Tom Marches On
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.
In one afternoon, Jones learned the song and cut the demo for Mills' publishing company. "Shit, this was definitely my song. It just hit me. I sounded very natural singing it," he says. "I told Gordon, 'If I don't bloody record this, I'm going back to Wales. I'm off.'"
The BBC initially banned "It's Not Unusual" for being "too aggressive"!!
"Deejays told me that the program directors instructed them not to play my music. The BBC just didn't like me," Jones says with a verbal shrug. It was up to Radio Caroline, a pirate radio station anchored off the coast, to make "It's Not Unusual" a hit and force BBC Radio to begrudgingly give it play.
Plugging the cut on BBC television was another, stickier matter since most of the pop-music shows in Britain aired on the "children's hour," between 5 and 6 p.m.
"I did a show which still runs now called Blue Peter--sounds like a frozen dick," says Jones, snickering. "I went on there and got a lot of letters from parents saying, 'This man is too raunchy. He should not be on children's television.'"
Indeed. Oddly enough, Jones' follow-up, the lascivious, leering "What's New, Pussycat?" didn't send the BBC scrambling to wash Jones' mouth out with soap. And it even had the P word!
"I don't think that term was used much then," says Jones with a laugh.
When Jones first made the rounds in London, no one was sure how to handle such a hot property. In short, he looked all wrong.
"My hair was curly, I had grease in it, I wore leather pants. They thought I was athrowback to the Fifties because I didn't look like the Beatles, the Stones or Herman's Hermits." Fortunately for Jones, he had a voice that would have moved product coming from a St. Paul's Cathedral choirboy, let alone a greasy, Welsh soul man.
Throughout his entire career, Jones has split his time between pleasing the kids and pleasing their mums. Nearly all of the Parrot-label-era albums (most now available only as German imports) were neatly divided into two programs. One side usually held all the rockers and R&B covers, while the other contained the dreamy, anguished ballads.
"I came up with the idea based on my own experience," Jones proudly reveals. "When people get into a groove, they want to keep that groove going, they don't want to keep jumping from 'Memphis Tennessee' to 'When the World Was Beautiful,' and both tunes were on my first album."
Finding the right songs had grown difficult by 1967, as Jones sat out psychedelia. Most rock bands at the time, he says, were writing songs for themselves. "I wasn't getting those songs firsthand." His solution: Record country music. "I got 'Green, Green Grass of Home' off a Jerry Lee Lewis album called Country Songs for City Folks. I always bought his records and still do, though the last one wasn't up to snuff. That song struck me as more than the average country song."
"Green, Green Grass of Home" put Jones in the No. 1 slot for nearly two months, selling a million copies in England alone. That was an astronomical figure for the time, and Jones joined the Beatles and Elvis as the only acts that could lay that claim.
It has often been said that when the King and Priscilla drove to Vegas on April 6, 1968, to witness Jones' sin-sational act, it scared Elvis out of his B-movie stupor faster than Spinout ever could.
"Elvis came to see me work because he felt we were similar in what we were doing," Jones recalls. "He wanted to work live again and he wanted to work Las Vegas. Because he was here in the Fifties and he bombed. Christ, he loved Las Vegas more than any entertainer I've ever met! He used to come here even when he wasn't working, and he got married here. The fact that I was doing it here gave him confidence. He told me that."
What isn't too widely known is that Elvis' manager, Colonel Tom Parker, wanted to go into partnership with Gordon Mills and hold a monopoly on the top three male vocalists of the time--Elvis, Jones and Mills' other star, Engelbert Humperdinck. In exchange for a piece of Tom and 'bert, Mills would get a percentage of Elvis, but he turned it down.
Jones was so hot by 1969 that he got his own TV series, which ran on ABC through 1971. Tapped as a midseason replacement for (Hades help us!) Jimmy Durante Presents the Lennon Sisters, This Is Tom Jones represented the polar opposite of hourly, variety-show entertainment. Instead of offering Middle America four virginal, Lawrence Welk refugees and an aging vaudevillian with a big schnozzola, Jones boasted two perpetually swiveling hips, soul-man grunts that would make even TLC blush--and something resembling Durante's proboscis bulging out of his tight tuxedo pants.
That, of course, bothered the censors at ABC who, Jones says, maintained constant vigilance. "The censors watched us all the time. Once, when we did 'Satisfaction,' they stopped me because this censor was on about my movements with that song." One of them, a woman, told Jones, "When you move your hips like that, it looks like you can't get any sexual satisfaction." He says incredulously, "Well, that's exactly what the song means!"
