Sunday, November 4, 2007

Morgan's Point man remembers teaching '60s & '70s pop star: Joe Scarcella was B.J. Thomas' choir instructor

By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer

All the raindrops in the world can't flood away the fact that B.J. Thomas got an F in choir.
'Now, it's funny,' Thomas said in a recent phone interview. 'I walk into a room and say, 'Hey, I failed choir,' and nobody believes me. But it's true.'
The man who gave Thomas that F is Joe Scarcella of Morgan's Point - a member of the choir at Taylor's Valley Baptist Church in Temple. He's a 1955 graduate of the Baylor School of Music.
'I had forgotten about it,' the 73-year-old Scarcella said recently, laughing. 'But that's right. That rascal. He had missed a weekend activity that was mandatory. He knew the rules.'
It took Thomas a few minutes to admit that.
'I knew failing was a possibility,' Thomas said, almost whining. 'Didn't think it actually would happen.'
His exaggerated bitterness faded with a laugh. He holds no grudge against Scarcella, finally saying he accepts full responsibility for the F.
'Mr. Scarcella was always a wonderful guy,' Thomas said. 'He's a very nice guy. I had a great time in his class, and I learned a lot from him.' In 1957, Thomas wasn't known for 'Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head' and 'Hooked on a Feeling' - the two 1960s hits that transformed the curly-haired crooner into a pop star.
He was a student in Scarcella's choir class at Lamar Consolidated High School in Rosenberg.
'One morning, we were singing up a storm when (the principal) walked in with a couple of double-legged, hairy singers,' Scarcella said. 'It was BJ and his older brother, Jerry. They were kids, wanting to be cool - dressed in black leather jackets.'
Their dark hair shining from an excess of hair gel, Scarcella said the two boys would have made good doubles for the actors in John Travolta's 'Grease.'
'Their family had lived in Houston and the boys had got mixed up with some rowdy kids,' Scarcella said. 'So they moved to Rosenberg looking for a new environment.'
Thomas was in the second half of his sophomore year.
'I figured they wanted to take choir because they figured it would be an easy class,' Scarcella said.
In the first few months, Scarcella said Thomas didn't have much to say.
'He didn't participate. He just sat there,' Scarcella said.
Remembering his high school days, the musician said his curiosity eventually prompted him to see 'what the music stuff was about.'
'He looked at the guy next to him who was reading some sheet music,' Scarcella said. 'And then he started singing.'
The teacher was taken aback by what he heard.
'I thought 'Wow' when I first heard him,' Scarcella said. 'But I didn't say anything.'
The brother, Jerry Thomas, wasn't as musically inclined.
'Jerry was in choir because BJ liked it,' Scarcella said. 'He was BJ's bodyguard.'
Not long after his singing attempt, Thomas started to be an active participant in Scarcella's class. The musician said he learned how to follow a sheet of music and how to breathe correctly.
'The biggest lesson I got from Mr. Scarcella was how to support the notes with my diaphragm, how not to stress the voice,' Thomas said. 'His advice stayed with me.'
Thomas' debut performance with BJ and the Triumphs is what prompted Scarcella to give that advice. By then, Thomas was a junior in high school.
'They did a concert at the (Fort Bend) county fair,' Scarcella said. 'They were performing in the style that was popular at the time - whining, grinding and contorting their voices and bodies.'
On the day of the concert, Scarcella's only comment to Thomas was that he was proud of him.
'But when the kids got back to school Monday morning, I held BJ after class to talk to him,' Scarcella said. 'He thought I was going to tell him he was great.'
The teacher, however, had no string of compliments for his pupil.
'I'm going to tell you something that I need you to take seriously,' Scarcella said, paraphrasing what he said in that long-ago conversation. 'You have a God-given talent, and you need to do the best you can with it.
'Your voice is an instrument - and like any other part of your body, it needs to be well taken care of. If you continue to abuse it, you might get lucky and have a hit with two or three songs. But it won't take long for your voice to be gone, for nobody to hear from you again.'
To illustrate his point, Scarcella said he told Thomas about the fates of two singers - one who abused his voice and one who didn't.
'There was a red-haired local boy from Boling who had a hit song and got put on the radio,' Scarcella said. 'I asked BJ if he remembered him. 'Sure,' BJ says. I asked him if he knew what the guy was doing now. BJ couldn't say.'
The Boling man's touch with fame was so fleeting that Scarcella can no longer remember his name.
The other one was Elvis Presley, a singer who met Scarcella's standards in performing.
'He was known worldwide, known for his physical maneuvers and contortions,' Scarcella said. 'But you never heard him abuse his voice. Elvis was no overnight sensation. He kept on singing. He still had his voice.'
At the end of that conversation, Scarcella said he told Thomas he was at a crossroads.
'He could be like the Boling boy,' Scarcella said. 'Or he could be like Elvis.'
Thomas is 65, still singing professionally.
'I guess he took my advice,' Scarcella said, smiling. 

Always the teacher
To Thomas, his choir teacher will always be Mr. Scarcella.
'I probably could call him by his first name now, but I won't,' Thomas said. 'He'd probably allow it - but I won't. It's out of respect.'
No matter when or where the two meet, the greeting is the same.
'It's Mr. Scarcella,' Thomas will say.
'He gives me a big bear hug,' Scarcella said. 'And we catch up.'
In the early 1980s, the pair met at the Frank W. Mayborn Civic and Convention Center.
'I knocked on the door to go backstage,' Scarcella said. 'BJ's brother (Jerry) was the one who answered it.'
Once Thomas joined his brother and teacher, they hugged each other and exchanged a few stories.
To everybody else in the room, Thomas said, 'Folks, this man right here - Mr. Scarcella - he taught me everything I know about music.'
The comment surprised Scarcella, inspiring a few tears to run down his cheek.
'I said, 'I might have taught you a little about music, but you did the rest,' ' Scarcella said. 'Everybody starts somewhere.'

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