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Tom Jones as pop icon

Tom Jones released a retrospective album at the same time as his autobiography, and the pop icon is finding out that it’s not unusual to embrace the past.

By Ken Sharp

Tom Jones stays prolific into his '70s. Publicity photo.

Tom Jones stays prolific into his '70s. Publicity photo.

Welsh bornsinger Tom Jones is renowned as an exciting and dynamic stage performer boasting a powerful and gritty voice that could move mountains. Jones first broke through in the U.S. in the mid-‘60s with a slate of pop hits including “What’s New Pussycat?” and “It’s Not Unusual.” And while his new autobiography, “Over the Top and Back,” finds the artist (now at age 76) looking back at over five decades of life in the music trenches, he’s also looking forward, as evidenced by a thrilling run of three studio albums helmed by producer Ethan John, which finds Jones embracing his musical roots to remarkable effect. Jones’ latest CD, “Long Lost Suitcase” is a spectacular record, which captures the raw essence of his artistry, stripped bare, tackling songs by the likes of Sonny Boy Williamson, Hank Williams, Jesse Fuller, The Rolling Stones and others.

Goldmine: With this recent string of three albums produced by Ethan Johns that find you reconnecting with your roots, does this feel like a rebirth to you?

TOM JONES: Yes, that’s why we call this CD the “Long Lost Suitcase” because most of these songs came out of a suitcase. I’ve been saving these things up ... and because I’m on the road most of the time, I end up putting them in suitcases. So finally I said to Ethan (Johns), “I’ve got these songs,” and he said, “Well, let’s do them.” When I was doing them, Ethan said, “These songs are autobiographical” and I said, “Well, that’s funny you should say that because I’m writing a book right now ... It would be great if we could get them out at the same time.” So Penguin Books and Virgin Records both agreed that they should come out together before Christmas. You see, they tie in with different periods of my life. Some of the chapters in the book are the titles of the songs from “Long Lost Suitcase.” So it all ties in really well together.

GM: In many ways the albums Ethan Johns has produced for you — 2010’s “Praise and Blame,” 2012’s “Spirit in the Room” and the new CD, “Long Lost Suitcase” — fulfill presenting you in that manner, embracing your roots. Maybe if those albums came out years back you would have attracted a different audience, maybe less women…(laughs)

TJ: (laughs) Yeah, but there again, you see, I know that women have always been big fans of mine but there have always been men there. I remember playing Talk of the Town, which was a nightclub in London, in 1967 and one of the nights the nightclub had been booked by a male convention and I was singing there at the time. I was there for six weeks. I should have been there for two weeks, but I was doing such great business that they held me for six. Anyway, this one night Ben E. King came to see me. I said, “Ben E, it’s all men; I don’t know how it’s gonna go” (laughs) and he said, “Well, you’re not frightened of that?” And I said, “No.” But it was great; it was tremendous. Ben E. said, “You can sing; everybody takes note when you sing.”

GM: The rock underground eventually took notice of you and recognized your prowess as a bad ass rock ‘n’ roll singer. I was recently watching your duet with Janis Joplin on “Raise Your Hand” circa 1969 from the “This is Tom Jones” TV show. What was the experience like belting it out with Janis?

TJ: Well, when I was asked to do “This is Tom Jones” for ABC Television, they saw me on The Ed Sullivan Show and they thought, “here’s a young guy and it seems like he can sing anything, so let’s have him host a show.” So I did. Now on my mind was, right, now I can do duets with the people that I love. I’ll do the middle of the road stuff as well if that’s what they want. If they want me to sing with Barbara Eden from I Dream of Jeannie, which was on ABC at the same time; they were always pushing the people that were on ABC, of course, so she would be on. I said, “Look, I can sing with Barbara Eden but I want Jerry Lee Lewis on the same show.” Then when they offered me Barbara Eden again and I’d say, “Well, I want Wilson Pickett on the show.” So both times Barbara Eden was on my show, which ABC pushed, Jerry Lee Lewis was on the one show and Wilson Pickett was on the other. I was like, “OK, Robert Goulet is gonna be on, fair enough, but I’ve gotta have Little Richard. So it was almost like a tradeoff. Then with Janis Joplin, God Bless her, she said to me when she came on, “Look, I don’t do variety shows; I’m only doing it because it’s you.” So she saw through it. Then when Janis and I did the rehearsal for “Raise Your Hands” she looked at me and said, “Jesus, you can really sing!” (laughs) I thought, thank God people like Janis Joplin had taken note.

GM: Where many of your contemporaries with whom you started off fell to the wayside pretty quickly, you’ve carved out a remarkable 50-year career. What do you attribute your staying power and longevity?

