New York Times: A Hip Shaker in His Prime, Among Hip Friends

Tom JonesPART Anthony Newley but even more Otis Redding, the Welsh singer Tom Jones was a musical shape-shifter long before “American Idol” turned versatility into karaoke posturing. With a voice as husky as it was pretty, Mr. Jones at the peak of his popularity in the late 1960s could slide from soulful rasp to pop croon with a credibility today’s would-be Idols could barely imagine. Stevie Wonder with Tom Jones on an episode of the 1969-71 variety show “This Is Tom Jones.” If there’s another singer who could credibly share a stage with the likes of Janis Joplin, Johnny Cash, Tony Bennett and Stevie Wonder — and come through with dignity intact, as Mr. Jones did more often than not in his 1969-71 television variety show — please contact Simon Cowell ASAP.

With episodes (actually partial episodes, even better) now available in several DVD sets, “This Is Tom Jones” unearths some vintage pop nuggets that, if not as history-making as Elvis on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” at least recall a time when popular music was an infinitely more unruly contest than it’s become in the 21st century. Proof? Take a look at Joe Cocker, in his snarling, disturbing, full-on spastic mode, then watch June Carter Cash, looking and sounding so authentically country that she makes a joke of Reese Witherspoon’s perky portrayal in “Walk the Line.”

Divided into two three-disc volumes, “Rock ’n’ Roll Legends” and the more mainstream “Legendary Performers” (a single-disc Christmas-theme volume is hardly worth mentioning), the episodes have their share of dated production numbers and kitschy mod fashions. (Check out the skin-tight sky-blue spacesuit Mr. Jones wears while singing “Fly Me to the Moon.”) But music, straight up, is the draw here.

In the solo miniconcerts that end each episode, Mr. Jones, whose popularity among the casino crowd holds strong today, occasionally reduces his mostly female, mostly old-enough-to-know-better audiences to near Beatles-at-Shea hysterics. His sexed-up, hip-shaking performances of his hits (“It’s Not Unusual,” “Delilah,” “What’s New, Pussycat?”) remain vital, Watusi moves notwithstanding.

But it’s the duets that steal the shows, whether comfortable (Mr. Jones with the ever-relaxed Mr. Bennett), compatible (an enraptured Mr. Jones with his idol Jerry Lee Lewis) or downright odd (that would be the sublimely weird Mr. Cocker, sharing “Delta Lady” with the host). Ms. Joplin gives the most joyous televised performance of her short career (she would be dead within a year), shouting and strutting with Mr. Jones on the soul classic “Raise Your Hand.”

Each guest also performs without the host, with the brash rockers generally outdoing the more traditional popsters of the “Legendary Performers” set. The Who, even in a black-and-white kinescope (the only available version of the episode, a shame given the fine color prints of the others), are all adolescent vigor and vinegar slamming through “Pinball Wizard,” while a radiant Aretha Franklin, soaring on “I Say a Little Prayer,” and Stevie Wonder, on the threshold of his most innovative work, can break your heart with the depth of their young genius. By comparison a hippiefied Bobby Darin, tame Diahann Carroll and pre-”Cabaret” Liza Minnelli, all on the “Legendary Performers” set, come up short.

Speaking of short, the running time on these discs is too often inexcusably skimpy, particularly on “Legendary Performers.” The original hourlong (including commercials) episodes are whittled down to an average of 30 minutes or so. Fine, since few will miss Minnie Pearl’s routine from the Cash episode, and fewer still would clamor for more comedy from the Ace Trucking Company (a baby-faced Fred Willard and Bill Saluga, that guy who did the “You can call me Ray” bit notwithstanding). But some of these discs contain barely an hour’s worth of material, and extras are few and far between.

At least Mr. Jones, tanned and fit nearly 40 years on, provides new introductions to the “Rock ’n’ Roll Legends” episodes. (Who doesn’t have time for another “Keith Moon nearly fell off the stage” story?) But he’s absent from the “Legendary Performances” discs. If Johnny, June and Jerry Lee don’t merit some backstage gossip, who does? By GREG EVANS Published: April 13, 2008