Over the past few decades, Tom Jones seems to be perpetually cool, but it took a little time to overcome his initial image.
"Those bloody pants," says Jones in a call from Los Angeles, where he has lived since 1976. "If I had a chance again I wouldn't have worn them so tight! I’ve only got myself to blame there. When I look at myself from then I say, 'No wonder nobody paid attention to what was coming out of my mouth. They were too busy looking at my package!' "
When Jones' television show premiered in 1969 he was definitely touted as a sex symbol, but behind that was a singer steeped in American soul and rock 'n' roll.
His string of early hits - including "It's Not Unusual," "What's New Pussycat?" and "She's a Lady" - have gained stature through the years, and he keeps making surprise visits to the charts. In 1988, his cover of Prince's song "Kiss," performed with the Art of Noise, was an international hit, and in 1999 he returned with the dance club hit "Sexbomb."
Most recently, Jones recorded an album of fiery Americana gospel music called "Praise and Blame." He says the project really takes him back to his childhood in South Wales when he was listening to Mahalia Jackson and Paul Robeson on BBC radio. He didn't know it had had an effect on him until he was singled out while in elementary school.
"I can remember singing the Lord's Prayer in school and the teacher saying, 'Wait a minute we've got to get the school together to hear this because you're singing it different.' I was only 7 or 8. She calls the headmaster and says, 'You've got to hear what Tommy's doing to the Lord's Prayer!' "
Jones was asked to sing it in front of the school, but he was afraid he was doing something wrong and being held up as a bad example. When he asked what he was doing wrong, the teacher told him it wasn't wrong it was just in the style of an American Negro spiritual.
"They were with me," says Jones. "They wanted me to be in the choir, but I'm not a choir singer."
If the townspeople had had their way, he wouldn't have been a rock singer, either.
Jones had performed at the YMCA in Pontypridd, his hometown, just accompanying himself on guitar. One night when he walked in with a band, electric guitars and drums, the crowd made it clear that they didn't want rock 'n' roll.
"These guys were all going, 'Pay 'em off!' Which means, 'Pay them not to play.' I went to the microphone and I said, 'You all know me.' ‘Yeah, we all know you, Tommy, but we don’t want this bloody rock 'n' roll business.’ I said, ‘Just relax, please. Just listen and if you don't like it you can pay 'em off!' "
Jones says he eased into the rock stuff. He started with some covers of Roy Orbison, who was popular at the time, and then performed a few softer Elvis Presley songs.
"By the time we got to 'Great Balls of Fire' they were standing. They wanted to dance. So we went from 'Pay 'em off' to 'Do you think we can get an extension on the liquor license and go till 12?' And, ‘Would you mind if we moved all the chairs and tables back and had a dance?’ That happened in one night and we were off and running."
A little later, Jones signed with manager Gordon Mills and moved to London and was looking for the perfect rock 'n' roll song to record.
Mills and songwriter Les Reed were asked to write a song for hitmaker Sandy Shaw, and they asked Jones to record the demo. He hadn’t heard the finished song until he was on the way to cut it. With little notice, Jones and the band performed "It's Not Unusual" and an acetate disc was pressed.
"When I heard it, I said 'That's a hit song!' " says Jones. "Gordon said, 'Yeah, for Sandy Shaw, maybe.' And I said, 'No, for me!' "
Jones insisted that if he couldn't record the song he'd go back to Wales.
Mills argued that it was a pop song, not the rocker they were looking for. “I said, ‘I don’t give a (expletive) what you call it. That’s a hit song. I know it. I feel it. I said, ‘That’s the song we’ve been looking for!’ And I said, ‘If I don’t record this song I’m going back to Wales!’”
Shaw passed on the song and Jones had his first hit. However, it wasn't until years later when Shaw was a guest on Jones' television show that he found out why she hadn't recorded it. Shaw told Jones that when she heard the demo, she said, "Whoever is singing that song, it's his song."
Owning a song is a quality that has never left Jones. He’s recorded country numbers, including "The Green, Green Grass of Home," recorded an album with Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra and tackled just about every genre while retaining his own style.
Maybe it has to do with how Jones' approaches his art:
"I try to get into the song and live it," he says.
© 2011, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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