Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late B.J. Thomas with a look at his first Hot 100 No. 1, the enduring optimist’s anthem “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.”
B.J. Thomas’ “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head” was the right song at the right time in the right film – the 1969 Paul Newman/Robert Redford blockbuster Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
Good thing the film’s director, George Roy Hill, didn’t listen to one of his film’s stars (and a future director of note), who wasn’t sure the song made sense in the film.
“When the film was released, I was highly critical — how did the song fit with the film? There was no rain,” Redford told USA Today in 2019, a half-century later. “At the time, it seemed like a dumb idea. How wrong I was.”
“Raindrops…” was hardly the most sophisticated song that Burt Bacharach and Hal David — the duo who’d penned many of the most pristine and affecting pop songs of the late ’50s and ’60s, including most of Dionne Warwick’s signature smashes — ever wrote. But it may have been their most universal, a song that everybody who has ever had a bad day or a rough patch could relate to.
David’s lyric has a dash of whimsical humor (“So, I just did me some talkin’ to the sun/ And I said I didn’t like the way he got things done/ Sleepin’ on the job”) and a lot of philosophical wisdom (“Crying’s not for me/’Cause I’m never gonna stop the rain by complainin’”), with Thomas’ delivery landing gently on each word like the titular droplets. You can hear the gentle philosophizing of “Raindrops” – sure, things are bad right now, but I refuse to get stuck here – in such future Hot 100-toppers as Neil Diamond’s “Song Sung Blue” and Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day.”
Thomas, who had previously reached the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 with “Hooked on a Feeling” and a cover version of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” wasn’t Bacharach and David’s first choice to perform the song. They had approached Ray Stevens, who passed on the song. (Not Stevens’ smartest career move — though he still would go on to score a pair of Hot 100 No. 1s of his own in the ’70s, with his “Everything Is Beautiful” reaching the top spot later in 1970.)
But songs often seem to wind up where they’re meant to. In all likelihood, no one would have done a better job on the song than Thomas. His easygoing style fused pop, country and folk in a way that made it perfect for this plucky, folksy tune.
Thomas, who was 28 when he recorded the song that made him a household name, died on May 29 at age 78 from complications due to stage four lung cancer.
Thomas was recovering from a bout of laryngitis in 1969 when he recorded the soundtrack version of “Raindrops.” As a result, his vocal is a bit raspier and huskier than it was on the single version he recorded weeks later. Bacharach, a notorious perfectionist, asked Thomas to record seven takes before he was satisfied with the vocal for the film version.
For the single version, Bacharach added a snazzy, 30-second instrumental outro which introduced some rhythmic tension and made the song a better fit for top 40 playlists of the era. “Raindrops” also has a strong bridge (“But there’s one thing I know/ The blues they sent to meet me won’t defeat me/ It won’t be long ’til happiness steps up to greet me”) – later echoed by a trumpet solo following the same tune — which provided vital variation in a song mostly built around a simple, sing-songy melody.
The song reached No. 1 on the Hot 100 in the issue dated Jan. 3, 1970, making it the first No. 1 hit of the 1970s. It logged 13 weeks in the top 10 — the longest stay by any single in the nearly five-year period between The Beatles‘ “Hey Jude” (14 weeks in 1968) and Marvin Gaye‘s “Let’s Get It On” (13 weeks in 1973).
“Raindrops” was Thomas’ first No. 1, though it was Bacharach and David’s second (following Herb Alpert’s “This Guy’s in Love With You” in 1968). Both artist and songwriters returned to the top spot. Bacharach and David were back at No. 1 in July 1970 with Carpenters’ cover version of “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” Thomas returned to the top spot in April 1975 with “(Hey, Won’t You Play) Another Somebody Done Somebody Wrong Song.”
“Raindrops” won the Oscar for best original song on April 7, 1970. It was Bacharach and David’s first win after three losses, for “What’s New Pussycat” (1965), “Alfie” (1966) and “The Look of Love” (1967). It was a heavy favorite to win, even against a strong field of nominees – “Come Saturday Morning,” “True Grit,” “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life,” and “Jean,” the latter a No. 2 Hot 100 hit for pop singer Oliver from another Oscar-winning picture that year, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.
It was obvious that the producers of the Oscar telecast figured it would win. They gave it an elaborate production number that ran more than six minutes. Thomas’ performance of the song on the telecast was interrupted midway through with a carefully choreographed bicyclists’ routine. This mirrored the way his performance of the song on the film soundtrack was interrupted by a vaudeville-style instrumental break, presented in double time while Newman performed bicycle stunts to impress co-star Katharine Ross.
“Raindrops” was the first No. 1 song in Hot 100 history (which dates to 1958) to also win an Oscar. It has been followed by 16 more songs that have achieved both of these headline-making feats – the most recent being “Shallow” by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper from the latest iteration of A Star Is Born.
Bacharach won a second Oscar that night for best original score. “It was a knock-out picture to work on,” Bacharach said in accepting the score award.
The 1970 Oscar telecast remains the highest-rated Academy Awards broadcast in history, with a 43.4 Nielsen rating. Other audience boosters on the night included John Wayne winning his first (and only) Oscar for True Grit and Midnight Cowboy becoming the first (and only) X-rated film to win best picture. (Its rating has since been downgraded to R.)
Thomas received his first Grammy nomination (best contemporary vocal performance, male) for “Raindrops,” which also brought Bacharach and David nods for song of the year and best contemporary song. Thomas’ single, which Bacharach and David produced and Bacharach arranged, was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2014. Barbara Mason’s soulful spin on the song reached No. 38 on what was then called Best-Selling Soul Singles in 1970, but no cover versions of “Raindrops” have ever appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 — probably because Thomas’ version was so definitive.
Thomas’ recording of “Raindrops” has since appeared on the soundtracks to Forrest Gump (1994), Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle (2003) and Spider-Man 2 (2004), as well as multiple TV shows over the years.
In the 1998 box set The Look of Love: The Burt Bacharach Collection, Steve Tyrell, then a Scepter Records A&R executive and now a prominent traditional pop singer, noted that “Raindrops” was never really of its time.
“Mainly everything else was Flower Power, the protest songs, people were taking acid and we were like ‘Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,’ right,” he laughed. “But that song was a monster.”