TITJ DVD Review: The Welsh Elvis Presley

titj-dvd-reviewEditor’s Note: The Crosby, Stills and Nash footage was pulled from the commercial version of this DVD due to licensing issues. It’s no accident Tom Jones used to look and sound so much like Elvis Presley. Growing up, the Welsh singer modeled himself after the boy from Tupelo. Presley admired Jones, as well. The King patterned his Las Vegas comeback in the ‘60s after Jones’ successful act at the strip’s Flamingo Hotel. Jones imitated Presley’s singing and hip gyrations only to have his virile style of performance copied by Elvis.

Female fans passionately adored both men. While the King had his gals swooning in the aisles, it was Jones that became famous for having women throw their panties on stage at him. However, Jones’ rise to fame occurred during the same time as the resurgence of the women’s liberation movement. This made his strong masculine persona seem archaic and conservative to young, hip viewers, while Presley’s original hipster fans saw him as wild and anarchic. This distinction is clearly evident in This is Tom Jones.

Considering the social and historical contexts from which the show emerged, Tom Jones’ TV series might be thought of as liberal entertainment. This is Tom Jones originally aired between February 1969 and September 1971, which was during President Richard Nixon’s first term in office. The variety show frequently featured women and black musicians and comedians, like Janis Joplin and Richard Pryor, whose presence positively conveyed messages about gender and race. Joplin soulfully sang with an ache in her voice that screamed louder than her precisely controlled volume. In color on the small screen she comes off larger than life and kicks serious butt. Pryor, joking about white Anglo-Saxon protestants and enjoying the sexual attention of the white models on stage with him, challenges the boundaries of broadcast comedy.

Still, like most TV programs from the era, this show tried to attract a wide demographic market. Jones’ guest stars also included acts meant to appeal to an older generation, like Bob Hope and Shelly Berman. Their tried and true shticks were conservative even for the time.

It’s one thing to have someone like Hope make tired, ribald comments about Jones being the answer to the woman’s movement. That’s to be expected. What’s more painful is to hear someone like the Oscar, Emmy and Tony Award winning actor (already in ‘70) Anne Bancroft read Judith Viorst’s “A Women’s Liberation Movement Woman”, which pokes fun at the notion of an independent woman. Viorst’s monologue may not have been intended to be reactionary, but its insistence that love means a woman should always give in to a man’s whim and wishes certainly comes off as so, and would at the time.

The thing is, her spiel fits in with the conceit of the show. Tom is continuously portrayed as a man’s man whom women can’t resist. This theme is set in the very first episode, when the first skit featured his TV producers sending him a gift box that contained “a box of birds”—a bevy of international beauties, that is. They can’t keep their bodies away from him, snicker snicker. Jones plays the humor broadly, ahem, but reinforces this image of himself as a chick magnet on every program. The entire live audience (the show was filmed both in Los Angeles and London and was initially broadcast both in the United States and England) was made up entirely of women. He sings live during every episode and offers kisses and hugs to his adoring fans who jump out of their seats to receive them. There is something old-fashioned and safe about the way it is done, as if he’s a politician kissing babies. That said, Jones is a genuinely gracious and charming host. He humbly demurs to all of his guests while introducing them. He flashes a bright smile when he addresses the camera and never seems to take himself too seriously. In ‘70, Jones was nominated for a Golden Globe award for Best TV Actor in a Musical or Comedy, and an episode from the same year that featured Mary Hopkins and Jose Feliciano received an Emmy award nomination for Outstanding Achievement in Music Direction of a Variety, Musical or Dramatic Program. The musical performances continually provide the programs most exciting moments.

The new 3-DVD set of selections (300 minutes) from the original program features many of these great musical performances. Jones has a strong baritone voice and uses it to full effect, especially on the R&B and Gospel tinged material like “In the Midnight Hour,” “Kansas City,” “Lucille,” and “Gonna Build Me a Mountain”. It’s during these songs that Jones’ debt to Presley seems most apparent. Jones’ phrasing and timbre, as well as his body movements, closely resembles the way in which the King performs tunes from the same genres. Watching with squinted eyes, it would be easy to imagine it’s Elvis on the screen.

Jones energetic enthusiasm also gives his renditions of Broadway and Hollywood showtunes, like “Hello Young Lovers” and “She Loves Me” some punch. These numbers usually feature an elaborate choreography of costumed dancers whose routines have little to do with the lyrics. However, the dancers wear sexy outfits and make sensual movements so they fit right in with the show’s larger zeitgeist. Jones also offers up his hits up to the audience, especially “It’s Not Unusual”, which he sings on several episodes included here.

This brings up the question of how the selections were determined. There doesn’t seem to be any particular rhyme or reason. It’s unclear whether several entire episodes were included with some partial ones thrown in the mix and whether this was someone’s idea of what was best, or representative of the whole, or they were picked according to some other rationale. The shows are not arranged in chronological order. With few exceptions, such as Richard Pryor, the comedy bits chosen are fairly lame.

The special guest musicians include some of the era’s best-known and loved artists. Needless to say, all of these musicians were relatively young at the time and physically charismatic. They look and sound great. They give wonderful performances and are worth the price of the set in themselves. In addition to the previously mentioned Janis Joplin, there’s Stevie Wonder, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Aretha Franklin singing and playing their hits live. Not only do these artists do at least one song by themselves, they are all joined by Jones for a number. He conducts himself very well. While it may seem strange to think of Jones and Joplin wailing together, their vocal duet on “Raise Your Hand” reveals a real shared love for the Blues. Their voices harmonize in inspired glory that causes them both to glow proudly. The same is true when he and Steven Stills join together on “Long Time Gone”, with Neil Young bopping in the background, or in the medley of each other’s hits that Jones and Stevie Wonder sing together, or when Jones and Aretha Franklin trade Soul licks on “Seesaw”.

However, the best musical moment here may be the one not performed live before an audience. The producers taped a rehearsal between Burt Bacharach and Jones and showed it during the episode in which Bacharach appeared. The footage reveals how the two approach a collaboration and meld Bacharach’s distinctive chord changes with Jones’ powerful voice. Jones, who had a big hit aggressively singing Bacharach’s “What’s New Pussycat” shows that the Welshman can also put across more tender material like “The Look of Love” and “What the World Needs Now”. Bacharach sparingly plays only the skeleton of the melody on the piano. It’s just beautiful. A few minutes later Jones belts the song with a full orchestra, but the tape illustrates that’s not the only way Jones could sing it.

The 3-DVD set is supposed to include a recent interview with Tom Jones, but that was not included in the promotional copy sent. According to Tom Jones’ website, another collection of material from the old television show is slated to appear. That should yield another treasure trove of material as Joni Mitchell, Johnny Cash, Dusty Springfield, Roy Clark, Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson, Wilson Pickett and many others appeared on the show. In the meantime, this one has plenty to offer.