Review: A new DVD of Tom Jones' old TV show

Tom JonesThere's evidence now on DVD shelves that, before the strong-voiced Jones was a swoon-inducing showroom star, this Welsh coal miner's son could kick out the jams with the best of them. Make that the best of the best. Aretha Franklin. Janis Joplin. Joe Cocker. Stevie Wonder. "This Is Tom Jones: Rock 'n' Roll Legends" spotlights some of the hottest moments of the tight-pants sensation's 1969-71 ABC variety series, which is probably better remembered for the fainting femmes in the studio audience, screaming with sexual bliss at Tom's every whoa-baby hip thrust. But memory doesn't tell the whole truth. Yes, those smitten kittens are also there on these new discs. So is Jones' physically potent sex appeal. ("Whoa, baby" is right!) What is most impressive is this soul man's rockin' fury. People today tend to recall Jones' singing from his frothier light-pop ("It's Not Unusual") and ballads ("Green Green Grass of Home"). They forget he was brought to international TV - his show aired in both the States and Britain - as the great rock-and-soul hope, intended to lure a new audience to a lagging genre exemplified by such yawners-to-the-younger-generation as Perry Como and Andy Williams.

After watching the highlights of eight shows on the first "This Is Tom Jones" DVD set, to say that Jones delivered would be an understatement. The series itself was designed for a niche that couldn't be filled. Rock-raised kids circa 1970 didn't want to watch even cool variety shows. They just wanted to get out of the house, heading off to real rockfests and R-rated filmings like "Woodstock."

But, thank goodness Jones, tried. We're left with this raucous document from a raw era before rock got slick. And we have the star - now 67 and Sir Tom Jones, but still a performing powerhouse - vividly recalling it all in new DVD episode introductions and a 35-minute interview.

"This Is Tom Jones" was mostly produced in London, he reminds us, and you can tell, in the moody stylishness of the sets and choreography, all shadowy lighting and surreal jumpsuit costumes. The guest mix of Brits and Americans takes a few missteps (Bob "Mr. Hardly Hip" Hope?), but typically percolates with a funky sense of rhythm and a loose sense of humor.

The latter isn't only from semi-regular comedy troupe Ace Trucking Company and guests like Peter Sellers (doing a sketch by John Cleese and Graham Chapman!). Jones himself - just 28 when the show debuted - was relaxed and real. He shined in unusual segments like a backstage rehearsal with warbling songwriter Burt Bacharach, intercut with their glitzier studio taping.

Moments like that keep the show feeling contemporary, radiating the performers' spontaneous enjoyment and appreciation of each other. In blazing duets Jones impressively holds his own with Joplin's wails, Cocker's moans, even Franklin's soul signifying. It's too bad DVD buyers won't see perhaps the most get-down jam of all - Jones with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, burning down the house in "Long Time Gone," inspiring Stephen Stills to ever higher call-and-response vocals, while David Crosby beams approvingly at his host through what seems an emblematic drug haze. Though included in advance publicity discs, this episode had to be removed from the set due to music rights refusals.

Maybe we shouldn't complain when the replacement show has '50s rocker Little Richard in his comeback mode's full androgyny-trend-setting pompadour-and-makeup regalia.

"This Is Tom Jones" isn't just some retro cheap thrill, though, or an exercise in nostalgia. It's a true time trip, transporting us back to viscerally feel the beat of a landmark era.

It's not unusual to be wowed. Repeatedly.

THIS IS TOM JONES: ROCK 'N' ROLL LEGENDS. Three discs of killer performances from the 1970 show's host, The Who, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Stevie Wonder. Extras include a new Jones interview. Out today from Time-Life, list price $40. BY DIANE WERTS Newsday, Long Island, NY