He’s been in showbiz for nearly 50 years but at almost 72 Sir Tom Jones is having something of a renaissance. He’s getting his best reviews in years and making his mark through his appearances on BBC1 talent show The Voice. When gospel-influenced album Praise & Blame gave Sir Tom a No2 hit in 2010, it was a goodbye to the sex-god image he had courted since the Sixties.The hair dye, medallions and tight trousers were binned while the focus was on the real Tom, and his power vocals.
The stripped-down production and Tom’s heartfelt delivery of songs such as Bob Dylan’s What Good Am I? and John Lee Hooker’s Burning Hell earned him comparisons to Johnny Cash and proved there was more to the former ditch digger from the Welsh valleys than Las Vegas-style entertainment.
“Yes, I was over the moon,” smiles Tom. “My last album was nearly a No1 — just beaten by Eminem. But the critics said, ‘Finally, we can hear Tom Jones’s voice, it’s not dominated by the arrangement or the production’. I was made up with that.”
Spirit In The Room is the natural heir to Praise & Blame but focuses on more modern songs, including covers of Leonard Cohen, Paul McCartney and Tom Waits.
Legend ... Sir Tom Jones has been in showbiz for almost 50 years Again it’s produced by Kings Of Leon/Laura Marling producer Ethan Johns, who also plays guitar on every track.
Says Tom, in his deep voice: “It was Ethan who came to me to make these albums. He said, ‘I hear something in your voice. I’ve heard all the stuff you’ve done before but I hear something in you that you haven’t done yet’.”
It took hours of listening to music old and new to decide on the right songs for Tom to cover on this collection.
Tom explains: “We’d listen to songs over and over again and pick some that we thought would work. Ethan had ideas and my son Mark, who is also my manager, came up with a lot of stuff because he listens to music all the time.
“I wanted songs by writers that I like. I knew I wanted to do a Paul McCartney song because Paul had offered me The Long And Winding Road (in 1968) before he recorded it but the timing wasn’t right so I couldn’t do it. Then I already had a single due out so Paul recorded it himself.
“And I wanted to do a Paul song that’s not so obvious. I thought maybe an album track but then we went for (I Want To) Come Home from the 2009 film Everybody’s Fine, which was nominated for a Golden Globe.
'I was once beaten by a ventriloquist' ... Voice judge Tom on his own experiences with contests “And we’ve made it my own. Paul plays piano on it and sings the way he sings on it. We tried to make it flow a bit more plus it’s more guitar-driven, but the sentiment is just right.”
Other songs Tom has made his own are Paul Simon’s Love And Blessings from last year’s album So Beautiful Or So What; Leonard Cohen’s Tower Of Song from his 1988 album I’m Your Man and Bad As Me, the title track of Tom Waits’ recent album.
“It’s just great to have the freedom to record these songs,” says Tom. “They suit my voice and the way I sing. If I’d gone to my label with songs like this years ago, I would’ve had the door shut in my face as they weren’t commercial enough.”
Like Praise & Blame, Spirit In The Room was recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World studios near Bath.
“It was the same room we made Praise & Blame in and again we played it live. Then, when we’d recorded What Good Am I? we all looked at each other and said ‘Something happened there. There’s a spirit in the room.’
“It’s something I didn’t forget so when we were thinking of a name for this album, I thought of the spirit again. At first I’d had Soul Of A Man in mind as a title. All these songs are coming from my soul but the memory of a spirit in the room kept nagging me.
Spirit In The Room ... Tom Jones's latest album is out now “It had been such a positive experience and the reason we’d gone back to Real World — so lightning could strike twice.”
A deeply religious man, Tom also believes the spirit of his maternal grandmother Annie Gain was with him at Real World as she came from the village of Box, a mile away from the studio.
Says Tom: “She must’ve been walking around these streets when she was young as it’s a small village with one main street and two pubs.
“She was born in Wiltshire and then moved to Wales when she was older. As a child I remember asking my father ‘Why does Nana speak funny?’ It was because she wasn’t from Wales but from Box.”
Getting a call from Jack White asking to cover Howlin’ Wolf’s Evil and Frankie Laine’s Jezebel, for his Third Man Records Blue Series collection, didn’t hamper his new credibility either.
Tom explains: “Jack called up Mark to see if I knew both songs. Well, I knew them both and I had a day off in Nashville in between shows so we went over and got them done in a day at his Third Man Studios.
“Jack is self-contained there and he wanted an established person to record these songs. He’d originally wanted Wanda Jackson but then he thought of me. He told me he needed a big voice.
“I was knocked out to work with him because he’s so talented. I loved him in The White Stripes and I’m a fan of his solo stuff too. Working with him took my admiration to another level.”
I ask Tom if he regrets going too far down the “entertainer” road.
He says: “Sometimes, but what’s done is done. And at the time it was right. Even Sex Bomb at the time was right.” What about the knickers being thrown?
“They still get thrown at my shows but that got out of hand. You can never tell an audience what to do but you just don’t encourage certain things if you don’t want it to happen. If anyone does throw anything, I don’t pick it up.
“I realised that after I read a live review which was more concerned with how many bloody pairs of underwear had been thrown on stage than the songs I was singing. So I thought ‘Sh*t, I’m missing the mark here. They’re forgetting I’m a singer, not a Chippendale.”
Tom’s popularity has been boosted by his appearance as a coach on BBC talent show The Voice, where he’s been introduced to a younger audience alongside Jessie J, the Black Eyed Peas’ Will.i.Am and The Script’s Danny O’Donoghue.
So how does he think he would have made it through if he was starting out today?
“I did a few auditions in my time and a few talent shows, but I never did well in those. I once got beaten by a bloody ventriloquist.
“She wasn’t very good and the dummy was better than she was, the dummy was the star of the show. But it spurred me on. I thought, ‘Well I’ve been beaten by a ventriloquist’ so things can’t get worse than this.”
And when it comes to giving The Voice wannabes the heave-ho, Tom says it’s tough. “I feel for them because I’ve been there,” he admits. “I’ve been in auditions where as soon as you get there, you’re told ‘No thanks.’ It’s disappointing and even more so today as they’re in the deep end. I’ve explained to my team that they can’t all win. It’s hard but they’re better finding out at this stage that they’re not good enough.
“But they’ve been exposed to millions. I guess the other side is they already have fame, exposure and experience.”
He says the main strength of The Voice is that it encourages REAL singers.
“In recent years there have been too many pop stars who can’t sing without technology so when they’re on the road they have to lip synch. I don’t think that’s right.
“It’s good to find real singers and find those who can do what they should do.”
So what next? Will Tom commit to another series of The Voice?
“There’s been talk of it and I’m in if they want the same team but nothing’s been sorted yet.
“But it’s been a great team, full of talent. And would I like to collaborate with any of the other coaches? Jessie J, I’d like to do something with her. Will.i.am is a great producer and Danny is in one hell of a group. I am always looking for possibilities because I like to sing a lot of different stuff.
“That’s why this is just the start for me. I hope I’ve got plenty more years in me for my music.”
Spirit In The Room is out now.