By Lee Zimmerman
Sir Tom Jones has achieved a great deal in the course of his lengthy career. In addition to racking up 36 Top 40 hits since arriving on the music scene in the mid-1960s, Jones earned the Best New Artist Grammy in 1966, had a successful TV show in the late 1960s and early 1970s, received an MTV Video Music Award in 1989, two Brit awards (2000 and 2003, respectively) and was bestowed Order of the British Empire honors bestowed by the Queen of England in 2006. The target of countless pairs of panties hurled onstage by lovestruck female fans since the 1960s, Jones also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame — which, fittingly, is right in front of the Frederick’s of Hollywood flagship lingerie store.
Now 73, Jones maintains both the frantic pace and the powerful delivery he’s had since he first hit the music scene as a sex symbol and pop superstar in the 1960s. A regular on the U.K. version of “The Voice,” Jones had the honor of singing at 2012’s Diamond Jubilee Concert at Buckingham Palace, which was part of an exhausting concert schedule that keeps him on the road a good part of the year. He’s also kept busy in the studio, releasing albums consistently over six decades, including 2010’s acclaimed “Praise and Blame” (Lost Highway) and his latest effort, “Spirit In The Room” (Rounder).
And while Jones has sung virtually every musical style throughout his career — pop, rock, R&B, blues, soul, dance, show tunes, country and gospel — two key things haven’t changed. One, Jones still speaks with a soft Welsh accent, despite decades of living in Los Angeles. And two, his powerful baritone belies his age.
GOLDMINE: With your last few albums, you’ve taken a whole different approach by stripping away the lavish arrangements and putting the focus on your voice entirely. What prompted this change in direction?
TOM JONES: Well, the last two albums all had to do with meeting (producer) Ethan Johns, really. I didn’t know what kind of album I wanted to do. We spoke to lots of different people, and when I met with Ethan, he was the one that made the most sense. He said, “I know all the kinds of things you’ve done, but I’d like to do something different. I’d like to get you stripped down. You tell me what songs you want to do, and I’ll toss some in that I think you should do. We’ll just have a couple of musicians and move things around.” And it sounded very interesting to me. When I started in Wales, it was just me and a rhythm section, and I would go singing in pubs and clubs and dance halls with just a few musicians. That’s what we used to do — take songs from the radio, but do them a little different, my own way. So he said, “Why don’t we do that? Just get in there and see what happens.”
GM: Over the course of 50 years, you’ve successfully evolved and remained relevant. You could have chosen to simply rehash your greatest hits, taken up a residency in Vegas, stuck to the cabaret circuit and remained very comfortable. What drove you to keep tackling new challenges?
TJ: It’s the same thing that drove me from Day One. I wanted to try and sing everything that’s inside me, everything that I think about. I want to continually express myself. The fire has not gone out. The flame is very much lit, and in order to keep that fire burning, I have to do new things and sing new songs. I don’t want to keep repeating myself. If I’m doing a live show, I’ll include songs I’ve done in the past, but I have to do new ones, as well.
GM: That’s admirable. When you look at certain other artists of your generation — the Stones for example — they’re still doing what they’ve always done. The Stones will always sound like the Stones for the most part.
TJ: That’s what they do.
GM: Yes, but it would be hard for anyone to define Tom Jones.
TJ: Sometimes that’s a double-edged sword. I’m not in the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame, for instance. I know the fellow that runs it in Cleveland, and he tells me, “You know, your name is always put forward.” But you’ve got to have people in the business to second and third it. So he says, “You get knocked back, and I think that the reason is people don’t think of you as a rock singer, even though you’ve always sung rock tunes.” But there are other people in there who don’t sing rock — soul singers and artists who sing different types of things. That’s an example of how, if you do a wide variety of music, and do it well, thank God, it’s sometimes hard for people to say what kind of singer you are … if you’re not doing the same things all the time.
GM: Still, it’s pretty amazing how your voice can adapt, from doing a cover, of say, a Prince song to these deeply spiritual ballads that you’re doing now. The album that you did with Jools Holland, where you were just digging into primal rock ’n’ roll was another example of that sheer versatility.
TJ: Thanks! (chuckles) It’s just me doing what I do and loving it. I love to sing, and sometimes it’s hard to know which way to take. You need somebody that sees something in you that maybe you’re not thinking about. And that was Ethan. “I want people to get inside you,” he said. “I want people to know what you feel. If there’s any doubt about what you can do, let’s do it and surprise some people.”
GM: How does your voice retain its power? It seems as potent now as it was back in the day, if not more so.
TJ: I have no idea. That’s the thing. I keep getting it checked out. If I feel anything isn’t going properly, I’ll go straight to the ear, nose and throat doctor. I’m on it as far as that’s concerned. And I’ve learned over the years to do things to help. Not to get dehydrated. You have to drink plenty of water. So I carry a humidity gauge with me. Dry air is a killer for a singer. So there are things you can do to help it. Thank God it’s still powerful.
GM: You’ve known some individuals who weren’t so lucky. For example, you were very close with Elvis Presley. Could you see his decline?
TJ: Oh, yeah.
GM: Did you offer to help him? Did you give any words of advice?
TJ: Yep. We would talk. I didn’t suggest anything, but we would talk about everything. Not when we first met, but it wasn’t long in, maybe it was 1969 when he said to me, “Tom, what drugs do you take to stay sane?” And I said (laughs), “I don’t. That’s why I stay sane.” I’ve never dabbled in the drug world. I enjoy a drink, and I enjoy a Cuban cigar. I’m not a bloody saint, but I’ve always been scared to dabble in things I don’t know. It’s really bad for the body. A lot of people sniffed cocaine, but that stuff, when it’s going down, gets into membranes, and then your vocals cords. It’s like sticking your hands into a bowl of acid.
GM: With this amazing career that you’ve had, do you still look back in amazement sometimes and think, ‘Wow, that was me?’
TJ: Oh, yeah. It’s a strange thing. It is unbelievable. And the longer you go on, the more unbelievable it is (chuckles). I didn’t think when I started that I’d still be alive now. But when you’re young, you’re young, and you don’t think about the future. It’s been an amazing journey, when I think about the people that I’ve met and hung out with on their level. When I was back in Wales and I was playing in pubs, I said, “I’ll meet Elvis Presley one day.” And it was, “Oh, yeah, right. Right, Tom. OK.” But then I met Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. …
GM: And The Beatles, no doubt …
TJ: Yeah, that was the first step. When I had the first hit in England, they were on British television. It was right around the beginning of 1965 when I had “It’s Not Unusual” and I was doing TV shows with The Rolling Stones and The Beatles and all the bands. British music had turned the thing around from it being dominated by American music up until that point. The Beatles were the ones that turned it all around. And I was in there. I was a part of that. So I saw all that very early with my first hit record. And then coming to the states to do “The Ed Sullivan Show” and meeting Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra and all the people that I grew up listening to, it was unbelievable. And it all happened so quickly. Then I had my TV show in the late ’60s, and I was getting to sing with these people, so it was tremendous. It is a tremendous thing, when you think about it. I wouldn’t change it for the world. People ask me if I’ve got any regrets. Not really. GM