With a superb new album to his credit, the reigning King of Croon proves he’s not ready to retire yet. Not by a long shot… BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Of all the accolades Tom Jones has been accorded over the course of his career — a Grammy, an MTV Video Music Award, two Brit awards, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Order of the British Empire honours bestowed by the Queen of England, a song included in the soundtrack to… ahem… Little Fockers… (Okay, maybe that last one’s a bit dubious) — none seems more impressive than the title bestowed upon him this year and last by Britain’s Glamour Magazine, that of “Sexiest Man Alive.” Granted, any well-groomed individual with a show biz pedigree could generally be considered a contender, but the fact that Mr. Jones turns 73 this year kinda makes us younger guys somewhat flush with envy.
Perhaps Glamour was according that title based on performance alone, both in the bedroom and onstage — although hopefully not after judging that stamina in both circumstances simultaneously. However now, with a career in its sixth decade, the former Thomas John Woodward, born to working class parents in the mining country of Wales, has achieved every pinnacle of success the entertainment world has to offer — consistent hit records from the mid ‘60s to the present day (36 that landed in the Top 40), an uncanny ability to keep current with evolving musical trends, stints in Vegas (where he met and hung out with Elvis), a namesake TV show in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, as well as the devotion of millions of female fans, many of whom have made the tossing of undergarments a regular ritual of his live performances.
Granted, it’s criminal that he’s still snubbed by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but given his age and continued appeal, that fact almost seems insignificant at this juncture. Though older, greyer and slightly wizened, Mr; Jones still maintains his manic pace, and shows no sign of slowing down. A regular on the U.K. version of “The Voice,” he had the honour of singing at last year’s Diamond Jubilee Concert at Buckingham Palace, part of an exhausting concert schedule that still keeps him on the road a good part of the year.
When BLURT was given the opportunity to interview him just prior to the release of his brilliant new album, Spirit in the Room, we couldn’t help but be impressed by his humility and down to earth demeanour. Still speaking in his soft Welsh burr, an accent still evident even after several decades of living in L.A., he expressed appreciation for complements that were tossed his way, and was seemingly amused when certain incidents were brought up as well. Mostly though, he was sweet, sincere and quite pleased to answer any inquiries…
BLURT: With your last few albums, you’ve taken a whole different approach, stripping away the lavish arrangements and putting the focus on your voice entirely. What prompted this change in direction? TOM JONES: Well, the last two albums all had to do with meeting Ethan Johns really. I didn’t know what kind of album I wanted to do, and so when I met with Ethan, he was the one that made the most sense. He wanted do something that I hadn’t done before on record. “You’ve done all kinds of songs,” he said. “I know all the kinds of things you’ve done but I’d like to do something different. I’d like to get you stripped down and go in and you tell me what songs you want to do and I’ll toss some in that I think you should do. We’ll just have a couple of musicians and move things around. So what do you think?” And I thought it sounded great. It sounded very interesting to me. When I started in Wales, I had a rhythm section and I would go singing in pubs and clubs and dance halls and stuff with just a few musicians. That’s what we used to do, take songs from the radio in those days, but do them a little different, my own way. So he said, why don’t we do that? Just get in there and move stuff around and see what happens.
So was it at all intimidating and unnerving to kind let yourself be laid bare without the protective sheen of the big arrangements you might have been used to? No, not at all. It was refreshing. Because times change, and the way you record changes. When I first started recording, you’d get everything done outside the recording studio. You’d find the song, then you’d set the key and you’d get with an arranger, do an arrangement, and then you’d go into the studio and you’d record it. And that was it. Once the arrangement was done, there wasn’t much you could do to change it. In those days, we used to do three songs in three hours. It was a three hour session and that’s what you had to do. But nowadays, you don’t have to do that. You can rent the studio and use it for a week if you like, or a month. It’s up to you. It seems to be a lot easier, a lot looser. You’re not so restricted and that’s a great thing. And it’s exciting because you don’t know what’s going to transpire.
So who chose the songs? We did an album before called Praise and Blame, so we said, well, what approach do we take? So Ethan said to me, “What if we do songs from songwriters that you like? You tell me the songwriters that are interesting to you. Maybe you’ve never done a song by them before or maybe you have.” So I started talking about songwriters and we settled on Leonard Cohen and Paul McCartney and we also talked about Odetta. We didn’t know much about Odetta but that she was a folksinger and sang with Harry Belafonte, but I liked what she did and we listened to this song called “Hit or Miss” that she had done live. She had done it in the studio, but the live version is the one I liked. So we listened to that. And I also said I’d like to do something Paul Simon had written. And of course, there’s Blind Willie Johnson, which is the Blues side of it. So we picked “Soul of a Man” from him. And I always wanted to do a Tom Waits song. And Richard Thompson… So it was people that I liked as songwriters.
And how about the Low Anthem song, “Charlie Darwin?” That was an inspired choice. I didn’t know them. But Ethan asked if I had heard of them and I said no. So he said, “Have a listen to this song and see what you think. You might like what you hear.” And when he played me this “Charlie Darwin,” I said, “My God, that’s a great song!” It’s interesting. It’s unbelievable to me. And I said I’d love to try it, so we did.
