Laura Barton guardian.co.uk, Thursday 1 July 2010 21.30
He used to be a 'naughty boy' in tight trousers and garlanded with knickers. But as he hits 70, Tom Jones has moved on and made his 'Johnny Cash album'
He's not altogether what I expected. Surveying the menu in a half-empty restaurant in central London this lunchtime, Tom Jones appears a rather toned-down version of the man I expected to meet. He's less mahogany, certainly, the hair less heavily blackened, the teeth not so furiously white. But there's something in his demeanour, too, that seems quieter than anticipated. He is 70 now, of course, and perhaps time has muted the bravado and the innuendo, the hair dye and the tan, perhaps he has realised he has little left to prove. In the time we spend together, a trace of the famed lothario only surfaces once, when he orders a large bottle of mineral water. The waitress brings it to the table and Jones sizes it up with a glint in his eye: "Ooh," he says, "that is a big one." The waitress looks back, blankly.
In truth, Jones has made a career out of the unexpected. In the 1960s, when the charts were filled with group singers, pop bands and Beatles wannabes with bright, sweet voices, he sang solo, belting out hits such as Delilah and What's New Pussycat? He conquered America and recast himself as a country singer before he succeeded in reviving his chart career in the late 1980s with a cover of the Prince song Kiss. Later came duets with Cerys Matthews, Mousse T and Robbie Williams, albums recorded with Wyclef Jean and Jools Holland, Brit awards and charity singles with Rob Brydon. This year, he performs another volte-face, returning with what may well prove the finest recording of his career. Praise & Blame is a collection of blues numbers and spirituals, Bob Dylan and John Lee Hooker songs, material that showcase Jones's remarkable voice; pared back and unadorned, it carries the weight and the ruminative quality of late Johnny Cash's final recordings.
It began as a Christmas album. Island Records, presumably surveying the lucrative festive market, asked Jones to record "some carols, or something religious for Christmas", he recalls. He was not averse to the idea, but in no rush to hurry it through in time to be placed under the tree. "We said, 'If we're going to do this, why don't we take a bit of time and get it done right?'" he explains. "And it was suggested, thank God, that we approach the producer Ethan Johns." Johns is famed for his raw, organic approach to recording, and for being the son of an even more famous producer, Glyn Johns. "I'd heard of him," Jones says. "I knew who his father was. And he said, 'I like it to be real, we pick the songs, get in the studio, get in there with a rhythm section and try them out.' And I said, 'Well, that sounds good to me.'"
They started with two songs, Did Trouble Me and the gospel number Run On. It was while recording the latter that the direction revealed itself. "Suddenly it happened," Jones says, "it caught fire." After that, the path seemed obvious. "We thought, 'Let's look for some spiritual things, uplifting things, things that mean something.'" He says it almost tenderly. "And they have to be strong when you've only got a rhythm section, they have to speak for themselves, really. And so we got to the recording studio and said, 'Well, how do we treat this?' Song by song."
For Jones, it was in many ways a return to the beginning. He grew up the son of a miner in Pontypridd, in south Wales, "where music was a very big thing, especially singing. I don't know whether it was because you didn't have to have an instrument – because you've already got it, it's built in. And it's expressive – I think the voice is more expressive than anything else. So coming from that area, I was encouraged to sing as a child."
They sang everywhere, he says, at birthday parties, at weddings and at funerals. "There's one in Wales that we do called The Old Rugged Cross," he says a little mistily. "It's sung at all funerals. And I wanted to get it on here, on this album, an a cappella version, but it didn't fit." At school, they tried to make him sing in the choir. "But I used to shy away from it," he says. "I didn't like to be restricted, because when you're in a choir, you have a part to sing and you sing it. I always liked singing on my own. Even when I was carol singing door-to-door, I would go by myself. If I went with the boys, they would always cock it up because we're all loud; in Wales, we do sing loud, even if they're out of tune."
By his own estimation, he "didn't shine much" in music class. "Because they wanted you to sing in a certain way," he explains. "But then on a Friday afternoon in the junior school, we had little concerts. So I'd get up and sing – just songs of the day ... Ghost Riders in the Sky was a big song when I was a kid, Vaughn Monroe did it, and Frankie Laine, a bunch of people did it. But again it was one of those songs – cowboy, country, gospelly." He drums the restaurant table, rolling from thumb to palm to finger. "That rhythm, it's the bass drum, and I used to do that while I sang," he smiles. "My father showed me how to do it, so I could do it myself at school."
