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TOM JONES : It’s Not Unusual He’s Still So Hip

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What’s new Tom Jones?

Well, the 54-year-old singer has a new CD out on Interscope Records, “The Lead and How to Swing It,” and recently returned from a successful tour of England.

The Welsh sex symbol also is host with country singer Lorrie Morgan and rapper-actress Queen Latifah of the 22nd annual “American Music Awards,” which airs Monday on ABC. Dick Clark is executive producer of the three-hour special from Los Angeles’ Shrine Auditorium.

Presenters include Paula Abdul, Ace of Base, Bryan Adams, Anita Baker, Alice Cooper, Vince Gill, Heavy D, Reba McEntire, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Tammy Wynette. Boyz II Men, Celine Dion and Toni Braxton are among the performers. Winners of the American Music Awards are selected by the public. A random sample of approximately 20,000 people across the nation were sent ballots by the National Family Opinion Inc. firm.

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It’s been 30 years since Jones first came to America as part of the British rock invasion. His early tunes, “It’s Not Unusual,” “What’s New Pussycat” and “Delilah,” hit the top of the charts. Jones also hosted the popular 1969-71 ABC series “This Is Tom Jones.”

Over the years Jones has remained a popular concert attraction; female fans still love to toss their undergarments on stage. Younger audiences have jumped on the Jones’ bandwagon since his 1988 recording, with Art of Noise, of a song by the artist formerly known as Prince. Jones’ version of “Kiss” also hit the charts.

Times Staff Writer Susan King caught up with the busy performer over the phone to discuss the “American Music Awards” and his enduring career.

How did you get involved in hosting the “American Music Awards?”

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I hosted the MTV European Music Awards (last year) in Berlin and that went pretty good. When I went to have some publicity shots taken for this show, Dick Clark came over. I hadn’t seen him in a while and he said he was very pleased I was doing it.

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Did you ever do “American Bandstand” with Clark?

Yeah. We go back to ’65. I did a Dick Clark “Caravan of Stars.” He used to put these shows on through the ‘60s and we would (travel) on buses. It was the first tour I had ever done of America. I had done some “Ed Sullivan” shows and had done two weeks at the Brooklyn Fox in 1965 when I first came over here.

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Dick (also) said to me, “I have a picture of you in drag that I’m keeping.” It was a long tour. Dick would sort of pop in and see us. We used to do these parties. When he would show up, we would have a bit of a ding-dong. One night, we all changed parts. There was a female group on the tour called The Shirelles, so I was (lead singer) Shirley and Shirley was me. I put on her makeup, dress and wig and she put on my suit. We all mimed to each other’s records in some hotel somewhere.

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Besides hosting the “American Music Awards” with Lorrie Morgan and Queen Latifah, will you also be performing?

Yeah, we will perform as well. I don’t know which song, because we are trying to figure out what single to go with off the album as a second single.

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Have you ever been nominated for an American Music Award?

I’ve never been associated with them. I’ve always watched it. It’s important because it’s the people who vote.

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It’s a sometimes forgotten fact you won the 1965 Grammy for best new artist.

Herman’s Hermits thought they were going to get it. They were really big then. I was in England. The fellow who was representing me in New York called me in the middle of the night in England and said, “You have just won.” I said, “You’re joking.” I mean, I didn’t really know I was up for it. It was great.

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Do you get a real cross-section of fans coming to your concerts?

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Yes. Youngsters have always been coming to see me, but mostly with their parents, except when I first started. But when I did “Kiss” I saw a lot of younger people coming in by themselves.

I just did a British tour. It was a concern that some of the older fans there would want to sit down to watch my show and the youngsters would want to get up. I do most of the new album and the big hits that I had, but they seem to work all together. They were powerful songs anyway, the old ones. So it’s like half a rock concert and half a middle-of-the-road concert.

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Were you surprised “Kiss” became a hit with the young crowd?

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Not really, because I have always been putting new songs in the show over the years by other people--George Michael, INXS, Billy Idol--anybody who came out with a song I thought I could do, I’d do on stage. Youngsters would run up on the stage and say, “Why don’t you record these songs?” That is how “Kiss” came about. I was doing it live, you see, and then Art of Noise saw me do it and asked if I would like to record it with them. So it was a fluke really. I didn’t think it would be a single--because Prince already had this big hit with it--until I heard the finished thing. Then I thought that if this isn’t a hit, I might as well pack it in as far as recording is concerned.

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Who were your idols as a youngster?

In the ‘50s, it was Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. I met Elvis Presley in ’65 when I first came over. I had a single out at the time called “With These Hands” and he was walking toward me singing it. I thought, “Jesus, here comes Elvis Presley singing my song.” I met him at Paramount Studios. He said to me, “How the hell do you sing like that?” I said, “You are to blame.” When I had my own TV show on ABC, Jerry Lee Lewis was on, so I performed with him, which was tremendous, and Little Richard and Chuck Berry. The only one I haven’t sung with is Fats Domino. But I met him and know him.

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Do you still love touring?

Definitely. That’s what I live for. That’s my existence.

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Are women still throwing their underwear up on stage during your performance?

They still do it, but I don’t sort of capitalize on it anymore.

“The American Music Awards” airs Monday at 8 p.m. on ABC.


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