This was the first song to hit #1 in the 70s and the first of 2 for Billy Joe Thomas. Written by Burt Bacharach & Hal David, it was written & recorded for the film, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid. Once you hear that opening ukulele lick, you immediately can visualize Paul Newman riding around on his bicycle. (What do you mean you haven’t seen this film? Put down your Twilight DVD and go out and rent it now!) In addition to spending the first month of 1970 on top, it also won an OScar for Best Song, a marked improvement over past winners, Born Free & If I Could Talk To the Animals.
B.J.’s mix of easy-going vocals with a hint of gruff soul made him the perfect singer for this song. And yet, he wasn’t the first choice. Supposedly Burt approached novelty singer Ray Stevens about singing it. Why? I don’t know. (Ray would have his first #1 later in the year with the ultra-serious, Everything Is Beautiful) It definitely wouldn’t have worked. And this is with Burt spending countless hours on set and watching dailies of the bike-riding scene writing music that would fit. And he thinks the guy who sang Ahab the Arab should sing Raindrops..?
Timing + Luck (+ Talent) = Success
The song, recorded and release at the end of 1969, sounds appropriately like a 60s tune. Even the fact that Bacharach & David were scoring a Western was kind of funny, given their pedigree of jazzy cocktail pop. But when it works, it works. And that’s why the singer matters. Lucky for BJ (Really? Couldn’t stick with Billy Joe?) that he recorded for the same label as Bach & David’s muse, Dionne Warwick or he might not have been given the chance.
By the way if you watch that scene and notice that the vocals sound different than on the 45, that’s because BJ recorded those while dealing with laryngitis, adding naturally a Western rasp to his vocals. When his throat was finally he recorded the version heard on the radio, which was a little smoother.
I’ve always dug this tune, especially the bridge. I just love the way it falls in to the song, even the 2nd time when Herb Alpert does his patented trumpet solo. And of course there’s the jazzy ‘slight return’ at the end. Betcha Jimmy Webb was jealous of its effective simplicity. Even the squares may have liked this one, I’m sure a line like ‘because I’m free. Nothing’s worryin’ me.‘ touched a nerve with everyone living through a turbulent time.