Tom Jones: The devil in Mr Jones

As he reaches pensionable age,Tom Jones tells Bob Guccione Jnr about the early days in south Wales, the nights with Elvis and Frank. And the legendary sparkle in his eyes. Portrait by Andy Paradise
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When I was a boy in the Sixties, Tom Jones was the biggest pop star in the world. More than that, he was sex. I didn't know what sex was but I knew it was really, really important and that Tom Jones was its king because women threw their underpants at him. The only underpants anyone ever threw at me were mine, by my mother, disgusted that I'd left them lying around the house.

When I was a boy in the Sixties, Tom Jones was the biggest pop star in the world. More than that, he was sex. I didn't know what sex was but I knew it was really, really important and that Tom Jones was its king because women threw their underpants at him. The only underpants anyone ever threw at me were mine, by my mother, disgusted that I'd left them lying around the house.

When you're young you have no sense of the trajectory of effort, success and failure, just of things being there, as permanent fixtures, like parents and buses. So Tom Jones was just there, the world's greatest pop singer, hanging statically in the firmament like a silver-paper star in a school play. There were other, smaller, less shiny cut-out stars that twinkled briefly when they caught the spotlight, who had hit records, some fabulous, some rightfully forgotten. But in the Sixties in England, there was the incredible, life altering rock'n'roll revolution, and there was Tom Jones.

Forty years on from his first and greatest hit "It's Not Unusual", and countless albums and greatest-hits collections later, Tom Jones is still going strong, still just there - though he's now reaching pensionable age (he celebrates his 65th birthday on 7 June). Nor has he merely kept going, like a hamster on a treadmill wheel, keeping the dying flame of recognition alive by touring ever obscurer towns. In 1971 he went to Vegas, where performers' careers get embalmed to slow their decomposing, but he still plays it today, four times a year, for two weeks at a stretch, as potent a draw as when he first arrived. When and wherever else he tours he invariably sells out. Half his crowds are kids, and not necessarily the offspring of the other half.

He's sitting across from me now in the bar of a trendy New York hotel, cold, late-afternoon light draped over us like a shawl. Thick, curly hair still frames the top of his head like a black halo though these days a fashionable Van Dyck beard sharply defines his face, giving him an almost Vaudevillian, mischievous look. When he smiles his eyes dance. When he isn't smiling he looks distant, guarded. He also looks remarkably younger than he is, which is minimally the result of plastic surgery and mostly, I suspect, the result of enjoying his life.

He's dressed in jeans and a black turtleneck under a stiff black leather jacket, and he sits in his chair like a lion considering whether to eat you or to go to sleep. Which is not to say he's aggressive or easily bored - the opposite is true - but that he has a big cat's grace and power, sitting back with the regal ease of a man who regards any seat as a throne, or leaning forward into his words when animated, as if he feels a primal instinct to manifest every excitement physically. He's in very good shape too, particularly for a man about to collect his bus pass, with broad shoulders and a thick chest. He enunciates clearly, and his voice remains musically Welsh-accented and deep, as you might expect from the singer once known simply as The Voice.

And he still places himself, of course, in the great tradition of Welsh singers. "In Wales there are choirs, especially male-voice choirs, which a lot of my cousins were in," he says. "A Welsh tenor will have a full Welsh voice, even though he's singing high - full-blown, window shattering material. Maybe speaking Welsh lends itself, the accent. Maybe part of it is the cheapest way of making music is to sing. You don't need to buy an instrument."

When he first started singing in the clubs of south Wales, people would tell him he sounded black and later when he was first played on the radio, people thought he was black. In America he broke on black radio.

"I was listening to the BBC radio in the late Forties, early Fifties, when I was a kid," he explains. "And anytime a gospel or blues song would come on, I would think: 'What is that?' It was rubbing off on me. I didn't know why, I just liked it. In school I sang the Lord's Prayer, and my teacher said to me, 'Why are you singing this like a negro spiritual?' I didn't know what the term was; I was very young, seven, eight. It was very natural for me to do it."

