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Tom Jones

Known as much for his devoted female fanbase, who would throw knickers at him on stage, versatile veteran of UK TV’s “The Voice”, TOM JONES has had more ups than downs in a 50+year career, a career that has seen him hitchhike on a raft of genres – from a swinging blue-eyed soulster within the British Invasion, to crooner country Vegas showman, to a rootsy gospel-blues purveyor in his twilight time. A no-nonsense approach and professional artist second-to-none, a gift that has seen him through some rough patches, ELVIS fan Tom’s rugged and robust baritone has been mimicked many times, none better than fellow Welshman, comedian Rob Brydon.
Born Thomas Jones Woodward, 7 June 1940 in Treforest, Pontypridd, Wales, life was tough in the valleys, and tougher still when, aged 12, he contracted tuberculosis and had to stay in bed for a few years. It was during his time convalescing that he turned to music, singing along to the stars of American soul and, in turn, R&B: mainly SOLOMON BURKE, BROOK BENTON, JACKIE WILSON, ELVIS PRESLEY, LITTLE RICHARD et al. From a hard-bitten, working class upbringing (his dad was a coal miner), the 16-year old Tom moved on from petty juvenile troublemaking into a marriage to high school girlfriend, Linda Trenchard, whom he would subsequently keep separate from his public “ladies man” persona when stardom arose. The couple almost immediately had a son, Mark Woodward, an event that spurred Tom to take employment in a glove factory and later in construction.
Cutting his teeth as a part-time pub singer, in 1963 Tom eventually formed his own combo under the eponymous moniker of Tommy Scott & The Senators; songs were recorded for legendary producer Joe Meek, although nothing came of the demos. At a time when groups were the in-thing, solo artists were given short-shrift for a while as the British Invasion took hold. However, Peter Sullivan of Decca Records had seen potential in Tom’s vocal cords and put him on to a short-term partnership with manager Phil Solomon. A year on, the singer was spotted by fellow countryman, Gordon Mills (ex-Viscounts), who, in turn, became both his new manager and co-writer. By summer ‘64, he’d become TOM JONES (after the success of a bawdy British comedy movie of the same name) and through Decca, released a cover of Ronnie Love’s `Chills And Fever’ as his debut. Although the single was a flop, JONES made his name early the following year with the classic pop of `It’s Not Unusual’. A UK chart-topper for one week (knocking off The SEEKERS’ `I’ll Never Find Another You’), the platter showcased JONES’ powerful, pop-vocal prowess while his charismatic TV appearances wowed the ladies with a hip-swivelling stage style influenced by the likes of JERRY LEE LEWIS and ELVIS “The Pelvis” PRESLEY; the song also dented the Top 10 in America where he was signed to Parrot Records.
A fully-fledged Welsh “sex bomb”, medallion man JONES became a regular fixture in both the UK and US charts with such timeless pop nuggets as `What’s New Pussycat?’ (a BACHARACH & DAVID-penned title theme to that movie), Billy Eckstine’s `With These Hands’ and a prestigious theme to the James Bond flick, `Thunderball’. In the meantime, the boy from nowhere released three LPs in relatively quick succession: ALONG CAME JONES (1965) {*6} – re-titled IT’S NOT UNUSUAL in the States, the US-only/non-soundtrack WHAT’S NEW PUSSYCAT? (1965) {*5} and A-TOM-IC JONES (1966) {*6}, but apart from the exclusive platter `Not Responsible’ (unavailable on his UK Top 30 fourth album, FROM THE HEART (1966) {*6}), his 45s were a bit of a Juke Box Jury hit or miss.
This brief blip was turned on its head when Mills drastically diverted Tom’s image into that of a lounge-lizard country-pop crooner, all in an attempt to reach out to fans of a more respectable age; the fact that JONES himself was 26 helped the process; the fact that his inaugural record under this regime, `Green, Green Grass Of Home’, resided at the top of the UK charts for seven long weeks more or less helped his cause beyond any doubt.
All in his best interests, as the singer was as psychedelic as a packet of silk cut; testament to that was the conflicting appeal of different versions of his album, GREEN, GREEN GRASS OF HOME (1967) {*6/*5}, in which the UK edition (featuring the guitar-groovy BOBBY BARE-penned `Detroit City’) hit Top 3 status, and the US version virtually bombing having been split with another major hit title in FUNNY FAMILIAR FORGOTTEN FEELINGS (1967) {*5}. Significantly, manager Mills had another pop balladeer on his hands, when the similarly groomed ENGELBERT HUMPERDINCK (at the tender age of 30!) came out of the woodwork to plead… `Release Me’.
On the back of the British Top 10 success of LIVE! AT THE TALK OF THE TOWN (1967) {*6}, concert attraction JONES secured a run of three consecutive No.2 singles: `I’ll Never Fall In Love Again’ (penned by LONNIE DONEGAN), `I’m Coming Home’ and his piece de resistance, `Delilah’; the latter a song that became synonymous with the times until a certain SENSATIONAL ALEX HARVEY BAND gave it a proper face-lift and re-vamp several years on.
