LOS ANGELES — Alex Turner of the Arctic Monkeys made a beeline for Tom Jones at London's Q Awards in October. Jones, 68 and still a magnet for young acolytes, recalls the indie-rock singer gushing, "I love Love Me Tonight. It's slamming! We play it before we go on stage every night." Turner then prodded the Ting Tings for their assessment, but the hot dance-pop duo had been out of town and said they weren't current on radio hits, prompting laughter. The song blared from radios in 1969. Nearly four decades later, and 42 years since Jones won the Grammy for best new artist, the full-throated Welsh pop star remains capable of surprising fans with remarkably fresh and popular returns. "You've got to have young ears," says Jones, perched on a couch in his Century City high-rise office. New album 24 Hours, his first U.S. studio release in 15 years, finds him collaborating with Future Cut, the British production duo behind Lily Allen and Estelle. He submits a soulful, brass-fueled cover of Bruce Springsteen's The Hitter and turns in a robust version of the Tommy James classic I'm Alive. "Tom Jones is like the William Shatner of classic-pop singers," says Spin editor Doug Brod. "He has one of those voices that's still powerful and instantly recognizable, and perhaps a bit kitschy. His willingness to poke fun at his panty-catching reputation and his engagement with trends set him apart from MOR nostalgists like Engelbert Humperdinck."
The former ditch digger who exploded in the '60s with It's Not Unusual and What's New Pussycat? enjoyed a late-career resurgence with such unexpected hits as 1988's collaboration with Art of Noise on Prince's Kiss and 2000's Sex Bomb with Mousse T.
This time, his high-profile partners are U2's Bono and Edge, who co-wrote the brazen Sugar Daddy after drinking with Jones in a Dublin club. (Opening lyrics: "I've got male intuition/I've got sexual ambition/I'm the last great tradition.")
"It's a bragging song," Jones says. "I liked it, but I thought, what are people going to think? But it's done in a clever way, not in a sloppy or blatantly sexy way. It's a wink."
Hours' lyrics and vocals serve up less macho swagger than a typical Jones disc, a result of the singer taking an active role in songwriting for the first time in his career.
One songsmith proposed a tune, T-Shirt, with a refrain of "You look good with my T-shirt on/I can't wait for you to take it off."
Jones sighs. "I said, 'Look, sweetheart, I've done that. I did Sex Bomb. Do we have to be this blatant?' I had to put some guidelines down."
Jones never discouraged those swooning women who pelted him with lingerie at concerts, but he says he didn't set out to be a sex symbol and later realized the persona may have damaged his credibility.
"It caught up with me. I thought, why are people going on about the way I look? Then seeing old footage, hmm, did I have to wear pants that tight? It backfired.
"If you're going to sing sexy songs, you need to get a reaction, but it can overpower you," he says.
His determination to get real on 24 Hours yielded graceful and weary reflections on loss and relationships, including The Road, a romantic tribute to Linda, his wife of 51 years, and the title track, a sequel to the prisoner plaint Green Green Grass of Home.
"I've had this recurring nightmare of being in jail, maybe because I was bedridden with tuberculosis for two years as a child," Jones says.
The song also functions as a meditation on mortality, he says. "The footsteps I hear at my door may not be the jailer. I hope I go quietly, accepting it."
Not that he's going anywhere, mind you. Loath to retire or even take vacations, Jones plans to sing as long as his lungs pump air.
"I don't want to stop singing, and I dread the day I have to," he says. "I'm lucky my voice is still strong. I used to smoke, but I stopped in the '60s. How Frank Sinatra did it, I don't know. He'd smoke and sing at the same time. That dryness and heat, it's the worst thing for singers."
Sinatra was among his favorite stylists, and he admired Bing Crosby, though Jones is quicker to praise such bellowers as Frankie Laine, Tennessee Ernie Ford and Billy Daniels.
Jones in turn inspired a host of singers, none more famous than Elvis Presley, who shadowed the U.K. sensation during their overlapping Vegas runs in the late'60s and '70s. They remained close until the last two years of Presley's life, when he withdrew.
"He loved being Elvis Presley," Jones says. "I don't think he could have been an old Elvis.
"Elvis always prided himself on the way he looked. Always. When that started to slip, I knew something was wrong."
Naturally, Jones counts Presley among rock's finest talents, along with Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry. The pop crooner's discography, which hops from show tunes to country-pop to techno, suggests there's little music he dislikes.
"Doo-wop," he offers. "I never wanted to be part of the choir. I didn't want to blend in." Lyrics, longevity, new album by Tom Jones By Edna Gundersen, USA TODAY