Who in the hell is Tom Jones?

TomJones2‘Who in the hell is Tom Jones?’ spat Charles Bukowski. It’s a good question. The Tom Jones he wrote about in Hollywood is a slick Vegas showman, “his shirt is open and the black hairs on his chest show. The hairs are sweating.” The Tom Jones I meet is a white-haired Welshman about to release an album of blues and gospel so out of character that the vice-president of his own record label called it a “sick joke”. So just who in the hell does Tom Jones think he is?

He was billed alongside The Beatles and The Stones, partied with Elvis and Sinatra and dueted with everyone from Janis Joplin to Ray Charles, but in the popular imagination he’s festooned with knickers, his career built on sex appeal. Now, on Praise & Blame, he’s traded sex for death. There is a lot of mortality on Praise & Blame, and a lot of God. What’s happening here, Mr Jones? He looks at me and turns his palms towards me. “Time’s getting shorter,” he says.

“Now that I’m seventy, I know I haven’t got as much time left as I did when I was thirty, or forty, or fifty, or sixty. I still want to record as much as I can, but when you don’t have that much time left you think about it more.” Age has given him a sense of urgency, I suggest. “Exactly! You think, let’s knuckle down and let’s do some stuff that I want to do.”

It turns out that what Tom Jones wants to do is cover Bob Dylan and John Lee Hooker and a host of standards drawn from the deep well of the American South. “I’d heard a lot of them before, from different artists. I knew them. ‘Run On’, I knew the Elvis Presley version. We tried it in the same key as he did it in, but I sounded too much like him. I’m not going to play it if we’re not doing anything differently, so we put it in a higher key.”

One thing you realise quickly talking to Tom Jones is that he really, really loves singing. When he talks about it, a boyish passion spills out of him. He knows these songs inside out, every nuance. “I said rather than have voices for the answers, I’ll sing the whole thing. It made it different from what I’d done before, from when other people had done it. I tried to do the same thing with all the songs, really. One or two are similar, like Johnny Cash with ‘Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down’, but still we put more of a beat to it. Johnny Cash’s was a little slower.”

This mention of Johnny Cash is telling. It has been suggested that Praise & Blame is Jones’ attempt to replicate the success of Cash’s American Recordings. Was that a conscious decision? “Well, there are comparisons – because I’m seventy now, and because some of the songs are the same, and the stripped-down nature of it because of what Rick Rubin did with Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond.” The difference, he says, is in their voices. “With him, he was at the end of his… well, as it turned out, the end of his life… but certainly at the end of his recording career. He had difficulty in doing that stuff, and some of it added to the feel, because he was struggling with it. But with me – I’m not struggling with it.”

Jones is proud of his extraordinary voice, and it lends itself well to this music. Gospel is in his bones. “I’ve always liked 50s rock’n’roll music, and rock’n’roll came from gospel and blues and was a marriage of all those things in the South, in the States. I like rockabilly, boogie-woogie stuff. I like gospel not only because of the lyrics but because of the feel of the songs.”

He says he didn’t record these songs earlier because record labels were in thrall to Tom Jones the Sex Bomb: “I’ve wanted to do gospel for a long time, but most record labels want you to do pop records. Any time you sign with a label, it’s ‘Well, I’d like to do…’ ‘Yeah, we will, we’ll get to that, but meanwhile give us a hit.’ Island Records, they initially wanted hymns or songs for Christmas, so I thought that maybe this is my chance to get to those gospel songs.”

Island’s enthusiasm and decision to team him with Ethan Johns, who’s produced the likes of Kings of Leon and Ryan Adams, makes it even more surprising that their vice-president David Sharpe attacked the album in an email that was leaked to the press. His complaint was precisely that Jones was singing “hymns”, not pop songs. Jones is fiercely protective of his songs, and if the leak was part of a marketing stunt then he certainly wasn’t in on it: “I read it on the plane coming over,” he says. “One of the stewards had an English paper and he said ‘There’s a spread about your album’, so I said ‘Oh, really! Let me have a look!’ I read it and I thought ‘Who the fuck is this?’ First of all I didn’t know who the guy was. I still don’t. I only deal with the people who are involved in making the record. So, first thing when I got in, I said, ‘Who is this guy? What does he do?’ Apparently he’s one of the financial guys. I said, ‘What the fuck’s he on about?’ You can’t go condemning a record. It’s terrible for people to say, ‘Well, maybe Tom has made a mistake if the record company don’t even like it.’ I mean, that’s what people are going to read – ‘cause that’s what I read! They’ve been apologising to me ever since, but they still haven’t come up with why it was done. What is the point of that? I don’t get it. As far as I’m concerned there was no plan to get a controversy. It’s negative, I think, and misleading.”

