Have lunch with Tom Jones and of course you'll discover that he's known just about everyone in show business. It's the context for the conversation that's surprising: At age 70, Mr. Jones is releasing "Praise & Blame," a bluesy gospel recording produced by Ethan Johns. Listen to this remarkable album and you're reminded that he's always had a golden voice—"Tom Jones can sing anything!" Van Morrison once shouted during an impromptu set with the singer at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood. Frank Sinatra liked the way he sang, too. But rarely has Mr. Jones laid bare his voice in the service of profound spiritual emotions. Out this week, "Praise & Blame" features traditional gospel and blues originally recorded by Jessie Mae Hemphill, Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, among others. Bob Dylan, Billy Joe Shaver and Susan Werner represent contemporary songwriters. On the down-tempo numbers, the arrangements are solemn but not stodgy, and when the band kicks in hard, as on "Didn't It Rain" and "Strange Things," it churns away at the spot where gospel and early rock 'n' roll intersected.
Thus "Praise & Blame" has an earthy quality not usually associated with Mr. Jones, who is best known for his hip-shaking days onstage when he opened his shirt to the navel, wore skin-tight slacks, and belted out "What's New Pussycat?" "It's Not Unusual," "Delilah" and his other brassy hits backed by big bands. For "Praise & Blame," Mr. Jones did his vocals live with a small, tight group of musicians. There was some thought given to overdubbing a variety of instruments to fatten the sound, but "the more we did," he said, "the more we realized we weren't off when I was just singing with the rhythm section.
"When I started playing in pubs and clubs, I worked with only a rhythm section," the singer said last month, at a restaurant just a short drive from his mansion here. "We'd do rockabilly and boogie-woogie."
When I mentioned that his 1966 hit "Green, Green Grass of Home" tapped into country, the singer noted that a lot of his albums have been "a mishmash" of music. "There's been bits of a bluesy, country thing."
Mr. Jones said he's been a fan of what today is called roots music since he listened to the radio as a child in Trefforest, Wales. "We only had two channels: Home Service, which was news, and BBC Light. I wanted more gospel and blues because they didn't play much of it—they had to play everything.
"When I first heard blues music," Mr. Jones continued, "I didn't realize it came from the hardship blacks were going through in America. It was the sound that got me—I didn't know why or how. But the thing of it kept jumping out at me."
Still, he'd long resisted the temptation to cover authentic gospel and blues. "My voice wouldn't have been quite right 20, 25 years ago." Now his voice is a smoky baritone. "It seems to me it's more guttural now."
He's always enjoyed singing gospel among friends, including Elvis Presley, whom he knew when they both worked the Las Vegas Strip. Presley encouraged Mr. Jones to record a gospel album. On "Praise & Blame," Mr. Jones covers "Run On," a gospel standard Presley recorded.
"I remember singing gospel with Elvis in his suite. . . . But I didn't want to do it like he did. Ethan said, 'Why don't we rock it up more?'" On the stark track, Mr. Jones is accompanied by Mr. Johns on boogie guitar and Jeremy Stacey on drums. Similarly, on his raging version of John Lee Hooker's "Burning Hell," he's backed only by Mr. Johns on a raw slide guitar and by Mr. Stacey's simple drum pattern.
"I met John Lee in '64," Mr. Jones said. "We were on the same show on BBC2. Years later, he called me in Vegas. . . . He didn't have to introduce himself. I knew him by that voice.
"All of my heroes, I met," he said, then added, "No, Sam Cooke I didn't meet. Never met Al Jolson."
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As the album's opener, Mr. Dylan's "What Good Am I" establishes the tone, but perhaps the disc's most affecting ballad is his reading of Ms. Werner's "Did Trouble Me." It opens with Mr. Jones singing by himself. A guitar's growl and a bass drum enter discreetly, then a banjo skirts underneath the vocal, rooting the performance in folk and gospel. Gillian Welch joins in on the trembling chorus.
"Praise & Blame" reconnects Mr. Jones not only to roots music but to his own roots. The album was recorded at Peter Gabriel's studio in Box Wiltshire, the village where Mr. Jones's grandmother spent her childhood. Between sessions, Mr. Jones would walk in the countryside. "There was a waterfall, and I found myself wondering if my grandmother came around here as a kid.
"She loved Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald. 'Rose Marie,' she loved that song. I sang it. On my fifth birthday, she gave me a card and signed it, 'To the little gentleman who sang 'Rose Marie.'"
A new generation may know Mr. Jones best from his version of Prince's "Kiss" or his hit "Sex Bomb" from his 1999 album "Reload," in which he covered Iggy Pop, Talking Heads, the Kinks and others. It's his voice that appeals to these followers, not his gyrating moves of the past. "In Europe, especially in Great Britain, for a lot of these kids, 'Delilah' is a great sing-along," he said.
When he performed "What Good Am I" on the BBC's "Later with Jools Holland," he got a sense of what a rock audience's reaction to "Praise & Blame" would be. "Everything just stopped," he recalled. "You could hear a pin drop. Corinne Bailey Rae came over with tears in her eyes, and I thought, 'Thank God it's having the same effect on people that it had on me.'"
By JIM FUSILLI
Read the interview here