Tavis Smiley

Grammy-winning Welsh singer Tom Jones has been recording and touring since the mid-'60s. He's sold more than 100 million albums, hosted a successful TV variety program and been a Las Vegas marquee attraction. He's also collaborated with such artists as Wyclef Jean and Jools Holland. In '05, he was awarded a knighthood for his contribution to the recording industry. Jones continues to tour extensively and attract audiences of all ages. The new release, "24 Hours," is his first U.S. studio-recorded CD in 15 years. Tavis: Pleased to welcome legendary singer Tom Jones to this problem. The Grammy-winning artist has sold over 100 million records worldwide, with his array of classic songs like "It's Not Unusual," "Delilah," and "What's New, Pussycat?" He's out with his first new U.S. studio album in 15 years. The project is called "24 Hours." Tom Jones, nice to have you on the program. Tom Jones: Thank you - nice to be here.

Tavis: You doing all right?

Jones: Yeah, great, thanks.

Tavis: It's been a long journey for you, and you're still doing this. Why?

Jones: I have to do it.

Tavis: You don't have to.

Jones: I have to do it. (Laughter)

Tavis: Why do you have to do it?

Jones: Well, because I have to sing. It's a thing that I can't stop. People say, "Well, why do you like to sing so much, and why do you do 200 shows a year," which I do? And I say, "Well, look, people have got to stop me from singing." Like we were in New Orleans earlier this year and I had a night off, and I was out clubbing.

And there was a good band on stage and I jumped up. One night off, and I had to get up, I had to sing. (Laughter) So people have got to - they've got to get the hook for me.

Tavis: Where does that come from, you think?

Jones: Just love of it. I was born with it, I suppose, growing up in Wales, where I come from, which they call the land of song. There's a lot of singers there, a lot of male voice choirs especially. And so I was brought up with - everybody sang around. In my house, at parties and weddings and birthdays - any chance I could get, I would get up.

And one of my cousins was asked one time because she said, "We can all sing - all the Joneses can sing." Yeah. So they said, "Well, what was different about Tommy?" And she said, "Well, the only difference we noticed with him, when he was asked to sing he had to jump on the table," you know what I mean? (Laughter) It was like he was (unintelligible). That's all she remembered.

Tavis: Yeah, well, I wasn't there but I have to believe that while everybody in the Jones family can sing, they obviously couldn't sing like you - and I'm talking specifically now not about their talent or their gift, but about their sound. How did you develop this sound? Was it there? When people hear you, you sing a couple licks, we know it's Tom Jones. How did you develop your style, your sound?

Jones: Well, I think it was singing as a child without a microphone, so you had to project. And then singing in pubs and singing in chapel and in church - no microphones. So you had to project. So I learned that very early - it just came very natural to me.

Tavis: That soulful thing, though. You're not up in a White church singing with that much soul, though, Tom.

Jones: Yeah, well, I did. (Laughter) I remember being - this is god's honest truth - when I was in school and I sang "The Lord's Prayer," and the teacher said, "Why are you singing this like a Negro spiritual?" And I didn't know what she was talking about. I said, "I don't understand what you're saying."

Tavis: You were how old then, roughly?

Jones: About eight or nine, something like that - maybe a little younger than that. So I said, "I don't know, that's the way I hear it." She said, "You're changing the melody, and you're making a gospel out of 'The Lord's Prayer.'" I said, "Well, I don't know - that's the way it's coming out." So maybe it was because I was listening to gospel singers on the radio, and it was rubbing off on me without me really realizing it. But that's how it was coming out.

Tavis: That's an amazing thing, though - you're eight or nine and you're singing, and the soul is just coming out and you're not even cognizant that that is a sound.

Jones: No, no, I didn't know. I didn't know what I was doing. I just liked what I was doing, and I wanted to be free doing it, because I went for lessons later on to a soprano, an opera singer, and she said - because I wanted to know if I was singing correctly or not. And she said, "Look, why don't you become an opera singer? You have this big voice." And I said, "I don't really want to, because I like to be free."

I don't like to sing things that are only sung a certain way, and opera is like that - there's only one way you can do it.

Tavis: Can't be constricted. You can't constrict Tom Jones.