He sang in church, too, of course, a Presbyterian chapel where he was always late for the service and the heavy sound of the organ put the fear of God into him. "So these spiritual songs, the gospel songs on this album, that's very natural to me. It's not like stepping into an area that I haven't tried yet. I know what these songs are; it's my cup of tea if you like. This is stuff that I listen to, that I've always liked."
Even in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he began his music career in earnest, singing in the clubs and pubs with a cover band, he sang with just a rhythm section and drew on the old songs, the songs that stirred him. "It was a cover band, you know?" he says. "And they were doing pop songs when I met them, they wanted to do more sort of Beatles songs and things that were happening then. But what I did was get them to do more 1950s rock'n'roll, which I loved. And I was reverting to gospelly stuff. I used to do ballads like I Believe, which is a religious song."
At first, people didn't take Jones's ambition seriously. "You know, singing, it was a natural thing in Wales," he says. "I wanted to be a professional singer, but no one was doing that then – music was a way of life, but they were all amateur singers. And it was a big step from south Wales to London, especially before they built the bridge." But the young Jones was undeterred, spurred on by a television programme he had once watched as a boy. "It was The Al Jolson Story, and it showed him growing up and how he got into showbusiness, and I was really interested in that. I thought, 'Wow! I want to be like this fella! He's moving and singing!'"
The moves came naturally, he says. "I've always liked to dance – I've got a natural rhythm. My mother tells of how she used to carry me, Welsh-fashion: you know, where you wrap a blanket around the baby and the mother so she could do things around the house, and something would come on the radio that was rhythmic and I would start to move in the shawl. " By the time he was playing the clubs , the moves had developed into something more raunchy, a little less family-friendly. He laughs, and looks bashfully at his plate of fish and chips. "Oh, yeah, I got that – 'Ooh, that Tom, he's a naughty boy!'"
Sex has always been a key component to the Tom Jones appeal. Only last year, the Hungarian magazine Periodika voted him the sexiest man in the world. His was never a slick sexuality, rather it was a mischievous raunchiness, propped up by a reputation for being a ladies' man, despite a marriage to his childhood sweetheart that continues to this day.
But obvious sexiness is absent from Praise & Blame; the album is seductive, certainly – his voice has never sounded so sultry or so rich – but the themes are more autumnal, issues of choice and responsibility. Even the title, he's quick to explain, is a reference to the life he has lived. "I've been praised throughout my career, and I've been blamed for things, too," he says neatly. What has he been blamed for? "Well, you know," he near-blushes, "maybe my pants were a little too tight. Maybe they were. And the knicker-throwing. As if I'd instigated it." Did he not instigate it? "I didn't start it," he insists. "But once things happen, you try and turn it around to your advantage."
It was an excess of knicker-throwing that marked a career-changing moment for Jones. After the death of his long-time manager and friend, Gordon Mills, in 1986, Jones's son, Mark, took over as his father's manager. At the time, his career had entered something of a lull, and he was busy recording country music for the American market. "But I was digging my own grave then, I realised," he says, "because I was ignoring the rest of the world." It was a strange position in which to find himself.
"Things were working very well through the 1960s and the 1970s," Jones says quietly, "but then things didn't." There was a lack of decent material sent his way, "and I was doing a lot of live shows; and when you're doing a lot of live shows you're not so concerned about the recordings. Which I should've been. People have asked me, 'If you had your time again …', and I always say I would concentrate more, in the 1970s, on the recordings." Instead, he was getting knickers thrown at him. "You get caught up in it," he says. "They were getting in the way, they were making it look …" he looks mildly despairing, "and I didn't want it to be that way." It took a few words of advice from his son to mark a change. "Mark said to me, 'Look, if they throw them, leave them– don't go catching them and wiping your brow with them.'"
It's been 25 years since then. Certainly, you sense that Jones himself is more than ready to move on: he's more contemplative than one might expect, and there is a faint sadness to him too. He talks of his wife's emphysema, of realising he himself is not invincible, of how singing a particular line in Did Trouble Me catches him: "If I let things stand that shouldn't be," he sings it softly.
"I suppose the older I've got, the more I've thought it, about the fact that if you do an album, you've got to think, 'Now, what is this album?' Not just do a mish-mash of songs, like I used to do." The surprise, for him as much as us, is that the real Tom Jones is not found between the Vegas lights and the knicker-strewn stage, but here among the hymns of home. "When I heard it, I thought, 'This is me,'" he says softly, "'This is my meat, this is where I come from.'"
Praise & Blame is released on Island on 26 July. Jones pays the Latitude festival in Suffolk on 15 July.