Why an Arizona church community is paying tribute to Grammy winner, and friend, B.J. Thomas

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When B.J. Thomas died in May, Tim Wright decided not to give the sermon he'd prepared for that next Sunday service at Community of Grace Lutheran Church in Peoria.

Thomas was practically part of the family.

He'd performed there several times at Wright's request since striking up a friendship when the reverend brought the five-time Grammy winner to entertain a different Arizona congregation, Community Church of Joy, in 1999.

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

"So instead of preaching my sermon, I talked to the congregation about B.J, the impact they had on his life and his love for them. It was really emotional for me and still is. It's hard to think that he's not there to do his music."

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

"And he still had it," Wright says.

Thomas was 78 at the time of his death on Saturday, May 29, two months after going public with the news that he'd been diagnosed with stage four lung cancer.

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

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B.J. Thomas turned to gospel music in the 1970s

Born in 1942 in Hugo, Oklahoma, Thomas launched his recording career in 1966 with a hit recording of Hank Williams' country classic "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry."

He may be best known in the mainstream for a string of classic pop hits, from 1968's "Hooked on a Feeling" through "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," "I Just Can't Help Believing" and his hit 1977 rendition of the Beach Boys song "Don't Worry Baby."

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

It was the first contemporary Christian album to go platinum.

By 1999, though, Thomas had stopped doing shows for gospel audiences.

As the singer explained in 2019 to the Arizona Republic, he was tired of people booing when he sang his secular material.

"I think it’s a really sad commentary when people who want to refer to themselves as quote-Christians-unquote would want to come out and hear someone just to boo them," Thomas said.

"That to me was always tough to deal with, and I just stopped making 100-percent gospel records and just went back to doing what I’d always done."

How Wright came to invite Thomas to his Peoria church

As a longtime B.J. Thomas fan who reconnected with the singer and his music when he came out with those gospel albums, Wright was in the audience on more than one occasion when the crowd turned ugly.

"I was at two or three concerts where he was actually booed offstage by Christian people," Wright recalls.

"That happened many, many times in his gospel career later on. … But one of the things that I wanted to do as a fan was to somehow say to him, 'We're not all like that.'"

That's how he came to find himself inviting Thomas to perform a show at 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 afterwards, he didn't want to do it. His wife encouraged him to do it. But he came out to our church and it went really, really well."

This was February 1999.

"I think for B.J., it was a healing experience," Wright says. "But that's how it started, my desire as a Christian who loved all his music to say, 'Not all Christians are like that. In fact, most aren't.' I think it was really good for him. And it was good for us."

'I was really confident that they were gracious, loving people'

You may be wondering how the reverend knew his congregation wouldn't join the ranks of fellow Christians booing Thomas at the first sign of "Raindrops" or "Hooked on a Feeling,"

"I was really confident that they were gracious, loving people," Wright says, pointing out a Peoria Times review of that first show that said the congregation had given the singer six standing ovations.

"So it was just a great experience," Wright said. "To be truthful, he got quite emotional on the stage a couple of times. I think he just realized, 'Hey, alright, these people, they think I'm alright.'"

Thomas returned to the Valley another 12 to 15 times over the course of 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’s got 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 wasn't quite right.

"He said he was having breathing issues," Wright recalls.

At that point, we were somewhat hopeful. He was told after the first round of tests that he had some sort of rare lung disease that was not curable or treatable, but it wouldn't take his life. It wasn't fatal. He could manage it."

Not long after that, Wright got 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 by then it was texting," Wright says. "I had heard from him, I think, in March, and he could hardly talk at that point. The cancer was quite lodged into his lungs."

How the Peoria tribute came together

Thomas didn't want a funeral.

When a mutual friend of Thomas' and Wright's suggested that the church pay tribute to his life and music in some other way, Wright put a call in to Gloria Thomas, the singer's wife since 1968.

"I wanted to make sure that that was okay," he says.

"Because BJ was pretty insistent. No funeral or anything. But she said, 'It's months out. It's a tribute. It's not really a funeral.' So she gave me some names of people who were close to BJ. And we just put a list of panelists together."

Most speakers will appear by way of pre-filmed testimonials due to COVID-19 health concerns.

"When we started planning this, in the summer, we though hopefully COVID would be a little less than what it is now," Wright says. "So some of the folks who were gonna be live with us decided just to do 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 on 2013's "The Living Room Sessions").

In addition to Wright, at least two other speakers will be on hand, delivering their testimonial in person — Thomas' road manager Tim Bowers, and Jeff Santo, who wrote, directed and produced "Jake’s Corner," a movie Thomas filmed in Arizona.

The tribute also features several previously unreleased recordings Thomas captured during lockdown, including a new version of "Raindrops" and "I Just Can't Help Believing."

There's a running theme Wright says he's noticed in the testimonials he's seen.

"It's an old fashioned word," he says. "But he was a real gentleman."

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

"He's a normal everyday guy, right? But he was BJ Thomas, for heaven's sake. He was a big, big artist. And he was just so gracious. He was a man of deep faith, a husband, a father, a grandfather and a singer. And all those things were important to him."

Legacy: Celebrating the Life and Music of B.J. Thomas

When: 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 13.

Where: Community of Grace Lutheran Church, 10561 W. Pinnacle Peak Road, Peoria, streaming live on the church's 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

Reach the reporter at ed.masley@arizonarepublic.com or 602-444-4495. Follow him on Twitter @EdMasley.

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: How a B.J. Thomas tribute came to a Peoria, Arizona, church community

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