Gospel may have woken his soul, but it was rock'n'roll that stole it. "What attracted me to rock'n'roll was the sound," he recalls. "I toured with Count Basie once and I asked him what he thought of it, and he said, 'What they've done, which we used to do, is to concentrate on the rhythm section, get that rhythm section hot. When Jerry Lee Lewis pounds out and the rhythm section kicks in with him, you can balance it because you don't have all those other instruments to worry about.'

"When I heard Jerry Lee's 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On'," he continues, singing it now, "the piano starts like this" - his fingers hit an invisible keyboard - "and Sam Phillips [the f owner of Sun records] had a slap-back echo, because he didn't have an echo chamber, so he created a tape delay. He'd have two tapes running with one a little stronger than the other. It's only a simple thing that Jerry Lee is playing but because of that slap-back -" he starts singing again, c'mon over baby ... - "his voice is like, Jesus! Things hadn't sounded like that before."

When Jones started performing with a group in pubs and local working men's clubs, he played acoustic guitar and sang. They had a rhythm section but Jones was limited in what he could do on the guitar. One Friday night, boy's night out - Saturday was the night you took the girls out but Friday was sacred time with the lads - he was drinking at a pub when a friend, Tommy Redman, the bassist for a local rock group with some renown, called Tony Scott and the Senators, came in and told Jones their singer hadn't shown up for the gig at the YMCA, and asked him to fill in. Tom was dismissive: a YMCA? On a Friday night? "Tommy, do me a favour," pleaded Redman, who said he'd smuggle some beers in, which the YMCA didn't allow. So Jones agreed, setting his friends up backstage with the beers, and singing Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis tunes, and by the end of the night concluding that this was it, that he didn't want to go back to the acoustic guitar. He'd found his calling and the band had found their singer.

Jones got them gigs in the local area, because he was known in the clubs, but the venue owners would baulk, crying "Pay 'em off", when he turned up with the Senators, and they saw the electric guitars and amplifiers. "The owners would pay people not to perform. They had to honour the contract but they didn't want to listen to any of it. As soon as they saw us they were, 'Oh geez, rock'n'roll! Tommy, please ...' And I said, 'Wait a minute. Let's start the show. After a while, if we do three or four tunes and you're bothered by it and people are not digging it, fair enough.' So there we were on a Saturday night and 'Pay 'em off!' became 'Do you think we can get an extension if we call the police tonight?' and did we mind if they moved all the tables and chairs so everyone could have a dance, and I said, 'By all means.' So I introduced rock'n'roll to Welsh working men's clubs. They had never had it before."

The Senators built up a reputation in south Wales, and one night Gordon Mills, the harmonica player, saw Jones perform and said he should be in London. I know where London is, replied the singer, but who do I talk to when I get there? Talk to me, said Mills, I've never managed anyone, but you're doing something I can't do - your vocal ability is incredible. Come to London, he said, I'll show you around.

WHEN JONES arrived in the English capital in 1964, it was still emerging from the chrysalis of post-war staidness and slowly turning into the sexually liberated, artistically vibrant swinging London that would change the world. But before Jones could become a part of that, he had to make the frustratingly unproductive rounds of the record companies and live on the meagre salary Gordon Mills paid him and the Senators while waiting for them to get a break. Tom was already married and a father - having got his 16-year-old girlfriend Linda pregnant when he was 17 - and his wife and son, Mark, had to stay behind in Wales. A few weeks before Mills brought him "It's Not Unusual", Jones stared at a London Underground train approaching as he stood on the platform and thought how easy it would be to end it all by stepping in front of it. He'd released his first single, "Chills and Fever", which had fizzled, Mills was running out of money, and his wife was working in a factory in Wales because he couldn't support them.

"For a split second I thought, aww, fuck it, if I just step to the right it'd be over. I felt so down because I didn't know what to do. That very rarely happens to me. I didn't want to go back to Wales without proving myself. I wasn't making any money. Fuck it. But then things flash through your mind. What about your wife? What about your son? What about your mother and father? How would they feel? But for that split second - that's as low as I've ever got. Just before 'It's Not Unusual'."