Misleading certainly, because despite the spiritual themes these are by no means hymns. Is Jones himself religious? “I’ve always been a God fearing person,” he replies. “I pray every night, before I go to sleep. I’m always aware – aware that there’s something.”

It’s a deeply introspective album, never more so than on his version of Dylan’s ‘What Good Am I?’ Is Tom Jones really a Dylan fan? “Yeah! I listen to him more now, or I have done in the last twenty years, than I did before. When I first started recording, even before that, I’ve always liked voices. I listened to a lot of ‘singers’. I wasn’t much interested in ‘Did he write the song or didn’t he?’ In those days, I just went with what it sounded like. I wasn’t so much of a fan of Dylan then because I didn’t particularly like the way he was delivering them, whether he wrote them or not. The more I’ve listened to them, the more I’ve appreciated them.”

So what drew him to ‘What Good Am I’? “I wanted songs that were meaningful, I wanted songs that said something. Even on the up-tempo songs, like ‘Strange Things Happen Every Day’, there’s things that’ll make you think. They’re important songs. So that’s why I liked that one of Bob Dylan’s. I mean, I’d like to do an album of Dylan’s stuff, he’s written some great songs. Ethan thought, ‘How are we going to treat this?’ It was his idea to sing it in a lower key than I would ordinarily. ‘Don’t sing it out,’ he said, ‘Try and hold it, even when you go up.’ When I start to sing higher, my voice opens up, but here I controlled it. It took a few takes to get to where we did, but it was his idea for the arrangement, which I thought was great. Slow it down and sing it low. Breathy.”

He’s back enthusing about singing, but I want to know why he thinks he’s been so successful interpreting songs he hasn’t written. Does he have an actor’s instinct? “That’s exactly how I approach it. The sound of my voice – there’s a certain quality to my voice that sort of defines me. That’s the first thing, the sound of it, but then I listen to the lyrics and I want to get into it. Lyrics are very important to me, no matter what the song is. I’ve always liked lyrics, and when I hear an interesting lyric – that could be ‘Sex Bomb’, if you like. If you listen to ‘Sex Bomb’, the verses are really clever. There are some really good things in there. Like ‘Delilah’ – “I felt the knife in my hand” – it paints a picture.”

Thinking about the darker subject matter of Praise & Blame, it’s worth noting that Jones has been a proponent of the ‘murder ballad’ since early in his career: “With ‘Delilah’, everybody knows the chorus, but you’re thinking about the knife and the fella killing the girl, or ‘The Green, Green Grass of Home’, where’s he’s in jail.”

Jones talks about his career, his hits and his life like a man who can’t quite believe his luck. He was 24 in 1964, scraping a living as frontman for Tommy Scott and the Senators, listening to Jerry Lee Lewis records and recording unsuccessful demos with Joe Meek. Then he met Gordon Mills, who became his manager. His debut single ‘Chills and Fever’ failed to chart, but when Mills wrote ‘It’s Not Unusual’ for Sandy Shaw, Jones recorded the demo and managed to persuade them both to let him release it instead. He never looked back: “The record was so big, all of a sudden, like a few months. I recorded the song at the end of ’64, then it came out at the beginning of January ’65, and it was number one on March 1st. Then it went worldwide.”

On one particularly memorable bill in 1965, Jones appeared at the NME Poll-Winners Concert alongside The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Dusty Springfield and The Animals. What on earth could it have felt like to be a part of that scene? Did it feel like something special was going on even then? “Oh, definitely! I mean, The Beatles opened the door. Before that it was always American music. British music was cover versions of American records. Then The Beatles came along. When I was here in London at that time you felt it – that this was it. American acts were coming over and they wanted to go to Carnaby Street. It had moved from Memphis or Motown to London.”

