THE boy seemed destined to work in the dark. The son of a miner, he grew up in the 1940s under the bleak umbrella skies of South Wales in the village of Treforest, where local life was as hard as the coal and iron that sustained it. Thomas Jones Woodward was expected to join the other men in the mines, but tuberculosis changed that. He was bedridden for two years and then sent off to church with the girls to learn to sing.
He not only learned about singing, he learned about girls.
It was an unusual beginning for the boy who would grow up to be singer Tom Jones, a man more interesting on closer inspection than his cartoonish popular image as some singing gigolo in tight pants. He’s gotten more respect from peers and younger artists than from critics (note his close friendship with the late Elvis Presley and, in recent years, his collaborations with Wyclef Jean, Tori Amos, Portishead and Trevor Horn). And while he is a regular on the Las Vegas circuit, he’s shown a willingness to take risks that set him apart from Wayne Newton, Robert Goulet and other frozen-in-time fixtures on the Strip.
So now, at 66, Jones finds himself both hailed and dismissed, depending on who’s around. On stage, his greatest challenge is finding the appropriate swivel for a sex symbol approaching the age when many other folks are contemplating hip replacements. To his credit, he does it with a sly smile. He has spoofed himself in “The Simpsons” and the Tim Burton film “Mars Attacks!” and knows the crowds he plays to now often sing along with a wink that wasn’t there in the 1960s, when Jones was portrayed as a libidinous scandal as a club performer in London.
“That man, they called me,” Jones said with a mock expression of finger-wagging outrage. “In 1964 I was playing at Beat City, a club on Oxford Street, and the Rolling Stones were playing too. They were catching on with the kids and they had been booked in this R&B; club, so it was full of all these girls, maybe 14 and 15. I remember it was so hot. The paint was peeling off the roof. I just hit the stage. I burst out there. And the expressions on these girl’s faces -- I’m singing and thinking in my head, ‘Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you.’ ”
Jagger and the Stones came out with their own brand of leer, but according to Jones, that didn’t seem to scare young London or their parents as much as his leather-clad, sex panther approach. “Jagger looked effeminate and moved in an effeminate way. And the Beatles, they were boyish, with their lank hair and songs that were not aggressive. Mild. I was singing R&B; and 1950s rock, intense like Jerry Lee Lewis, and putting my body into it. The reaction I got was: ‘This man is dangerous!’ ”
Growing up Jones
EARLIER this year, Treforest’s most famous son was summoned to Buckingham Palace to be knighted. It was a moment in the sun for the coal miner’s son, to be sure, but Jones also has not had a Top 40 hit on the U.S. charts since 1988 and only two since 1971. That means he sometimes gets second billing even in his own house -- he bought his Tudor-style mansion in Bel-Air in 1974 from Dean Martin, but is still hearing about the former owner.
“People say it all the time, they call it ‘Dean Martin’s house,’ ” he said with a bit of exasperation. “I’ve been there for years. I guess the only time the house is going to belong to me is when I sell it.”
On a recent afternoon Jones dropped by Vibrato, a stylish jazz and supper club owned by Herb Alpert in Bel-Air. A few heads turned to check out the famous visitor. He arrived in a freshly pressed striped shirt that he wore untucked, a look that made his shoulders seem especially broad. He wore a thick gold necklace and some rings. His hair and beard are dyed to a deep ebony that, along with his California tan, bring attention to his pale blue eyes.
Jones has had surgery to keep his face taut (he has been quoted in the British press, in fact, saying that his doctor has cautioned him against further work) but his physique remains a marvel. At his Hollywood Bowl show this summer, he raised his silk shirt at one point and flashed his stomach; the crowd of course went wild, just as they did back at the clubs of London in the 1960s. There are some differences now. Boxer shorts are among the undergarments thrown on stage, for one thing, and it’s hard to imagine that 40 years ago the manly Jones would have greeted that delivery with a shrug and a smile as he does now.
Jones had been signed to Decca Records in 1964, but his first single, “Chills and Fever,” was ignored, and the BBC informed Jones that his lascivious sort was not welcome on the airwaves. The B-side was a curious song that departed from his raw R&B; leanings with its brass and polished arrangement: “It’s Not Unusual” was actually dramatically unusual for England in that year of the Fab Four’s reign, and it only became a hit after an offshore pirate station called Radio Caroline latched onto it with a passion. The BBC eventually had to let a gleeful Jones on the popular TV series “Top of the Pops” when his song hit No. 1.
“That song, it just took on a life of its own,” Jones said. “I had to add brass to my band because everyone wanted to hear that song and the music started going into a direction I wasn’t expecting. I was an R&B; guy.”
It led to the even quirkier song “What’s New Pussycat?,” written by Burt Bacharach and Hal David for the 1965 film starring Woody Allen. In London, Jones rushed to meet with Bacharach. The singer’s jaw dropped when he heard its oddball melody, jagged stop-and-start quality and leering baby-talk lyrics.