Jones was recording demos at the time to make some money, vocalising songs that writers then took to more established singers. Mills had written "It's Not Unusual" with another writer, Les Reed, for Sandy Shaw, who had already had a couple of number-one hits. Tom and the band demoed it. But when he heard his performance played back to him in the studio, he said, "I've gotta have this song." Mills replied that Jones didn't want it, that he was a rock singer, and this was a pop song. "I don't give a shit what you call it, I've gotta have it," retorted Jones, who said he'd go back to Wales if they didn't let him record and release it. Mills knew he meant it, but explained he had to submit it to Shaw, because she knew about it and was expecting it. Mills promised he wouldn't try to push it, just play it for her and hope she didn't want it. "God bless Sandy Shaw," recalls Jones, 40 years later, "because she said, 'Whoever is singing this demo should put it out. I can't sing like that.'"

Within weeks, the song was at number one. At first the BBC wouldn't play it: someone had seen Jones perform and thought he was too raunchy. But the pirate station Radio Caroline had created such a demand for the song that the BBC had to come around. Suddenly Tom Jones was a huge star, a development that seemed to take him somewhat by surprise.

"I was on a package tour with a lot of bands and I wasn't aware that 'It's Not Unusual' was going so fast up the chart. We used to do two shows a night. So between shows I went to the pub and I was having a pork pie and a pint, and these girls were outside screaming. I thought they must be here for one of the rock bands on this package, but they'd all gone back to the theatre; the kids must think they're in the pub. So I walk out the pub, straight into this crowd, with a pork pie in my hand. And they go 'Oooooo' and they're on me. And they tore everything. I had this raincoat, the first decent raincoat I ever bought, and it went like in fucking shreds. I had to run to get back in the theatre."

How did the underwear thing start? "It was in 1968. I was booked into the Copacabana in New York. An American agent had seen me at The Talk of the Town in London in '67 and asked me if I wanted to play the Copa and I said, 'Yeah, America, why not?' So we came in '68. It was a club where there's no stage; you're singing on the dance floor on the same level as the audience. So I'm doing my thing, and I perspire when I sing, and these women are handing me these table napkins, and I'm wiping myself and giving them back. Then all of a sudden one woman stands up, lifts her dress and takes her panties off. You learn when playing in rough places to try to make the most of it. Don't get offended, don't get thrown. So I said, 'Careful not to catch a cold.' All of a sudden it was written up in the papers, and there's underwear all over the place. But the original thing was a sexy thing."

A string of hits followed each other, and Jones's fame grew larger and larger until he was too big for England and moved to America. He played the Ed Sullivan Show and was told, nine years after Elvis was filmed from only the waist up, that if he did his by-now f trademark snake-hips shake when singing, the camera would come off him. He continued to play the legendary Copa, and of course Vegas, where he befriended Sinatra and Elvis and straddled the Strip as an equal colossus.

And the mafia loved him, which, let's face it, is a lot better than the alternative.

"Thank God, they always said, 'Hey, Tommy, you're a man's man. Fuckin' beauuutiful!'" In Vegas, Jones and Sinatra played Caesar's Palace, and drew a lot of high rollers, and the mob. "Frank told me himself, 'You know we got things wrapped up. When we're not here, they can shoot cannons off the stage and it won't fucking hit anybody.' He'd tell me, 'You know who is in the audience?' and I'd say, 'Oh, I see 'em,' and he'd say, 'They love you. They've taken to you like you're me.' I always thought I was closer to Elvis Presley, but in that Vegas thing, I was closer to Sinatra in terms of the people we were drawing."

Elvis thought Tom was the greatest singer in the world, and would sometimes walk out on stage when Jones was performing and say exactly that to the crowd. They were great friends too, and often sang together but only in private, just the two of them playing guitars and singing their favourite songs. Once when Jones was touring Hawaii, Elvis, there on vacation, invited him over to his house. When Tom arrived, Elvis was missing. He'd realised he didn't have any guitars at the house and had gone out to buy two, walking into the first instrument store he found and announcing to the dumbstruck shop assistant: "Tom Jones is coming to my house today and I need two guitars."

