"Hooked on a Feeling" / B.J. Thomas
Yesterday, as I was dropping off my son at his college dorm, a long-haired student on a bicycle pedaled past me, softly singing to himself, "I-I-I, I'm hooked on a feeling . . . . high on believing . . . " It warmed the cockles of my heart to think that anybody under the age of 40 would even know this song. Now I realize that it was probably a later version that this kid first heard -- the hideous 1974 remake by the Swedish band Blue Swede, underlaid with its menacing "ooga shocka" tribal chant. In fact, to be precise, the kid probably knew the song only because Quentin Tarantino used the Blue Swede version in Reservoir Dogs. How debased our culture is.
Well, I'm here today to resurrect the real deal. In the winter of 1968-69, I didn't have a driver's license yet, but my older brother did, and for the first time we could drive around town without adults in the car, singing full blast along with the AM radio. We'd never heard of B.J. Thomas before, and for a few weeks that winter, this song played constantly, peaking at #5 on the charts in November 1968. We cheered every time it came on the radio. It may not be on my 100 Best Singles list, but it's still an instant ride on the way-back machine for me.
"Hooked On A Feeling" was B.J. Thomas' first hit, soon after signing to the Sceptre label, home of the Shirelles and Dionne Warwick. That's not such a contradiction as it seems -- though Hank Williams was one of Thomas's first musical heroes as a kid growing up in Houston, he also adored Jackie Wilson and Little Richard, and his emotive singing style owes more to those R&B models. (Just listen to all the melisma* in "Hooked On A Feeling").
Of course, B. J. was just the singer; "Hooked On A Feeling" was written by Mark James, a fellow Texan (real name Francis Zambon) who worked in the stable of Memphis producer Chips Moman -- the same guy who crafted Alex Chilton's early hits with the Box Tops. James's other hits included "Suspicious Minds" for Elvis Presley and "Always On My Mind" for Willie Nelson, so he was clearly a top-drawer pro, though I'd say melodies were his strong point -- the lyrics for this song are at best generic. (Come on -- "Lips as sweet as candy / The taste stays on my mind / Girl, you keep me thirsting for / Another cup of wine"?) It only rarely gets really sexy, when the slight huskiness of Thomas's low register switches on in the bridge: "All the good love / When we're all alone / Keep it up girl / Yeah you turn me on . . ." That's a real bachelor-pad moment.
But the one notable gimmick of this song is pure 1968, when you couldn't have a hit record without at least a few hippie touches (notice the groovy sitar intro and outro). Catch all the drug-culture phrases sprinkled throughout this song -- "hooked" on a feeling, "I'm high" on believin', "I'll just stay addicted," "yeah you turn me on," et cetera. I suppose this might even have been intended as a reactionary anti-drug song -- who needs drugs when you've got love? -- though I always heard it as a simple "high on life" anthem. This hardly registered with me in 1968, as a disaffected adolescent who had a better chance of scoring drugs than of falling in love.
B. J. Thomas's songs were always a little too upbeat for me -- "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" is the classic example -- and as the rest of the music world went darker and more cynical, his career arc dove from pop to soft rock to country and gospel. But here's a nugget of info I just learned that makes me fonder than ever of "Hooked on a Feeling" -- only a couple of weeks before the record was released, B.J. had just gotten married to his girlfriend Gloria at a chapel in Las Vegas. They're still married, 42 years later -- how's that for true love? There's no denying the exuberant romantic conviction of Thomas's singing on this track; he's almost giddy with it. How could Blue Swede ever have hoped to copy that?
* My new word for the year -- it's a vocal embellishment where the singer changes notes while singing the same syllable.