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It Is Unusual

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Tom Jones, folk hero?

For most of his flamboyant career, the Welsh-born singer has been more of a joke hero.

“Tight pants and the underwear thing,” says the coal miner’s son good-naturedly of his best-known trademarks. “That’s the perception people get.”

Indeed, countless comics have made punch line fodder of Jones’ blustery singing of such ‘60s hits as “What’s New, Pussycat?” and “Delilah,” his sex-god image and the deluge of undergarments tossed onstage by women during his performances.

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That ritual has been an inevitable part of his act for more than three decades and will certainly occur Friday when he performs at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. He’ll also be playing the L.A. area--his home base since 1976--June 13 as part of the KIIS-FM (102.7) Wango Tango extravaganza at Edison Field in Anaheim and at the Greek Theatre on July 2, sharing a bill with Little Richard and Solomon Burke.

But “The Ballad of Tom Jones,” a recent hit in Britain by the young English band Space, elevates the singer to mythic status. In it, singer Tommy Scott (coincidentally, the same name that Jones, whose real name is Thomas Jones Woodward, first used as a performer) and guest Cerys Matthews sing a duet as a couple who are at each other’s throats until the sound of Jones on the radio brings them back together in love.

Laced with references to Jones’ hits and image, the song features a chorus that goes, “You stopped us from killing each other,” as the background singers chime in “Tom Jones, Tom Jones.”

The song caps a string of nods from younger artists that began in 1987 when the group Art of Noise recorded Prince’s “Kiss” with him. And to Jones, who also gained renewed exposure via his version of Randy Newman’s “You Can Leave Your Hat On” in the hit film “The Full Monty,” the tribute is very gratifying.

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“It’s the biggest compliment you can be paid musically if someone writes a song about you,” says Jones, 57, who recently completed one of the five two-week stints he will do this year at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. “Especially if you’re a hero rather than a joke.”

Of course it’s not unusual for Jones to poke fun at his own image. Winking references were staples of the ‘60s TV variety show he hosted during his peak pop chart years. And in recent times, he’s happily participated in self-directed jibes such as a guest spot on “The Simpsons.”

But he’s always longed to be viewed as something more than a pelvic performer--a legitimate singer with a wide-ranging rock, pop and R&B; repertoire.

“If people haven’t really listened to me or seen me perform, then they would think there’s a lot of middle-aged housewives throwing underwear at me and that’s the only thing. I think sometimes the public’s been misled [by the jokes] if they don’t know what I’m doing.

“But the musicians understand,” he says. “They get the message. That’s why Art of Noise asked me to do ‘Kiss.’ ”

That collaboration and a British hit version of EMF’s “Unbelievable” began a chain of projects that, if not building to a Tina Turner or Tony Bennett type of comeback, brought Jones new attention and respect. A deal with Interscope Records resulted in the 1994 album “The Lead and How to Swing It” with a guest appearance by Tori Amos and producers ranging from avant-rock figures Flood and Youth to R&B; force Teddy Riley. Recent teamings have included British pop singer Robbie Williams and the hard-edged techno-rock act Ruby (a version of “Kung Fu Fighting” for the Jackie Chan movie “Supercop”).

And to showcase his R&B; roots, two years ago, Jones accepted an offer from producer-musician Steve Jordan, who has worked with Keith Richards and many others, to make a classic-style soul album. The record, Jones says, was rejected by Interscope for lacking a contemporary pop single, but he’s close to a deal for British release and hopes for U.S. distribution as well. (An Interscope spokeswoman said, “The record wasn’t right for us.”)

That’s not to say he wants the rain of lingerie to dry up.

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“The underwear has always been focused on in reviews,” Jones says. “So Donna, my daughter-in-law, said recently we should get the point across that we don’t want it to happen. I said, ‘You can’t stop something that’s been happening for over 30 years.’ And I don’t think I want it to stop anyway. If you’re going to sing sexy songs, to get a sexy reaction is it--as long as it doesn’t interfere with the show.”

BE THERE

Tom Jones, Friday at Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza, 2100 E. Thousand Oaks Blvd., 8 p.m. $25-$50. (805) 449-2787.


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