TJ: Well, first of all what keeps me going is the love of singing. I love to get onstage. It’s an old term, “get the hook.” (laughs) They used to get a hook for people when they were on too long in music halls. Sometimes they might have to get the hook for me, but thank God that’s never happened. I just love to sing. I get up at parties and sing; it’s just one of those things. So that’s the thing that has kept me going and, of course, the people. There’s no use singing for yourself all the time; you’ve got to have people to sing to and that never stopped. It’s been that way all the way through my career. There were bigger periods of time, of course, in my career. In the late ’60s and through the ‘70s I was playing arenas, but then into the ’80s it was more nightclubs and theaters in the round and even convention places. That’s where the book starts; I try to tell people that I got into a situation where I was singing and doing shows and I thought that everything was great. I was playing to two or three thousand people and I was making money but I was neglecting my recording career because the songs were not coming my way. One thing led to another. I was in Las Vegas from the late ‘60s through the ‘70s. I think producers and maybe songwriters were thinking, “Oh well, Tom’s in Vegas, maybe he’s not looking for songs.” It happened to Elvis Presley as well. So we were in Vegas too long. And of course, I was playing two shows a night and it takes a bit of a toll on your voice as well. I had to get some polyps removed in the ‘80s. So it was like a rebirth then. My manager Gordon Mills passed away in ’86 and Mark and Donna, my son and my daughter-in-law, they became my managers. I just realized this today that they have been managing me longer than Gordon did. The first part of my career was 20 years, and then I did the Prince song, “Kiss.” And now it’s been 30 years since then.

GM: You’ve said, “The fire is still in me. Not to be an oldie, but a goodie. I want to be a contender.” You’re always trying to reinvent yourself and that’s rare.

TJ: Yeah, I know it is. That’s how you stay current. For instance, I play three months in Europe doing rock festivals with a lot of young people. I see them standing in the wings looking at me. It’s a great thing. There’s a guy out at the moment named James Bay. He’s an English guy who had a big hit in the States with a song called “Hold Back the River.” I just presented him with a Q Award for Best Newcomer and we’ve become friends. He watches me because he did some of these festivals in the summertime and said, “I can’t believe you can sing like this at your age.” Even Ethan Johns, my producer, said the same thing. He said, “There is no reasoning in how a man of 75 should sound like you do.”

GM: You first came to the attention of music lovers with pop flavored hits like “It’s Not Unusual,” “What’s New Pussycat?” and “Delilah,” which demonstrated your strong voice but did not fully convey the depth of feeling and emotion you had in delivering in a rock idiom with gritty blues, soul and R&B. Are you regretful that you did not get to tackle material suited to show off your talents in the rock and blues realm?

TJ: OK, this is what happened. When I did “It’s Not Unusual” I heard that as a commercial song. I did the demo for a singer named Sandie Shaw and she said, “Whoever sang on this demo, it’s his song.” So I did it. I knew it was a hit. This was a new song written by my manager Gordon Mills and Les Reed. To me, even though it’s a pop song, I saw through it and I injected some soul into it. I’ve always tried to do that, adding a soulful nature or a blues nature if you like into my songs. So “It’s Not Unusual” was being played in the States and in New York it was being played on black radio. When I first came over to America in May ’65, this guy that took me over, Lloyd Greenfield, got me on The Ed Sullivan Show. When I was coming over to New York, this black DJ called Lloyd Greenfield and he said, “I hear you’ve got Tom Jones coming over ... Well, could you bring him up to the station?” And Lloyd said, “You don’t understand, Tom Jones is white.” And this black DJ said, “Whoever is singing this song is not white.” (laughs)

When I did “It’s Not Unusual” I thought, right, I’ve got my foot in the door now, now I’m gonna get some songs surely from American writers that are writing for Wilson Pickett and Sam & Dave and Otis Redding. Well, Otis Redding was writing his own songs. But I thought these kinds of songs would be coming my way because a lot of black people thought I was black. Even with “It’s Not Unusual,” which to me was a pop song, but I thought if they’re hearing that I’m really a R&B singer then maybe I’ll be getting some songs but no. The second single, “What’s New Pussycat?” I said, “Oh my God, I’m going further into pop world.” (laughs) That was an out-and-out pop song for a Woody Allen film; it was a novelty song.

GM: You cover “Elvis Presley Blues” by Gillian Welch on “Long Lost Suitcase.” You first met Elvis on the set of one of his movies in the mid-‘60s. Later in the ‘60s you really connected with him. Can you put your finger on why you both connected beyond professional courtesies?