Given the list of the songs and songwriters, this is a very hip playlist. Thank you (chuckles)
Not a lot of people would go this far in depth. Even the Paul Simon song (“Love and Blessings”) is a bit obscure. Paul has written so many things that I hadn’t heard. So Ethan played it for me and said, “What do you think of this song that Paul wrote?” And I said, wow, sounds great.
What’s really amazing, even as much as the choices you made, is that you take these songs and make them sound like they came from your own pen, and from your own soul. They sound so personal. Well, that’s what I was looking for. I tried to look for songs that could be about me, so it would sound like me singing about it. Well, maybe not all the experiences. I mean I wasn’t on the Mayflower in “Charlie Darwin” (chuckles), but I could relate to the frustration of people who believe that the world is fucked up and doesn’t work, because Charlie Darwin already told us that. You know what I mean? But it still sounds like it’s coming from me, like we’ve got to do something about this. Look what’s happening to the world here. Let’s try and do something. So the songs have to sound real, like they’re coming from me.
They do. It sounds like you could have penned some of these songs, Even the Leonard Cohen song, which is one of his signature tracks, sounds like you might have written it. Well there you go, my friend. One reason my hair is grey. It sounds so true. (chuckles)
It’s hard to think of another artist who has varied his template so consistently over the course of a career. You’ve maintained your career for 50 years, and yet you’ve successfully evolved, stayed current with trends and remained so relevant. You could have chosen to simply rehash your greatest hits, continue to play Vegas, stuck to the cabaret circuit and been very comfortable with that. What drove you to keep exploring and tackling new challenges? It’s the same thing that drove me from day one. I wanted to try and sing everything that’s inside me. Everything that I think about. Sometimes I get with songwriters and throw some ideas in there of my own. I want to continually express myself. The fire has not gone out. The flame is very much lit, and in order to keep that fire burning, I have to do new things and sing new songs. I don’t want to keep repeating myself.
That’s admirable. When you look at certain other artists of your generation – the Stones for example – they’re still doing what they’ve always done. The Stones will always sound like the Stones for the most part. That’s what they do.
Still, it’s pretty amazing how your voice is able to adapt, from doing a cover, of say, a Prince song to these deeply spiritual ballads that you’re doing now. The album that you did with Jools Holland, where you were just digging into primal rock ‘n’ roll was another example of that sheer versatility. Thanks! (chuckle) It’s just me doing what I do and loving it. I love to sing and sometimes it’s hard to know which way to take. You need somebody that sees something in you that maybe you’re not thinking about. And that was Ethan. “I want people to get inside you,” he said. “I want people to know what you feel. If there’s any doubt about what you can do, let’s do it and surprise some people.”
You must be doing something right, because it looks like you’re in pretty great shape all round. We can’t help but mention that you were recently named one of the world’s sexiest men. No bad for a guy in his seventies. (Chuckles) yeah, well I work out. I work out quite a bit and stay as healthy as I can. I don’t indulge. I don’t drink too much. I drink a little wine. I like a nice glass of beer, but thank God I never had to use it as a crutch. Some people have to have a little something before they go onstage, but I don’t. I need a clear head when I sing. I’ll drink afterwards but not before. All those things save you, I think. You have to get enough sleep. You can’t run on empty or you’ll hurt yourself.
You must have had some kind of self control, because coming up in the ‘60s the drug culture must have been pretty prevalent. There’s a picture on the internet from your TV show singing with Janis Joplin. If anyone is an example of how drugs can ravage an individual, she’s certainly one. So you must have known some notorious characters in that regard. Oh Christ, I’ve been at parties where I’ve seen all kinds of stuff going on. But it never interested me. I enjoy a drink, but only when I want to relax, when I’ve done what I’ve had to do. Then I’ll have a drink. I love to have a glass of wine with dinner and maybe a glass of cognac afterwards. But you have to watch the clock. You’ve got to know that if you have to do something the following day, then you’ve got to get some sleep. You can’t burn the candle at both ends. It’s an old saying, but it’s true.
Did you get any of that discipline through your upbringing? Because you can from humble beginnings. Yeah. Yeah, that had something to do with it. Because I was brought up with people that were drinkers and drank in pubs. It was a social thing. I didn’t know any alcoholics when I was growing up in Wales. They just enjoyed a drink of beer on the weekends. I come from that background, but I think its trial and error. When you see things when you’re in show business and you see the effect that having on people, you learn from experience. Not that you have to take it, but you see the effect it’s having on other people. I’m not going to bother with that. (laughs) That doesn’t seem to be working for anyone here!
So what’s on the bucket list at this point? Is there anything you’ve yet to accomplish? (Chuckles) I don’t know. I just want to sing until I drop. I’m not tired yet. I hope I get tired before my voice gives out. I would hate to still want to do it but my voice won’t let me. You know what I mean? I would hate to get to that point. I hope I get tired and say, “Oh my God, I just can’t do this anymore. (laughs) Maybe I’ll get like that when I’m old. (laughs)