For male singing stars, hosting a TV variety program was tantamount to castration. Many a promising musical career was left dickless after the humiliation of an artist being forced to participate in lousy comedy skits with Paul Lynde week after week. Jones wisely left the demeaning world of comedy to whatever standup comedian or Muppet was a guest that week, and stuck to belting out song after song.
"If I ever get the chance to do a network show again, I'd do all music," he says. "And do a different kind of music every week. When I did the TV shows for ABC, they tried to make me more middle of the road and get more established acts for ratings. I used to do a tradeoff. I'd say, 'If you want Barbara Eden of I Dream of Jeannie on, fine, but I want Wilson Pickett or Jerry Lee Lewis."
Besides smuggling great British rock bands like The Who ("They appeared three or four times," says Jones), the Bee Gees, the Dave Clark Five and the Crazy World of Arthur Brown into American living rooms, Jones gave his viewing audience a 15-minute teaser of the pandemonium he was capable of whipping up in his SRO concerts at the end of every telecast.
Each week, this explosive segment opened with the same extreme close-up of a Shure microphone perched atop its stand. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting for Tom's love touch. A slow drumroll commenced, soon punctuated by the mounting swells of the Jack Parnell Orchestra. Then, descending upon the delicate curvature of that blasted mike we'd been staring at for what now seemed like an eternity, came Jones' bejeweled fingers (except for that extended pinky, pointing ever northward).
Jones always performed on the air with three gargantuan letters behind him--TOM, just in case you'd forgotten with what force you were dealing. When Engelbert Humperdinck got his own copycat ABC-TV show in 1970, his concert segment had to be jettisoned because he couldn't rock, couldn't scream, couldn't swivel, and when he wasn't appearing in lame skits, he was singing schmaltz like "Quando Quando Quando." No Joe Tex covers for Humperdinck, no sirree. Clearly, he was the Anti-Tom. (And besides, the bill for gargantuan letters spelling ENGELBERT most likely proved too high.)
Jones is a little more generous in his assessment. "The only thing that ever bothered me was when people compared Humperdinck and myself. I couldn't see it. He's a balladeer. I feel I'm more of an R&B singer. I inflect that in my songs. Humperdinck can't. He doesn't have it in him to do that."
Jones was a friend of Humpy back in the days when Engelbert was plain, old Gerry Dorsey. Jones recorded "Release Me" first, but ironically didn't want to release it, and even coached Humperdinck on the phrasing for the tune at Mills' request. In the coming years, the press would drum up stories of a huge rivalry between the two men for Mills' attention, but it was never a problem for Jones.
"'Release Me' became a huge hit, even preventing the Beatles' 'Penny Lane' from going to No. 1 in England," says Jones. "Then he started believing his own publicity and saying to Gordon that he wasn't giving him enough time. So he put it in the papers that Gordon Mills no longer represents me. That's when the split came."
Both men are currently on the road, but since the 200-plus dates Jones plays each year include rock clubs, his audiences are top-heavy with young people. "It fluctuates nightly," he notes. Which fans are tougher to control? "A lot of those full-grown women can get ... (Jones laughs) I mean, I can elbow a 17-year-old out of the way.
"The older fans want to sit down, but the kids want to get up. So you get that bit of conflict. I played a show in my hometown of Cardiff and these young fellows love the old stuff as well--they go nuts for 'Delilah'--and they were leaping up and down when this old woman apparently started smacking one kid in the back, telling him to sit down. He turned around and said to this woman, 'Fuck off, grandma!' I was pissing myself, but this sort of thing goes on."
Jones is thankful that the toss-hotel-keys-onstage trend is dying out among his female fans. "That was cute while it was happening. Then they started with the undergarments. The underwear still flies. I used to do the business with them and wipe my brow. But the music suffered for it. Too much tongue-in-cheek. People didn't think I was serious about my music, that I was fooling around too much. Me, I thought, you can have a bit of fun and also get serious. But you can't regulate it if you're doing 'Walking in Memphis' and somebody hits you with a pair of drawers. It kills the mood!"
Jones chuckles. "If only I could have an applause sign that flashes 'KNICKER-THROWING NOW!'"
Tom Jones is scheduled to perform on Friday, March 8, at Celebrity Theatre. Showtime is 8 p.m.
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