Even the greatest singers, like Frank Sinatra in his later years, aren't immune to losing vocal power as they age and often resort to a more comfortable register. But not Thomas. As he says: "Lowering the key takes away from how the song is supposed to be sung and how people recall it in their memory."
Besides, he sounds as strong as he did back when he had his first hit, a 1966 cover of the country standard "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" by one of his heroes, Hank Williams. And he still has all that wavy hair — although more than a few strands are gray.
At this time of life, you are susceptible to [all] kinds of things, like reflux," says Thomas, who does up to 80 concerts a year. "But I watch what I eat and get enough sleep."
No medicinal hocus-pocus for him, however. "If I did have some special potion to drink, I'd have a superstition about it, especially if I forgot to take it. If my voice gets rough and tired after hours of recording, I just stop for an hour and eat a bite of something and come back."
Battling demons, valuing love and planning what's next
The singer wasn't always so careful about his own well-being, however. While Thomas was never in Ozzy Osbourne's league when it came to substance abuse, he did struggle with alcohol and drugs early in his career.
"It was part of our generation," he says. "It is a societal thing. My dad, God bless him, had his problems and transferred them over to me. He was a huge hero to me, and I wanted to be just like him. And alcohol problems transferred into drugs. It was detrimental to my marriage and career. There were some things I wasn't able to do because of these things. You don't know when you are young how important some decisions are."
Thomas was able to overcome his addictions, including relying on "the usual self-help things. The whole ball game. Psychological, spiritual."
Having a devoted spouse who stood by him through it all didn't hurt, either. "We are still in love," he says of Gloria, his spouse of nearly 45 years (their anniversary is in December), mother of three grown daughters and grandmother of four.
It was Gloria's idea to leave New York and move back to Texas, where he was reared. "The main thing is that we never gave up on each other. Even if I never had any music success, I would still have a great family, a great marriage. And that's who I am."
Not that he plans to stop making music anytime soon. After working with Keb' Mo' and idolizing the likes of Bobby Bland, Ray Charles, Jackie Wilson and Elvis Presley, Thomas — who has already mastered pop, country and gospel — will try to conquer a new genre.
"My next project that is planned for late 2014 will be a full-blown R&B album, including a full horn section," he says. Meanwhile, Thomas — whose initials stand for the all-too-common Billy Joe — has a birthday to celebrate on Aug. 7. "I don't feel like I am 71. But there it is."
Not that he can deny it. "I made the mistake of putting my birth certificate on the back of an album, so I can't cheat. I had no idea I would live past 30."
Susan Wloszczyna is a freelance writer specializing in entertainment topics for AARP Media.
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