TJ: First of all we connected first on a musical level. When I first met him I had a single out called “With These Hands,” and Elvis was walking toward me at Paramount Studios on a film set singing “With These Hands.” In my mind were all these fellas I was in school with who used to hear me sing in clubs. I was singing Elvis Presley songs in Wales ‘cause I was singing ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll music. The fellas used to say, “Wow Tom, you sing the sh*t out of that.” And I said, “Well, I’ll meet Elvis one day” and they said, “Aw, c’mon, Tom, you’re great but please.” (laughs) I said, “No, I’m telling you I have this feeling that I will meet him.” So when he was coming toward me singing “With These Hands,” I saw all these guys’ faces in my mind. He came up to me and said, “How the hell do you sing like that? What’s it like in Wales? I mean, What the hell’s going on there?” (laughs) I said that there were a lot of singers in Wales but they’re more Welsh traditional kind of singers, male voice choirs and things. I told him, “All my influences came from people like you; you’ve been a huge influence in my life.” So then we got close. I mean, we hit it off right away and he said, “We’ve got talk about music. I wanna find out more about Wales.”

GM: When you were hanging out, what were the kinds of things you would talk about?

TJ: We’d always talk about music. Elvis loved music so he would be asking me do I know this song or do I know that song. I remember we were in Hawaii. He had rented this beachfront house. Like myself, he was always singing. In Vegas in ’69 he was trying to get through to me. This is a funny story. I was staying in a hotel in Vegas because I was doing some shows there and I saw one of Elvis’ friends, Charlie Hodge, one night at the bar and he said, “Elvis has been trying to call you.” I said, “Well, I’m sure the operator didn’t believe it was him when he called.” Charlie said, “Well, could you tell her that it’s Elvis?” (laughs) He’s been calling and trying to get you for three days.” So I said to the operator, because I had a “Do Not Disturb” on the phone, “Excuse me, if somebody calls and says he’s Elvis Presley please put him through because it is Elvis Presley!” (laughs) Then he got through to me one day and he said, “Tom, you’re a hard man to get in touch with,” and I said, “Well, you know how it is Elvis,” so he understood.

GM: What songs would you sing together?

TJ: When we were hanging out in Hawaii and in the ocean messing about with the Memphis mafia — and Priscilla was there as well and the wives of the Memphis Mafia — there was a guy out at the time called Jerry Reed. It’s an uncanny thing; Elvis and myself were listening to the same people. When we were in the ocean he was singing the Jerry Reed song “U.S. Male.” So we were singing back and forth Jerry Reed songs. He would do one and I would do one. We both had that first album that he did.

GM: Did he ever discuss his love of your version of “Green, Green Grass of Home”?

TJ: Yes. Elvis told me, “Your recording of ‘Green, Green Grass of Home,’ I missed it, I missed that one!” Apparently, Red West, one of the Memphis Mafia, had heard Jerry Lee Lewis’ version of the song, like I did; it wasn’t Porter Waggoner who had the first country hit on it.But I heard it off of a Jerry Lee Lewis album, “Country Songs for City Folks.” Well, Red West had that album and he stuck it under Elvis’ bedroom door because Elvis would sometimes go into his bedroom for days in Memphis. He thought Elvis could sing the sh*t out of this. But he never did it. Elvis told me, “I missed it but you did it and you did a helluva job, man; it’s fantastic.” Then he told me, “I was going back from Hollywood to Memphis and (disc jockey) George Klein was a friend of mine, and once we got within earshot of a Memphis radio station we called him.” They were calling him all the time to play my version of “Green, Green Grass of Home.” I don’t know how many times he played it. Jerry Schilling, who was one of the members of the Memphis Mafia, was the man who used to get off the bus every so miles and go to a telephone booth and make the call... Jerry’s my friend to this day; I see him a lot in L.A. He said that was a true story.

I also did a song called “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” which was written by Lonnie Donegan. Lonnie was a friend of mine and said, “I’ve got this song. It’s taken from ‘I’m Never Gonna Cease My Wandering,’ which a depression song from the ‘30s. I’ve changed the lyrics and added a chorus to it.” When I first met Elvis before I recorded “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” he and the Memphis Mafia used to go (sings) …”And it looks like I’m never gonna cease my wandering.” So he knew that song in its original form. He was doing that when I first met him in ’65. Then I recorded the song and when I met him in ‘69, he said, “Aw man, you took ‘I’m Never Gonna Cease My Wandering,’” and I told him Lonnie Donegan changed it and added a chorus. We were always talking music, all of the time. I never spent a minute with Elvis Presley without talking music.

GM: You’re responsible in some ways for Elvis Presley’s triumphant return to the stage in Las Vegas in 1969.

