His record company doubted him. But this pop legend hasn’t stayed at the top for 45 years without understanding what his fans want By Ian Burrell
My, my, my, Tom the Voice, at the age of 70, is set to return to No 1 in the British album charts with a record which was described as "some sick joke" by one of the executives on his own label.
When Jones first heard of the scathing email in which David Sharpe, vice-president at Island Records, demanded of colleagues that they "pull back this project immediately or get my money back", he was said to be bristling with indignation.
"I've never met the fellow," he said dismissively. Now, as he prepares to stand, hips swinging and trousers tight, astride the hit parade once more, the Welsh warbler might consider toasting Mr Sharpe with one of his favourite vodka martinis.
Maybe it was all one big publicity stunt. Leaked to the press, the email ridiculed the gospel-influenced tone of Praise & Blame, which Jones has described as his "Johnny Cash album", exploring themes of faith and redemption. "What are you thinking when he went all spiritual," snapped Mr Sharpe. Intrigued, thousands went to listen to, and indeed buy, a record that is vying with Eminem for top spot in tomorrow's chart. Perhaps in years to come, schools of public relations will be citing the "sick joke" routine as a prime example of a successful campaign, up there with the frenzy of support generated for the BBC 6 Music radio station by an apparent threat to close it down.
It's unlikely. The probable truth is that Mr Sharpe just didn't get Tom Jones. He didn't realise the authentic appeal of a singer who learned his chops in a Presbyterian chapel in Pontypridd singing songs such as "Lord, Help the Poor and Needy" by the blues artist Jessie Mae Hemphill. Nor that someone who would stay up late in his Las Vegas hotel suite with his friend Elvis Presley singing evangelist gospel songs such as "The Old Rugged Cross" might have an innate feel for John Lee Hooker's "Burning Hell".
But the public saw the light, sure enough. Especially when Jones went on the penultimate edition of BBC1's Friday Night with Jonathan Ross and performed that Hooker number with all the presence of an artist who was once a fixture at Caesars Palace and had his own networked show on ABC, performing duets with the likes of Little Richard and Ray Charles. Jones found more believers at the arty Latitude Festival in Suffolk earlier this month where he caused crowd chaos by turning up at one of the smaller stages and performing Praise & Blame in its entirety.
This would be Sir Tom's first No 1 album for 11 years, since Reload, a collection of cover duets mostly with young artists, such as the Cardigans and Natalie Imbruglia. In that sense, Praise & Blame is a comeback moment, though a very different one from his resurgence at the end of the 1980s when his son Mark became his manager and helped him to emerge from a period in which he had gone more than a decade without a British hit.
In 1988 he scored a massive hit and captured a new generation of admirers by recording Prince's "Kiss", produced by the avant-garde Art of Noise. Soon afterwards he was performing for a younger audience at the Glastonbury festival and signing in 1993 to Interscope Records, the same label as Snoop Dogg.
It seems that Mr Sharpe was hoping for something with a contemporary feel after Island poached Jones from EMI in October last year for £1.5m. "Having lured him from EMI, the deal was that you would deliver a record of upbeat tracks along the lines of 'Sex Bomb' and 'Mama Told Me [Not to Come]'," he railed, referring to hits from the Reload album that Jones had enjoyed with house DJ Mousse T and Welsh rockers the Stereophonics respectively.
Perhaps he should have taken a closer look at the singer's appearance lately. The dyed jet-black thatch and goatee beard have gone, replaced by a natural grey. "I like the colour of my hair now," Jones said recently. "Before, when I didn't dye it, it was a salt and pepper colour but the last time I left it, it came out white and I thought, 'Well, that's good'." In every sense Jones is going back to his roots.
There has been great diversity in Jones's 47-year professional career. He has had hit records in almost every genre, and even when he went through a period of being unfashionable in Britain, during the late 1970s and 1980s, he had a successful career as a country singer in America.
From the age of six, Thomas Woodward, as he was christened, was tugging at his mother's skirt asking to be allowed to sing at family events. He would have followed his father down the mines but for the intervention of tuberculosis, which struck him down at the age of 13 to the extent that his ambition in life was once to walk as far as the lamp-post at the end of his street.
"The doctor said to my parents, 'Whatever you do, you can't put this boy in a coalmine because he has weak lungs'," Jones told an interviewer two years ago, enjoying the delicious irony of the diagnosis.
He has demonstrated extraordinary endurance, and his energy is unflagging even as a septuagenarian. "Once you pass 50 you're bullet proof. You're still performing and doing it, and kids like it," he said in 2002 of his youthful new audience.
There was always a bit of kitsch to Jones's 1990s appeal; the medallion man of hairy chest and open shirt hanging out with the young things. The famously jovial Welshman will surely have no regrets, yet there is something more organic about his latest reconnection with the soulful sounds that inspired him when he started out in the 1960s with a love of American rhythm and blues. "It was ... like when I had my band in Wales," he said of the experience of recording Praise & Blame.
After moving to London, Jones adopted his mother's maiden name, which enhanced his image as the Voice of the Valleys. He had his first No 1 in 1965 with "It's Not Unusual", a song that would later be covered by the Supremes. Mary Wilson, one of the singers in that Motown group, has claimed to have had an affair with Welshman, who has been married to his childhood sweetheart Linda for more than half a century. Countless other women who have pelted Jones with their underwear at his concerts down the years have doubtless dreamed of their own liaisons.
Jones is still best known for his 1960s hits, such as "Delilah", a passionate story of infidelity, jealousy and revenge, and the Peter Sellers film theme tune "What's New Pussycat?". Both have become karaoke classics. The plaintive "Green, Green Grass of Home", which was a No 1 for Jones in 1966, took on new significance recently when the Welshman indicated that having moved to Los Angeles in 1974, partly for tax reasons, he was considering moving back to Britain. In 2005 his wealth was estimated at £175m.
Maybe Praise & Blame is a part of that process. A consummate entertainer, he is doing this one for himself as much as anyone. "I've been wanting to do this album for a long time, but it's hard to get a record company to go along with you because most of them want hit singles and pop music which I have been known to do," he told the BBC earlier this month.
Reading David Sharpe's now infamous email it's clear that's exactly what the Island executive had been after. But Jones has made his Johnny Cash album all the same. Now, 42 years after he first headed the album charts with Delilah, he is set to outdo Bob Dylan, who set a record by going to No 1 last year with Together Through Life at the age of 68. That's not such a bad set of lungs.
A life in brief
Born: Thomas Jones Woodward, 7 June 1940, in Pontypridd, South Wales.
Family: His father, Thomas Woodward, was a miner and his mother Freda a housewife. At 17 he married Linda Trenchard. A month later they had a son Mark, now his manager. In 2008 he acknowledged paternity of model Katherine Berkery's son, whom he has never met. He has two grandchildren.
Education: Left school at 16 with no qualifications.
Career: Since his first British No 1 in 1965 with "It's Not Unusual", Jones has been a regular feature on the British and American music charts. His ability to switch between genres and to collaborate with musicians from Van Morrison to Wyclef Jean has helped to continue this success. Jones has released 58 albums and sold about 150 million records, winning two Brit awards and receiving a knighthood in 1996.
He says: "I'll record as long as my voice works and as long as people want to hear me."
They said: "He's one of the greatest performers I've ever seen, and the greatest voice." Elvis Presley
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