Tom Jones: back to his bluesy roots

jones_1679487c A revitalised Tom Jones – now 70 – talks to Andrew Perry at The Telegraph

Tom Jones, the hip-thrusting, turbo-tonsilled lothario from the Welsh Valleys, is going through the umpteenth makeover of his 50-year singing career. With songs such as It’s Not Unusual and What’s New Pussycat?, he was the benign, care-free face of the Swinging Sixties. He soon mutated into a Las Vegas crooner, and then a country singer, before remodelling himself in the late Eighties as a “disco grandad”, whom neither time nor passing trends could silence. Subsequently, Jones has remained a top-flight performer, a perennial target for the underwear of his ardent female fanbase. In 2006, he was knighted by the Queen, but his latterday recordings have by and large been frustratingly weak for a singer with such heavyweight vocal qualities. Released in 2008, the 24 Hours album was high-tech and pop, but not in the sense of popular – it failed to make the Top 30.

Jones’s latest album could hardly contrast more starkly with its predecessor. Entitled Praise & Blame, it’s a sparsely-accompanied, back-to-basics collection, in the gospel idiom of the American South. Some songs are sombre, contemplative, country-tinged; others are fiery, rollicking, blues-drenched; all are spiritually profound, commensurate with Jones’s advanced stage in life, and all, at long last, put his boundlessly capable tenor voice to good use. On the cusp of a major restoration of his credibility, Jones has, though, become embroiled in a strange controversy, with his new record company, Island Records, which signed him in a reputed £1.5million deal. Just three weeks before the release of Praise & Blame, a leaked email, apparently written by Island’s vice-president, David Sharpe, castigated the label’s A&R department for allowing Jones to make such a record. “We did not invest a fortune in an established artist,” it ran, “for him to deliver 12 tracks from the common book of prayer [sic]… I want to know if this is some sick joke???” When I meet Jones in London, a few days after the furore erupted in the media, he can scarcely hide his anger. “I still haven’t got to the bottom of it,” he says, visibly bristling. “I don’t even know who this guy is: I’ve never met the fellow.” He pauses rather menacingly. “Maybe it’s better that I don’t. The thing that p------ me off more than anything else is that people read it and think, 'Oh, Tom’s made a mistake here, even his record company doesn’t like it.’ But I know for a fact that they do.” Indeed, when Jones performed songs from the album at an Island launch party in Mayfair two weeks earlier, the wine flowed freely, and the mood was distinctly bullish. Whatever the truth behind the email scandal (could it even have been some twisted form of hype?), Jones gave his most eloquent riposte on last week’s Jonathan Ross TV chatshow. There, he tore through one of its highlights, Burning Hell, a blood-and-thunder song written by John Lee Hooker, which had more of the feel of a White Stripes gig than a sleepy parish church service. “I’ve always wanted to do songs like that,” says Jones, his composure now recovered, “it’s just getting the opportunity to do them. I’ve known this kind of stuff all my life, but, every time I sign with a record company, it’s always pop, pop, pop. This one was different. Initially, they were asking for a Christmas album, but I thought, 'Well, the door seems to be open here to do some really solid stuff.’ ” The project took shape, once its producer came aboard. Ethan Johns, the son of sometime Beatles and Led Zeppelin studio operative, Glyn Johns, has a reputation for gritty, organic music-making. As he and Jones sifted through old songs of faith and redemption, he succeeded in giving the singer a sense of reconnecting with his roots. “I used to sing this kind of song at Sunday school, in a Presbyterian chapel in Pontypridd,” Jones recalls, “things like The Old Rugged Cross, Down by the Riverside and Bread of Heaven. “Much later, when I was in Vegas, I’d sing gospel with Elvis Presley, late at night. After our shows, we’d go back up to the suite and sing. He was surprised that I knew some of these songs. I told him, 'Well, a lot of gospel songs are taken from British hymns.’ He thought gospel was from the South, from black people singing in church, and it rubbed off on white Southerners – but it was the two peoples coming together, as far as I’m concerned. The whites were singing country and hymns, and the black people added to it and put their own thing in it, and that’s when you get the hot Southern gospel. “And that’s where rock and roll, to me, came from. The structure of the music was gospel; they just changed the words and boogied it up.” Those who know Jones only from wafer-thin latterday hits such as Sex Bomb, might be surprised to hear him talk with such authority about the birth of rock and roll. Jones, however, started out as an R&B singer in the Sixties beat era – half Otis Redding, half Treorchy Male Voice Choir. After usurping the vocalist in a local group, the Senators, he took them all the way to Vegas. His early repertoire was not, by any means, fluff. “A lot of people nowadays just think of Delilah as a karaoke thing,” he says, smiling, humming its bawdy bar-room refrain, “but, if you listen to the words, it’s pretty serious stuff.” In, say, Nick Cave’s hands, Delilah would be more earnestly discussed as a “murder ballad”. On the back of such hits, and the success of his first seasons in Vegas, he landed himself a weekly TV series with ABC, which made him a household name the world over. His show was a hip update of the Andy Williams/Dean Martin-type format, and, he says, it allowed him to spread his wings, creatively. “It gave me the opportunity to do stuff that maybe the record company wouldn’t let me do. I could sing a duet with Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Wilson Pickett or Aretha Franklin. I could show my versatility more.” Where some artists with a similar profile, such as Scott Walker or indeed Elvis, were consumed by their celebrity in one way or another, Jones never seemed to agonise – he just gamely got on with the job. While he remains to this day a massive draw in Vegas, he says his recording career started to go awry during his Seventies country phase. “It got a little difficult because the songs were not coming my way. The success I’d had in the Sixties was carrying me through. I was playing arenas in the States without a hit record. When you go out on stage and see all the people every night, you think, 'Whoa, everything’s great.’ I wasn’t chasing the songs enough. I got maybe a little complacent.” When his son, Mark, took over his management in the mid-Eighties, some changes were made, but perhaps Jones’s biggest problem has been precisely his versatility. He always wanted to prove that he could take on any style and come out on top, but this resulted in albums that lacked focus – until Ethan Johns took over. “The thing with me is, I like to go this way and that way, but Ethan realises that you can’t get self-indulgent, and go flying off on tangents.” What Johns also recognised was that Jones needed to reconnect with the simple process of recording live, in one room, with a small rhythm combo. “It was like being in a rock band again, like when I had my band in Wales, like when you all get into the back room of a pub to rehearse. It really was like that! You’re all in the room, and it’s a close thing. It was great to do that again.” As a result, Praise & Blame has the raw, immediate feeling of the albums Johnny Cash made in his twilight years. Assuming that the spat with Island is quickly resolved, Jones, who turned 70 last month, is keen to make more records in this vein. “I don’t want to stop,” he says, “because I don’t want to be 80, which is actually not far away, and look back and think, 'Why did I stop then?’ I don’t want to have any regrets. I hope it goes on for ever. I’d like to live for ever. I’d like to sing forever, because it’s great.” He smiles and shrugs. “I’m having a ball.”