JONES’ 13 SMASH HITS (1967) {*6} – aka THE TOM JONES FEVER ZONE in the States – was not in fact a compilation but a covers LP, taking in current pop trends and soul staples of the day (from WILSON PICKETT’s `Don’t Fight It’ to LENNON-McCARTNEY’s `Yesterday’), while follow-on sets DELILAH (1968) {*6} – a UK No.1 – and HELP YOURSELF (1968) {*6} – a UK No.4 and the title of another Top 5 singles breaker – kept up Tom’s momentum; as did major hits, `A Minute Of Your Time’, `Love Me Tonight’ and `Without Love (There Is Nothing)’, plus the “lounger’s paradise” albums THIS IS TOM JONES (1969) {*6} and another shot-in-the-dark concert set LIVE AT LAS VEGAS (1969) {*6}.
As the psychedelic 60s moved into the hard-and-heavy prog 70s, it worried crooner Mr. JONES not one iota, as his agenda concerned running up the odd transatlantic chart by way of `Daughter Of Darkness’ (not from the syrupy set TOM (1970) {*5}) and the BEN E. KING-scribed title piece from I WHO HAVE NOTHING (also 1970) {*6}. Still walking tall among the glitzy glam-rock parade of stars, Tom’s golden period was extended further into the early 70s with full-scale hits in the shape of `She’s A Lady’, `Till’ and `The Young New Mexican Puppeteer’; the attendant SHE’S A LADY (1971) {*6}, the obligatory TOM JONES `LIVE AT CAESAR’S PALACE’ LAS VEGAS (1971) {*6} and CLOSE UP (1972) {*5}, were his corresponding albums.
Yet as his flares grew wider, the hits became thinner on the ground with the concurrent glam-rock scene taking precedence. TJ duly decamped to the glitzy cabaret circuit of Las Vegas having earlier moved to sunny L.A.; `Letter To Lucille’ (from THE BODY AND SOUL OF TOM JONES (1973) {*4}) and the nostalgia-seeped minor hit title track from SOMETHIN’ ‘BOUT YOU BABY I LIKE (1974) {*4}, were slim pickings for a man who had swept the boards in the 60s – proof in the pudding being his 20 GREATEST HITS {*9} topping the charts, while the rather average and poignant MEMORIES DON’T LEAVE LIKE PEOPLE DO (also 1975) {*5}, flopped miserably.
A testing time for tax exile Tom when punk duly reared its ugly head, SAY YOU’LL STAY UNTIL TOMORROW (1977) {*4} and WHAT A NIGHT (1977) {*3} – both for E.M.I. (US Epic Records) – had little to shout about, while for Columbia Records (M.C.A. Stateside), DO YOU TAKE THIS MAN (1979) {*3} and RESCUE ME (1980) {*3} had little appeal to those outside his ever-decreasing circle of fans.
Meanwhile, Polydor Records were quick to see the potential of a 40-something TOM JONES making them big bucks and, for the first half of the 80s, mainly in Nashville, he was a kingpin in this genre; DARLIN’ (1981) {*5}, COUNTRY (1982) {*3}, DON’T LET OUR DREAMS DIE YOUNG (1983) {*4}, LOVE IS ON THE RADIO (1984) {*2} and TENDER LOVING CARE (1986) {*3}, available only in America.
Having achieved a certain degree of success in the C&W charts, it was sad news when his manager Gordon Mills died of cancer in July 1986. But in stepped son Mark to keep the business in the family. Mark’s finger was more in line with the effervescent music scene. The thought was his old dad would fit in some place. Firing back on all cylinders, the aptly-titled near No.1, `A Boy From Nowhere’ (spawned from MATADOR – THE MUSICAL LIFE OF EL CORDOBES (1987) {*5}), this much-mooted project failed to garner interest and, without a disgruntled JONES, it crumbled four years later.
The out-of-nowhere success in ’87 served as a springboard from which Tom went on to re-establish himself as a credible crooner via a collaboration with the ART OF NOISE on their Top 5 cover of PRINCE’s `Kiss’. In its wake, JONES appeared with other Welsh artists in the musical version of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, although soon afterwards, Katherine Berkery won a paternity lawsuit against the singer for which he duly had to pay £200 a week for child maintenance. The tabloid press had another field day at the time for revealing his other misdemeanours, while his long-standing wife Linda was said to have punched and kicked him, way back, in lieu of his other infidelities that included the likes MARY WILSON (of The SUPREMES), TV hostess Charlotte Laws, Cassandra Peterson (later known as TV’s Elvira, Mistress of the dark) and 1973’s Miss World, Marjorie Wallace. Tom and Linda duly patched things up and are still married to this day (as of December 2015).