TJ: Elvis came to see me perform in 1968 at the Flamingo Hotel, which I was thrilled about. When we were talking afterward he said, “The reason I’ve come to see you is because I’m thinking of performing live again.” He tried to crack Vegas in the ‘50s and they weren’t ready for rock ‘n’ roll then. So he always wanted to go back to Vegas and become a success there. He felt I was the closest thing to him and had a similar stage presence. If I could make it there he felt that he could, too. So he wanted to see me work and saw what I did onstage. He told me, “You’ve given me the confidence to make a comeback in Vegas,” which he did in ’69. It was tremendous to see him. That was Elvis at his peak as far as I was concerned. He was as hot then as he ever was before. His voice was still as strong, he looked great, he performed great and he was Elvis Presley once again. He was fantastic, he couldn’t have been better. Watching him perform in ’69, I noticed certain moves that he did, which might have been inspired by what I was doing at the time, which was a huge compliment, and also some of his phrasing on the records changed slightly. I could hear things that I had sort of done. (laughs) But he admitted to it and said “You’ve influenced me and inspired me.” And I said, “Well, that’s fantastic” because in the ‘50s I was listening to Elvis Presley records and that’s what started me off. He’s the main reason why I started singing. So it was great that I could contribute something to him after what he had given to me.

GM: In the mid-‘60s, your first extended visit to America came as part of a Dick Clark “Caravan of Stars” tour with various artists traversing the nation in a Greyhound bus. Bring us back to that time and share your most indelible memories of your first visit to the States.

TJ: Well, first of all it was hard. I never realized that America was so big, because we covered it on a bus. We would do a show and get on the bus afterward and by the time we’d get to the next place it would be time for the next show the following night. But the best thing about it was mixing with all of the musicians ‘cause we had a blast. The Turtles were great because they were young and just out and I’d only had a couple of hit records myself then. It was great to be with them. I also hit it off with Mel Carter and Billy Joe Royal, who had a song called “Down in the Boondocks.” Peter and Gordon were also on the tour; they were the only other British act on the show. Peter Asher was a lovely man, but Gordon Waller was macho. I had to stop him and say, “Look, you can’t be throwing your weight around like this!” There was a black group on with us called The Jive Five and the bass singer was a guy called “Big Bess,” and Gordon Waller pushed him. He put his shoulder into him one night. I told him, “Gordon’ you’ve got to be careful” and he said, “Oh, f*ck it!” Big Bess said, “Tom, please tell him not to do that to me, I don’t even know my own strength.” But Gordon was a macho guy and you had to be careful, which was strange because he was part of Peter and Gordon and they were doing light kind of songs. But Gordon and I were friends but I’d have to say to him, “be careful and take it easy.” But it’s always been the music, the music has always seen me through, even on that bus tour. It was great; we used to sing on that bus with the Turtles, Peter & Gordon, Mel Carter and Billie Joe Royal. We had a ball. Even though it was tough traveling, we had fun.

GM: Lastly, recall your first encounter in the ‘60s with John Lennon.

TJ: There was pop show in England called Thank Your Lucky Stars. I had my first record out and was doing a TV show in England and The Beatles were on the same show. This was in ’65. I had a No. 1 hit with “It’s Not Unusual.” I wanted to hear The Beatles rehearse, so I was sitting there in the afternoon at rehearsals with my manager at the time, Gordon (Mills), where the audience would sit. I’d never met The Beatles. So John Lennon came out and I was thrilled to see him. But he made fun of my record. Instead of singing “It’s not unusual to be loved by anyone, he sang, “It’s not an unicorn it’s an elephant.” Then he said, “How ya doing you Welsh poof?” I said, (mock angry) “You come over here you Scouse bastard and I’ll show you!” Then he laughed. My manager said, “Don’t take it personally. It’s just his Liverpudlian sense of humor.” Then Paul (McCartney) said to me on the same day, “Look, John didn’t mean any harm by it. For him to do that means that he loves the record.” I thought he was having a direct dig at me but then realized it was just his sarcastic Liverpudlian humor. See when he did that it was like a backhanded compliment. He was giving me a compliment on the song, but he had to put his own thing in it.

GM: So you had a run-in with John Lennon the first time you met him in the ‘60s. Ten years later, you both appeared on a televised benefit to Sir Lord Grade. Did you and John mend fences?

TJ: I met John many times after that and he was always good to me. We became friends over the years. I asked him, “Why do you live in New York?” Most Brits if we move out of Britain we go to L.A. ‘cause of the weather. So I said, “Why New York?” and he said, “I feel safe here.” You see, he could walk around New York and people would say, “Hey John!” They knew he was living there and people respected him and he could move around there; that’s what he meant.