The fame burns out music and life go on

May 05, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

Standing on the front steps of the Baltimore County Courthouse, B.J. Thomas wore sunglasses and a suit he said he'd bought during the Carter administration. The suit was purple. The sunglasses were intended to show he was still pretty cool. Once upon a time, he was pretty cool simply because he was B.J. Thomas.

A quarter-century ago, he sang a song called "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," the soundtrack for "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," and it sold millions and preceded a string of recording hits, and there were TV gigs and major appearances all over the world.

And now it was Sunday afternoon in an American suburban outpost, with a shorts-and-sneaker crowd gathered mostly for the annual Towson Festival, and when B.J. Thomas got to "Raindrops," he said, "This song's the only thing that's keepin' me alive."

The remark was good-natured and self-effacing, but he'd hit on something. In American pop culture, it's a short run. There are no second acts in American life, F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said. It turns out, he was wrong. There are second acts, and third and fourth. But the nature of the act keeps us humble.

Go back to last winter. At the Senator Theatre, there's a special showing of a low-rent movie loosely (and lamely) based on the loss of a team resembling the Baltimore Colts, and a fictional football band's efforts to steal them back from the contemptible owner who stole them away. The movie was dreadful, the work of young people still finding their way - but its star was Ed Asner, TV's Lou Grant.

And Asner was there for the showing. He stood in the lobby of the Senator, looking smaller than anticipated, and grayer, amiable as could be, eager to please. Here's a man, immortalized by the old "Mary Tyler Moore Show" and the "Lou Grant Show" that spun off of it - whose hunger to keep working brought him to Baltimore on a glum winter night, hoping to hold on to work that he loves.

Go back a few weeks after that, to the Lyric Theatre. There's an oldies concert, featuring groups calling themselves The Platters, The Coasters and The Drifters. They're not the originals, of course, though they're pretty good, still touring the country doing hits of 30 and 40 years ago that have become hardy perennials of baby boomer culture.

When The Drifters appear that night, they pull a surprise guest out of the audience: Gene Pearson, who sang with the group 35 years ago, when they were in their third Drifterian incarnation. The first was the Clyde McPhatter ("Honey Love") Drifters, the second the Ben E. King ("There Goes My Baby," "Dance With Me," "This Magic Moment") Drifters. By the time Pearson joined them, they had no big-name lead singer, but their remarkable string of hits continued: "Up On the Roof," "On Broadway," "Under the Boardwalk," on and on.

Pearson joined this newest incarnation of the Drifters onstage for a few numbers, and during an intermission chatted outside about his performing years, including long-ago performances at Baltimore's old Royal Theatre on Pennsylvania Avenue.

"I left the group," he said, "to become a policeman in Brooklyn."

"Wait a minute," he was asked, "you left a major rock 'n' roll group to become a cop? In Brooklyn, N.Y.?"

He smiled wanly. Pearson lives in Silver Spring now, retired from music and from law enforcement.

"See, what people don't understand," he said, "is that we never made any money. We were on salary. I was making $300 a week when I left The Drifters. The record companies and the promoters were making all the money."

Increasingly, the dream in American life is to hit it big one time - whether it's entertainment and sports, or business and the stock market - and live off the residuals the rest of the way. The singers today long for a single mega-hit and then brace themselves as some 16-year-old with an attitude inevitably knocks them off. The ballplayers sign huge contracts and then worry that a wart on a pitching finger could jeopardize everything.

The rest of us cling to corporate jobs and cringe at the thought of downsizing - or strike out on our own, open a little booth at a place like the Towson Festival and hope, in the huge crowd filing past, to catch the right people's eyes with our artwork or our crafts.

"I'd like to do a little number for you," B.J. Thomas told the crowd, "to show you that I've actually recorded something while you all were actually alive."

He was being charming again. He seemed like a decent guy, and he still hits all the right musical notes. But it's tough out there. One day you're doing the soundtrack for movies; the next, you're playing the country's suburban outposts. There are second acts in American life, all right, but sometimes they're humbling.

Pub Date: 5/05/98

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