Jones: No, exactly. So I've got to do it the way I do it.

Tavis: Your way.

Jones: Yeah.

Tavis: Yeah, I ain't mad at you. So you and Elvis were friends.

Jones: Yeah.

Tavis: We all know Elvis loves gospel music. We now learn that Tom Jones started out singing gospel music, and listening to Negro spirituals and other stuff on the radio. True story - you and Elvis were in a hotel room in Vegas one night, just the two of you, singing some of your favorite gospels?

Jones: Yeah.

Tavis: Tell me the story.

Jones: Okay, okay. Well, we used to play Vegas at the same time. Elvis would be at the Hilton and I was at Caesar's Palace. So after the show, especially he would finish his engagement and then would stay over to come and see me. So we would go back to his suite -

Tavis: Stop. Before you go further, what's it like when Elvis is sitting in the audience checking your stuff out?

Jones: Yeah, it was great. He used to walk on stage when I would be in the middle of a song. (Laughter) He would just walk on stage, and I'd be like what - I thought I'd busted my pants or something. I thought maybe something's gone, because people are screaming.

Tavis: And you couldn't see him walking behind you.

Jones: No. So he'd come up behind me and then we'd be - so we fooled around on stage like that. And then we'd go back to the hotel room. So then he would get up his - because he always had a gospel group; he always had singers on stage with him.

Tavis: Always - Jordannaires, everybody.

Jones: Yeah, they knew all the gospel tunes, and an electric piano. So at the time Kris Kristofferson had a song out called "Why Me, Lord?" And Elvis loved that song, and so did I. So we would be - and "Killing Me Softly," I remember those two songs were out - Roberta Flack. And so we would either be doing "Killing Me Softly" or "Why Me, Lord," and this would go on all night, because Elvis would get on something and he wouldn't let it go.

Tavis: They say he used to unwind that way - he'd go back to his room with his gospel group that he kept around all the time he would unwind singing gospel.

Jones: Yeah. So the sun was coming up and I said, "Look, I've got to get back to Caesar's Palace because I've got two shows to do tonight. You've finished your shows."

Tavis: But you're Tom Jones - you're the guy that likes to sing. (Laughter) You're the guy that don't want to stop singing, Tom Jones.

Jones: Well, you know. So I would be trying to get out the door and he'd go, "Tom." "Yeah?" "Why me, lord? What have I -" and he's start again. (Laughter) So then I'd have to turn around and get back into the song again. But it was great.

Tavis: What have you made, over these many years, with the people - I want to come to your music now - the people who love your stuff so much that they have, for lack of a better word, tried to copy you or parody you. I'm thinking about Carleton Banks, the character on the "Fresh Prince." Everybody tries to do their own Tom Jones impersonation, parody you. Have you been humored by that, you've been offended, insulted by that over the years? What do you make of that?

Jones: Well, I think it's - I like it more than dislike it, because at least they're taking notice. I'm having some effect. And with Carleton doing it on the "Fresh Prince," it was a funny skit, and he was sort of overdoing it (unintelligible). (Laughter) But anyway, so it was cool, though, and it gave me a chance to go on the show - I loved that show anyway. And I was on there and it was great. So there was more positive than negative to that stuff.

Tavis: How did you navigate that period in your career where things take a dip? Because for most artists you're not on top all the time, and certainly in the music business. Your career takes a dip and you just keep going, you keep plowing your way through. How do you navigate those periods where you're not at the top of the charts?

Jones: Right. Well for me, it was always the people - an audience. I've never gone on stage and no people have been there, you know what I mean? There's always been people there, so they kept me going without hit records. I was still doing shows - maybe not as big. When you get a hit record you play arenas. When you don't, you play theaters.

But the people have always been there for me, and that's the best part of it for me, the live performances anyway. All roads lead to the stage for me. That's where I live.

Tavis: What do you get out of that? What does that live performance do for your spirit, for your soul?

Jones: It lifts me up. There's nothing like it. I've never experienced anything in life like being on stage.

Tavis: Tell me about "Kiss," your remake. Huge hit for you. Tell me how you chose that, how that came to be? I love it.

