behaving in way that is true to yourself or are you putting something else out there that deep in your soul doesn't reflect who you really are?

That whole idea blew me away. I was 13 years old and that challenged my being...I had never read anything like that before.

I was like "What the fuck?"

BJ: Oh man.

Howard: And I'd walk away from certain situations and look back and feel "that's not me, why did I do that?" And it made me really turn inward to figure things out. Those lyrics have stayed with me to this very day.

BJ: We're always putting on some kind of act to hide the part of us we think people will turn away from, some kind of smokescreen that we put up to keep people from seeing what's really inside when you know if you ever just opened that up, you'd find people identify and it releases that whole love thing.

Howard: For those of us still in search of love -- me -- I have these conversations and it makes me, you know, I'm 48 and you realize that there's so many people out there who are living examples of how it can be that you don't give up. Which is nice.

BJ: Yes and you know, that whole element of not giving up is so important in almost everything you want to do...even your writing series.

Howard: Yes. Absolutely.

BJ: Very important Howard.

Howard: BJ, thank you for sharing with me. I love doing these chats because they help me -- and many others -- so much.

BJ: Howard it was my pleasure. Look, I do want to say that I understand my dad suffered from addiction. And I know how it impacted me.

But I loved my dad. He was my idol and my hero.

He just had that problem. I have a never-ending love of my dad and great, great memories too.

For more on BJ Thomas, please visit http://bjthomas.com/