By Benjamin Leatherman
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Here's a mentally stimulating game--think of any song written in the last 45 years, then imagine Tom Jones singing it.
No matter what your level of creativity, it should be tough to picture Jones botching a tune--any tune. In the last 30-plus years, theWelsh Wonder has recorded everything from "My Yiddisch Momme" to "Hold On, I'm Coming," always giving the song in question 150 percent without flinching. Sobring on your worst-case scenarios: "Wynona's Big Brown Beaver." "I Wanna Be Your Dog." "Zombie." "The Night Chicago Died." It would all be ear candy in the care of the man they like to call (thunderous music, please) The Voice!!
It's that rich, booming voice, rather than some upstart marketing strategy, that's earned Jones his current popularity with a younger generation. Critics have lumped his comeback in with the Tony Bennett phenomenon, but beyond both men appearing on The Simpsons and continuing to make recordings, the comparisons fall away. Bennett came into a new audience by adhering to the same style he's employed since the Fifties, while Jones has always been something of a pop chameleon. By virtue of ... er ... The Voice, he has credibly moved from genre to genre, scoring country hits ("Green, Green Grass of Home," "Say You'll Stay Until Tomorrow"), operatic melodramas ("Daughter of Darkness," "Thunderball") and, most recently, techno-dance hits ("Kiss," "If I Only Knew").
Admit it, some of you saw the cover of his 1994 album, The Lead and How to Swing It, and assumed it would be a camp excursion on a par with Ethel Merman's disco album. Oh, foolish, foolish nonbelievers! Jones in a fishnet shirt, screaming to the heavens in mute, nostril agony as if John Henry himself had dropped a steel driving hammer on his foot? Bah! Tom in pain, Tom exploding, Tom sweating up a storm--they're all facile, stock-in-trade promotional images used heavily from the very beginning to simulate his raw energy. Just recall the 1966 album ATomIc Jones, which had Jones and his twitching torso slapped in front of a photo of an Abomb explosion. Jones' American label, Parrot Records, refused to release it in the States because it was thought to be in bad taste. Hell, we're the ones that dropped the dang thing on Japan! Now that was bad taste! The image was an accurate one. Come on, people, you don't package a dynamo like Tom Jones--you merely contain him! Forget the floogin' covers already, it's The Voice that does all the selling. The Voice shoots and The Voice scores, every goddamned song on the 1994 album and every one preceding it!
At this very moment, I'm listening to Jones' highest-ever-charting U.S. album Tom Jones Live in Las Vegas, and it's every bit as exciting as the Rolling Stones' Get Yer YaYa's Out!--perhaps even more so, since Tom's not afraid of his devotees like Mick Jagger was. You want Altamont? Listen to Tom egging on his amorous attackers at the Flamingo with his 1968 smash "Help Yourself": "Just help yourself to my lips, to my arms, just say the word and they are yours." There he goes, offering himself up like a lemon meringue pie for consumption by hundreds of insatiable women. Your sisters, your mothers, your aunts, your first-grade teachers, community helpers--fer the love of Lucifer--all getting bent out of shape over tuxedoed Tom and his hot, monkey-organ grinding.
Jones shows no mercy, punishing them right out of the gate with stone-ravers like "Shake" and "It's a Man's Man's Man's World." Hearing Jones work this throng of throbbing female nation makes you wonder if only his Welsh birth certificate stands in the way of universal acceptance as a soul man of the first water. The abundance of mature audience members and his inclusion of old standards like "Autumn Leaves" and "Fly Me to the Moon" lead some to falsely perceive Jones as a middle-of-the-road performer. Aren't they forgetting that Sam Cooke, James Brown, Marvin Gaye and Jackie Wilson recorded some of the greatest schlock known to man or beast in order to secure bookings at the Copacabana?
There you go. You couldn't call Sam Cooke middle of the road.
It's 26 years after Tom Jones Live in Las Vegas, and The Voice is speaking from the other side of the road live (on the phone) from Las Vegas. Next month, he begins recording a new album with producer Steve Jordan. Jones promises it will be "more soulful, with lots of leakage and distortion."
"The big problem for me," says the 55year-old Jones, "is always finding the right songs. My versatility sometimes goes against it. It's a handicap. If you sing a certain style of music, that's it. But I love rock tunes, rhythm and blues and big, torchy ballads. And I like some country music."
Jones left his hometown of Cardiff, Wales, for London in 1963, seeking a signature song that would catapult him to stardom. But history tells us it wasn't "Chills and Fever," his first single, recorded live in the studio with Jones' back-up band the Senators and the legendary, eccentric English record producer Joe Meek twiddling the knobs.
"That record was a bit over the top, really. Joe used to slap a lot of echo on everything. We did five tunes with him, but he couldn't get anyone to release them." One Meek/Jones production, "Little Lonely One," eventually turned into a minor hit in this country when it was released in 1965, by which time Jones already had his signature tune--"It's Not Unusual," penned by Les Reed and Jones' manager, the late Gordon Mills.