Jones: Right. Well, I was looking for a song because I'd been looking for songs all the way through the '70s, '80s, always searching for new things. And so I thought, well, what can I do to get back on top 40 radio? So I was doing "Kiss" in my show, because I loved doing it live, and I was on a TV show in England, and The Art of Noise, who recorded it with me, saw me do it on this TV show.

So they said, "Well, why don't we do it together?" And I thought, well, god, Prince has had a big hit with this thing only, like, two years before. But they said, "Yeah, but we can put a new thing on it." So I said, "Well, okay." I knew the song, it was easy for me to get in the studio and do it, and there it was.

I was looking for a new song, thinking that was going to do it, and it was "Kiss" that got me back on top 40 radio. So it was just like that.

Tavis: Why do you like the song? What is it about it? Because Prince has done a bunch of songs - why do you like that song?

Jones: Yeah. Well, it's like a rhythm and blues song to me. It's got a standard structure to it, and thank god Prince did it all in falsetto, (laughter) because sometimes he could put a print on something and you don't want to touch it. But he did it all in falsetto, and just with hardly anything in the background - it was just like a bass thing going on with the guitar. So it was very sparse, so it left a lot of room.

Tavis: A lot of room to do something with.

Jones: Yeah.

Tavis: Because the flip side of that is that it takes a bold man to try to touch something that Prince has done.

Jones: Well, yeah. (Laughter)

Tavis: "Well, yeah." (Laughter) Yeah.

Jones: We have the same birthday - June 7th.

Tavis: The same birthday?

Jones: Prince and me, yeah.

Tavis: I didn't know that.

Jones: And I told him that one time, and he said, "We only have one birthday. Everything else is just." I said, "No, no, but it's the same day," but he didn't quite - it didn't have an affect on him. (Laughter) Not as much as it did on me.

Tavis: It didn't have the intended consequence that you were looking for.

Jones: Exactly.

Tavis: Anyway, Prince is a special brother - we love that guy.

Jones: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: Now let's talk about "24 Hours." Tell me about the new project.

Jones: Well this one, I signed with S Curve, the record label, and they were coming up with songs - covers, mostly - which I didn't really want to do again except for "The Hitter," which was a Bruce Springsteen song that's on there. So that came from the first session that I did. But the other stuff I wasn't too keen on, and then there were some new things being brought in which I wasn't getting excited about.

So I thought, well, I'd better get with some songwriters here and work with them and try and explain what I wanted them to do. So we got in touch with two guys called Future Cut, which two English producers, and they came over to L.A. with a bunch of tracks that they laid down, and that started it off. But even before that, I was with Bono in Dublin - Bono and The Edge from U2 - and I asked him would he write me a song.

So he said, "Well, I'd love to write you a song, but I'd like it to be about you." So I gave him a lot of information. We talked - drank and talked most of the night.

Tavis: Mostly drank.

Jones: Like we do - yeah. (Laughter) Back to Elvis again - but anyway, it's like it was one of those nights again. And so he wrote me this song called "Sugar Daddy," which is on there. So that's what sort of sparked me off, thinking well, if I'm giving him information and he's writing it down, maybe I can do that with other songwriters. So that's what I did.

Tavis: That, I would think, makes for a very personal album, a personal project.

Jones: Yes, more personal than things that I've done before, because I haven't written the songs before, they've always been written for me. But these things, I was in from the ground up.

Tavis: Tom Jones is an iconic figure, and I'm delighted to have had the time I've had with him on the set to talk about his life and about his work, and his new project - Tom Jones, "24 Hours." The title "24 Hours" means - what made you call it that?

Jones: Well, there's a song on there called "24 Hours." It's about a man on death row, actually. But the reason why we called the album "24 Hours" is because it's an ongoing thing. After one 24 hours is another 24 hours - it's just life that keeps going on.

Tavis: Makes sense, after one Tom Jones performance is another, and another, and another.

Jones: There you go. (Laughter)

Tavis: Two hundred a year.

Jones: There you go.

Tavis: Again, the new project by Tom Jones - "24 Hours." Glad to have you on the program.

Jones: Thank you, Tavis.

Tavis: It's a pleasure to meet you.

Jones: Nice to see you.

Watch this interview at http://tavispublic.kcet.org/kcet/tavissmiley/archive/200812/20081201_jones.html