But like he said, he’d gone worldwide: he broke America instantly: “I think I did my first Ed Sullivan show in April of ’65. I met Elvis the same year. It was unbelievable!” Surely it was overwhelming. How do you readjust to your landscape shifting so permanently? “It was just mind-boggling. It goes from wanting to prove what I could do, singing-wise. When I got onto Top of the Pops and met all the bands they were going ‘Jesus! You’ve got a great voice!’ and I was like, ‘Wow! I’m proving it! I’m doing it!’ It was buzzy. The Beatles and The Stones were at the top of their game – and then Elvis Presley! And Frank Sinatra! In the same year! Mind-boggling!”

Jones is beaming as he tells the tale, that note of incredulity still in his voice. He shows me the way he hunched up shyly when he first had his picture taken with Elvis Presley. The way Elvis posed. “It was great, and you don’t get used to it, but it becomes a part of your life, the more you do it. Then in the Seventies when I had my own TV show and I was doing duets with Jerry Lee Lewis and…”

He’s on a roll now, but he was on a roll back then too. He was safe enough for middle America to grant him his own television show, but edgy enough to demand that his guests were his rock’n’roll heroes. The guest list reads like a roll-call of Seventies celebrity: Richard Pryor, Johnny Cash, Janis Joplin, Peter Sellers, Ray Charles, The Who, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young – but the name of the show was This is Tom Jones. “It was fantastic! I was pushing for rock’n’roll acts, you know. It was made by ABC Television in the States and they wanted more ‘safe’ acts, they wanted it to be a TV hit on the ratings. Rock’n’roll, even then, in ’69 still hadn’t really been accepted.”

Hang on a minute there, Tom. You were pretty ‘safe’ yourself. That’s why they hired you! “Well, I was recording available material. Not being a songwriter I had to rely on what was coming in. ‘What’s New, Pussycat?’ came from that. Burt Bacharach wanted me to do it. I was thinking ‘I want to do more rhythm and blues, soul’, but things kept popping up – it’s like I was saying with the record companies – ‘We’ll get to that…’ Meanwhile, Big Burt Bacharach wants me to do this song for this Woody Allen film! So yeah, some things I did people would think it was towards middle-of-the-road type stuff, but if anybody came to see me live in those days I was doing more soul music than anything else.”

The advantage of being ‘safe’ in the network’s eyes was that he had the power to open the door for people he loved to get on television. That included his hero, Jerry Lee Lewis. “I’d been a fan ever since ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’. Elvis had come out with ‘Heartbreak Hotel’, which was the first major hit, so everybody was going, ‘Wow! Elvis is a freak of nature, a white guy singing like that’, and I said, ‘Well that’s gotta be other people! He can’t be the only one, surely!’ So when ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ came out that was it. It’s a Southern thing – White people grew up with Black people, and it was all rubbing off, you know what I mean? Elvis definitely came out with a unique sound though. The sound of his voice was… phew! In terms of the show, I was getting my way – as I say, they wanted Robert Goulet and other people that you probably don’t know, mainstream America – so I’m saying, ‘I want Jerry Lee Lewis!’ and they’re going
‘Jerry Lee Lewis?’ I said, ‘If you want me to do this, you have to do that.’ I was pleased that it was happening – and the guests were thanking me! Jerry Lee thanked me for getting him back on TV!”

Jones is still pulling in the crowds. His low-key Latitude set to showcase Praise & Blame saw disappointed fans being turned away, recalling memories of the rush to his set at Glastonbury last year: “When I went on and I was singing, I could see these kids coming in, ‘cause they weren’t all around the stage at that point, but I could see them coming over and running and I thought ‘Jesus Christ! This is great!’ I loved it!”

Bukowski called him a “cardboard man”. Bukowski was wrong on that count. He may have played ‘safe’ for much of his career, but there’s a real depth to Tom Jones, and on Praise & Blame a newfound sense of perspective. Now in his fifth decade as a professional singer he still has the ability to surprise. Then again, there have always been those who saw a little more in him. Among the devoted viewers of This is Tom Jones was a young Tim Burton, who remembered the show when he came to write Mars Attacks!. “He came to see me do a show in LA and said, ‘I’m writing this film and I want you to be in it,’” Jones chuckles. “He said, ‘I thought to myself, if anybody can save the world it’s Tom Jones!”

Originally published by Drowned In Sound.