JONES’ critical rehabilitation continued in 1989, when a solo version of PHYLLIS NELSON’s `Move Closer’ (from the glowing MOR set, AT THIS MOMENT {*5}) breeched the Top 50. Further singles success came by way of a VAN MORRISON song (from 1991’s set of the same name CARRYING A TORCH {*4}), a rendering of The BEATLES’ `All You Need Is Love’ (for the Childline Charity appeal) and `If I Only Knew’ (a No.11 smash from 1994’s THE LEAD AND HOW TO SWING IT {*4}).
The cream of the latter-day alt-pop scene (save for a few oldsters like Van the man) queued up to work with him on the massively fruitful RELOAD (1999) {*7}. Among the collaborations featured were re-interpretations of TALKING HEADS’ `Burning Down The House’ (the lead-off Top 10 hit featuring The CARDIGANS), Frank Loesser’s `Baby, It’s Cold Outside’ (a Top 20 entry with Cerys from CATATONIA) and RANDY NEWMAN’s `Mama Told Me Not To Come’ (a Top 5 hit with fellow Welsh stars, STEREOPHONICS). Alongside duets with ROBBIE WILLIAMS (whom he’d appeared with in the 1998’s Brit awards), MOUSSE T (with the massive Top 3 smash `Sex Bomb’), HEATHER SMALL (with `You Need Love Like I Do’), plus The DIVINE COMEDY, SPACE, James Dean Bradfield, The PRETENDERS, PORTISHEAD, SIMPLY RED, NATALIE IMBRUGLIA, BARENAKED LADIES, ZUCCHERO and the JAMES TAYLOR QUARTET, it deserved its No.1 tag, while the man himself was awarded the O.B.E.
A further bid for credibility came in the shape of the plaintive MR. JONES (2002) {*4}, an unlikely – and for some, hilarious – WYCLEF JEAN-produced affair, which married the latter’s ubiquitous production skills with the Sir’s near-septuagenarian sexiness. The result? A wildly eclectic album which sometimes worked (as on the cover of LEADBELLY’s `Black Betty’) and sometimes fell flat on its face a la `Tom Jones International’. JONES was never going to be the next P. DIDDY but there weren’t many – if any – men his age with the balls enough to try something like this.
Er… later, with TOM JONES & JOOLS HOLLAND (2004) {*6}, the millionaire connection was happy to re-arrange some deep old R&B and gospel for anyone not yet in awe of the likes of `St. James’ Infirmary Blues’, `Glory Of Love’, `Think’, et al.
Tom’s fanbase now firmly based in Britain (although he himself was based in Los Angeles), he unveiled his tribute to the swinging 60s in 24 HOURS (2008) {*6}. Besides being augmented by producers Future Cut, it was his collaborations with Nellee Hooper on the U2-authored `Sugar Daddy’ that made the set all the more interesting.
Re-addressing the Great American Songbook back into the blues, a revelatory, rootsy and redemptive TJ – now un-dyed and aged 70! – relayed his deep love of the genre by way of PRAISE & BLAME (2010) {*7}. Arguably the best album of his career, JONES had finally won over his young critics via his interpretations of JOHN LEE HOOKER’s `Burning Hell’, SISTER ROSETTA THARPE’s `Strange Things’, BILLY JOE SHAVER’s `If I Give My Soul’ and even DYLAN’s `What Good Am I?’ – producer/musician extraordinaire Ethan Johns taking deserved praise, indeed.
The Rick Rubin-esque Ethan was responsible for TOM “The Voice” JONES’ follow-up venture, the back-to-back Top 3 SPIRIT IN THE ROOM (2012) {*6}. Switching from trad blues to contemporary-pop re-arranged in the eyes of a stripped-back blue-eyed soul stirrer, covers of LEONARD COHEN’s `Tower Of Song’, PAUL McCARTNEY’s `(I Want To) Come Home’, PAUL SIMON’s `Love And Blessings’, RICHARD THOMPSON’s `Dimming Of The Day’ and TOM WAITS’ `Bad As Me’, nestled nicely between gritty takes of BLIND WILLIE JOHNSON’s `Soul Of A Man’ and ODETTA’s `Hit Or Miss’, among others.
Whether his autobiographical LONG LOST SUITCASE (2015) {*7} would be his swansong set was anybody’s guess, but having reached another pinnacle of his career by way of the publication of his Over The Top And Back book, one can’t help thinking… no way. Marking half-a-century at the top as a bona fide, bombastic sex bomb, JONES (and Johns) was again able to shake and shimmy his way into the living-rooms of his dizzy disciples. Demonstrating his range through versions of the YARDBIRDS’ `I Wish You Would’, The ROLLING STONES’ `Factory Girl’ and GILLIAN WELCH’s `Elvis Presley Blues’, the evergreen, green grass of TOM JONES had ticked off another box in his bucket list.
© MC Strong 2000-2006/GRD // rev-up MCS Dec2015

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