Ceri Radford reviews Tom Jones: What Good Am I?, the latest edition of BBC One's new culture series Imagine He’s recently turned 70, and finally grown up. Tom Jones has just recorded a new gospel album, Praise & Blame, which is such a sombre contrast to the hip-swivelling hijinks of his earlier hits that the boss of his record label asked if the end product was a “sick joke”. In fact it was anything but, as the rich and fascinating retrospective of the singer’s career, Tom Jones: What Good Am I? (BBC One) made clear. With five decades in the music business behind him, Jones has given up the gimmicks and gone back to singing his heart out to the sort of soulful music that convinced him that he would be a star when it reached the Welsh mining town of his childhood. Alan Yentob, in the finale of his latest Imagine… cultural series, did a deft job of joining the dots between Tom Jones’s popular image as a hirsute, strutting knicker-magnet and a singer who has always taken his own music seriously, contrary to appearances.
“I’ve only got myself to blame. The pants were tight,” Jones admits, when Yentob gently asked him about the mass female hysteria that defined his reputation in the Seventies. “I thought I was a young, virile, no bulls--- artist. But maybe I was exploiting the sexual part of it.” The documentary interspersed Yentob’s interview with archive material charting Jones’s career and footage of the singer blasting out powerful tracks – including Run On and What Good Am I? – from his new album. It made for a strong combination. “Singing was like breathing to me,” Jones reminisced, as we saw black and white photographs of him as an impish child in the Fifties then heard him describe the misery of being bed-ridden with TB for two years in his teens, unable to raise his voice. His only lifeline was the radio: he absorbed the gospel music broadcast by the BBC to such an extent that both a school teacher, and later Elvis, would tell him that he sang “like a negro”.
He recovered to scratch out a living laying bricks and singing in working men’s clubs. In 1964, he was spotted by a talent scout and his first number one hit, It’s Not Unusual, soon followed. He became the “first British singer to conquer America”: he sang duets with Elvis, he had a prime-time TV show, he was a millionaire. Some of the most telling images showed Jones smoking a cigar in front of a pit head and parking his oversized Mercedes on a tiny Pontypridd terraced street. The programme neatly captured Jones’s straightforward innocence, which borders on naïvety. He was rich, so he went home to show off his wealth. He was good-looking, so he posed on a yacht wearing a tiny pair of white pants.
What saved him – just – from becoming a pastiche of himself was the intervention of his son and manager, Mark, who “wanted to shift the focus of attention three feet upwards”, as well as the strength and sincerity of his voice. Jools Holland, one of the talking heads, summed it up by saying Jones “believes the song”, while the singer Cerys Matthews described his voice as like “the energy that comes rumbling up” when a tube train comes into the station.