When J.T. Harding was an aspiring artist living in Los Angeles, the view from his apartment window included a billboard promoting Jay Thomas, then the popular morning host on top 40 KPWR (Power 106). Every day, he would look out the window and see Thomas’ head Photoshopped onto a woman’s body with the caption “We apologize for Jay Thomas.” Little did he know he was looking at the face of his father.
The New Orleans-bred Thomas was a young aspiring actor and radio personality when he fathered a child. He and the mother opted to give up the baby for adoption, a decision he says was “horrible” at the time, but ultimately the right thing to do. “I wasn’t even allowed to see him after he was born,” he recalls.
Harding, now a top Nashville songwriter, was adopted at birth by Vanderbilt University football coach Larry Harding and his wife, Kendra. The family later moved from Nashville to Grosse Pointe, Mich., where he was raised in their happy home.
Both set about having very successful lives and careers. Thomas, an Emmy Award-winning actor, starred in such films as Mr. Holland’s Opus and Dragonfly and had recurring roles on numerous TV shows including Mork & Mindy, Murphy Brown, Cheers and, currently, Ray Donovan. He simultaneously has enjoyed a four-decade radio career. Thomas has worked for the last 10 years at SiriusXM, where he hosts an eponymous, four-days-a-week show on the Comedy Greats channel and a Friday program on Howard Stern’s channel. He resides in Santa Barbara, Calif., with his wife and their two sons.
After moving to Los Angeles as a teen, Harding landed recording deals with both EMI and Atlantic Records that ultimately went nowhere. He also enjoyed a wild stint working as Marilyn Manson’s assistant (a job that largely involved procuring Dippin’ Dots and blue Slurpees for the singer, as well as taking him to Chuck E. Cheese’s while on the road and making sure “Who Let the Dogs Out” was playing whenever Manson entered a party) before landing his first big hit as a songwriter with Uncle Kracker’s “Smile.” He moved to Nashville where the hits kept coming, including Kenny Chesney’s “Somewhere With You,” Blake Shelton’s “Sangria,” Jake Owen’s “Alone With You,” Keith Urban’s “Somewhere in My Car” and the current Dierks Bentley/Elle King duet, “Different for Girls.”
Harding was still living in Los Angeles when he discovered the identity of his biological father, but there were interesting signposts along the way. “One of the weirdest things is when I was little, my favorite commercial was the animated lips eating Twizzlers,” he says. “I found out years later that was Jay doing that commercial.” And during those same formative years, Harding remembers that he “was always enamored with pretending I was a DJ. I would make tapes and talk over them, and I set up a fake microphone in my bedroom.”
After first connecting with his biological mother as a teen, Harding learned that his father was an actor on Cheers, and remembers thinking at first that he was the son of star Ted Danson. Upon learning his dad’s real identity, Harding reached out to Thomas, and recalls the actor’s initial wariness. But Thomas invited him to a taping of the CBS show he was starring in at the time, Love & War, then out to dinner. That was the start of a relationship that grew from cautious to close over time.
Thomas eventually hired Harding to work as an assistant on Love & War, and recalls with a laugh, “After CBS canceled my show and asked me to leave the lot, they offered J.T. another job.”
Both men now delight in their relationship, which Harding describes as something more like fraternity brothers than father and son. They detail each other’s accomplishments with pride and share memories of vacations they’ve enjoyed, including their annual trips to New York, where Thomas for many years was tasked with the tradition of knocking a meatball off the top of a Christmas tree with a football as a guest on a pre-holiday episode of Late Night With David Letterman. Thomas has travelled around the country to see Harding perform at various writers’ nights.
“Jay and I have a real wild, fun relationship,” says Harding. “We’re very close. We can be pretty obnoxious, but it’s fun.” That warmth also extends to the rest of Thomas’ family, including his wife and 19- and 22-year-old sons, who have known Harding since they were small. “He’s a huge part of our family,” Thomas says of his oldest son.
Thomas also met the parents who raised Harding, and is effusive in his praise for them. “They’re the two greatest people that any kid could have,” he says, before joking, “I thought of sending my two kids to them to raise, the two that I kept.” (Larry Harding has since died.)
In 2014, Thomas and Harding got a chance to work together for the first time since Love & War. New York playwright Peter Zinn wrote a musical featuring many of Harding’s hits, and Thomas was cast in a role when the show, Somewhere With You, played at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. Harding calls the experience “a total blast.”
The bond between them is evident when they take good-natured jabs at each other in separate telephone interviews. Harding quips that Thomas’ star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is so out of the way “you have to take an Uber to see it.” He adds: “I’m lucky that Jay didn’t raise me. I’d probably be even more self-centered than I am, and dress in Tommy Bahama clothes like it was Miami Vice day every day.” Thomas, meanwhile, describes Harding as “a total square” and kids him about his frugal lifestyle, “beat-up car,” “OK apartment” and penchant for buying “the stupidest gifts.”
They celebrate both their distinctions and similarities. “He’s totally different than me,” Harding says of Thomas. “He thinks The Beatles are idiots. He’s not into any kind of music at all. All he thinks about is sports, and I don’t really care about sports.”
But Thomas says of his son, “I see a lot of myself in him,” particularly when Harding performs. “He’s really great onstage,” says Thomas. “There’s a lot of showmanship there — we’re very much alike.”
Both agree Harding also inherited Thomas’ drive and ambition. Says Harding, “Jay said that when he gave me up for adoption, he always felt I would be OK, because I would have him in me.” It turns out he was right.