Jones told me a story about being invited to Elvis's suite one day in Vegas. He walked in to find the King on an exercise bike, one that had the moving handlebars you're supposed to hold to work out your upper body at the same time. Elvis, in a tracksuit, was leaning back, pedalling, the handlebars moving in and out on their own, with a phone in one hand and a devilled egg in the other, a tray of devilled eggs balanced on his large belly and bits of egg between his fingers where he'd mushed them while eating. "Do you exercise, Tom?" he asked. "Yeah, I do Elvis, every day" replied Tom. "Me too," said Elvis.

IN NOVEMBER 2004 I watched Jones on stage at New York's Irving Plaza. He delivered the consummate showman's performance, with much of the set made up of recent material recorded with the likes of Jools Holland and Wyclef Jean. No one sat, everyone cheered - with the loudest cheers reserved for the old classics: "It's Not Unusual", "What's New Pussycat?", "Green, Green Grass of Home" and, especially, "Delilah" - and panties were thrown. Lots of panties. Enough surely to pose a health threat.

After the show Tom invited me to join him for dinner at a "wise-guy joint downtown", an Italian restaurant on touristy Mulberry Street. It was late when we got there and the place is mostly deserted except for the party of Tom's friends gathering at the back. The proprietor, Frankie C, who goes by that assignation so familiarly that I think even he has forgotten his last name, greeted Tom affectionately. They go way back.

Frankie C told the story about the time he was honeymooning in Vegas and his wife saw Jones walking through the casino and excitedly pointed him out to her husband. "Tom Jones? I know him!" said Frankie, who chased the singer down and introduced his new bride. She wanted an autograph. Tom looked for a piece of paper and she looked at him, hurt, and opened her blouse. "She wanted him to write his name on her breasts," exploded Frankie, who then shrugged. "So he did."

A couple of days later in Jones's skyscraping hotel suite I asked him how he explains his sex appeal. "It's the sound of my voice, it's got to be. The way I interpret songs. And if they're sexy songs, then that's the way they feel." Are you surprised to still have this much sex appeal 40 years after you started? "Well, yeah. I didn't know what shape I was gonna be in. I didn't know vocally ... I didn't even know I was gonna be alive this long. So I think if you don't lose it, if you're still your own person that didn't put a false image on to start with, because my image has always been very natural. You know, very" - he smacks his hands together for emphasis - "straight in your face, and that's the way it's always been."

It's apparently no secret that you have an open marriage ... "Well, it's not really open," he says. "It seems to some people, but no. It's not discussed. My wife is a very private person and I respect her privacy. I would never openly flaunt anything. It's an old-fashioned way, but it's to protect.

"One thing I want to say is, absence makes the heart grow fonder. We're not on one another all the time. Some people are, and there are frustrations and they take it out on one another. I don't have that. I love doing what I'm doing. My wife knows I could not be doing anything else. My wife would say we're best friends. As much as love and everything, we could talk to one another. And we have our own little thing."

I don't want to push it, so I ask instead if there's anyone he regrets never having recorded with. "If I could have recorded with Elvis that would have been great. But Parker [Colonel Tom, Elvis' manager] wouldn't let him sing with me. Elvis never did a duet with anyone. I've never recorded with Jerry Lee Lewis either, and that would have been great."

And the oddest place he's ever played? "It was the Talk of the Town, in London. Ben E King was a friend of mine, and he was coming to see me and I thought, great, because it was a great venue. When he came in, I told him, 'You're gonna dig it.' But then Gordon said, 'I forgot to tell you, the show's been bought out tonight by a male convention.' I replied, 'But there's gotta be women in there, right?' He said, 'No, no women. It's a stag thing. There's nothing you can do about it, they bought it.'

"So I thought, shit, Ben E King, great soul singer, coming to see me and I gotta go up and sing to all men - which I hadn't done since I worked in this club in Wales, with people that I knew. It was strange to come out on stage and see the place full of men, but as it turned out it was a great show. They dug the shit out of it."

No panties, though?

"No, no panties."

Tom Jones celebrates his 65th birthday with a one-off concert at Ponty Park, Pontypridd, on 28 May

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