“He sat at the piano and played ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ and I just looked at him. I thought he was pulling my leg. I really did. I wanted to say, ‘Please, I can’t do this,’ but he’s Burt Bacharach, right? You can’t say no. But I thought he was absolutely nuts.”
The result: A big hit. The same year, Jones scored with “Thunderball,” the theme song to the James Bond film of the same title. Composer John Barry teamed up with lyricist Don Black for a bombastic song that, it should be noted, makes absolutely no sense. As Jones said: “There is no character named Thunderball in the movie, but the song tells the story of this guy. It’s not James Bond, it’s not the bad guy. I don’t know what to tell you. I think he just liked it because it rhymed.”
Regardless, Jones, who had dropped out of school in 1956 and wasted a few years in dead-end jobs (one of them was as a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman), was a certifiable pop star. He needed, the money, too. He had married Linda Tenchard, a Treforest girl, in 1957 when both were just 16 and the pregnancy that prompted the wedding made him a father the same year.
“It made me stronger, to be a father so young, it gave me something to prove and made me get out and do something,” he said. “I had been getting in fights in pubs and just being a teenager, but after that -- becoming a father -- I had to think twice before I got in scrapes.”
The couple is still married today, which pops up on that list of surprises about Jones. His fidelity has been the topic of gossip columns and a few legal actions, but just maintaining a marriage runs counter to the general perception of the singer. He says, though, that in the early years his aggressive onstage manner was more about music passion. Either way, it came off as caged lust and made Jones the most overtly sexualized pop star on the scene, two decades before Madonna ever laced up.
“I felt I had to attack when I was on stage and just grab the audience. I wanted the songs to explode,” Jones said, making pop music quite a bit like hand-to-hand combat. In fact, on stage, Jones sometimes looks like a boxer going through a workout -- he pumps his arms, treads in place like a man on a StairMaster and whips his head -- and sometimes when he sings he leans his head back and his eyes go wide as if he’s surprised by the sound coming out of him.
“He has, without a doubt, one of the strongest voices in all of music and a great sense of how to put his own stamp on a song, to make it his own,” said Bacharach. “Tom is one of a kind.”
Jones won the best new artist Grammy for 1965 and over the next few years he notched more hits with the forlorn and melodramatic ballad “Green, Green Grass of Home,” the fiery “Delilah” and “Help Yourself.” In 1969, he got his own prime-time TV show, “This Is Tom Jones,” that aired on both sides of the Atlantic. In the 1970s he went Vegas and the new hits dried up. But his friendship with Presley, his idol, blossomed in the desert city and Jones said he took the icon’s death especially hard.
“I had tried to reach him a few times in the weeks before he died and couldn’t get through. I left messages but didn’t hear back,” Jones said. “If I had known how bad things had gotten or knew I could have helped somehow, I would have dropped everything and gone to Memphis. I still wonder if I could have helped in some way. When I was around he seemed to be more relaxed and energized. He knew how much I admired him and he liked how much I modeled myself on him.”
Keeping it fresh
THE third act of Jones’ career has been as either tongue-in-cheek imitator of his legacy or experimental collaborator -- hip-hop, electronica, old Delta blues, 1980s alternative rock ... Jones has played with all of them, with varying degrees of success. The biggest hit was his version of “Kiss,” Prince’s syncopated flirtation. It was put together by the Art of Noise.
“When I heard Prince do ‘Kiss’ I thought, ‘This is an R&B; song.’ He just did it real sparse and with falsetto, God bless him, that gave me room to change it and do my own thing with it. The Art of Noise made it really special; when I heard the finished product I knew we got it right.”
There’s a flip side to the collaborations and the willingness to veer across the music landscape for his next experiment: Jones seems uncertain of his own judgments of music and instead seeks out people to make those material and taste decisions for him. For a man with a famously powerful voice, he often needs someone to tell him what to say musically.
“I like working with young musicians, they have fresh ideas,” Jones said. “That’s what has to happen. The people that wrote songs for me in the 1960s and the 1970s, they’re not writing for today’s market anymore. The same with the musicians -- it’s going to sound like it did then. It just doesn’t fly today.”
Needing guidance is not the same as not having a clue. Jones is smart enough to look around and recognize when his generational peers make a musical mistake by looking like an old man wearing a young man’s clothes. “Look, you knew that Pat Boone didn’t really like heavy metal. For me, I look for people to work with and then I just sing it the way I sing.”
Forged by experience
SIPPING champagne at Alpert’s club, Jones noticed three blond women ascending the steps to the second floor of Vibrato and his chin traced their path. He smiled and arched his eyebrows. Then he turned to the subject of his childhood malady and how those long months in bed listening to American rock ‘n’ roll and staring at the other kids outside shaped him.
“There’s a lot of where I grew up that’s still in me, and the main thing is I appreciate everything maybe more than some other people,” he said. “To be there in that bed for so long, watching everyone outside, everyone walking and running and just living, it made me not want to waste a single minute.”
He returned to South Wales last year for a 65th birthday celebration and 25,000 locals turned out to hear him sing the old songs and some of his new ones, which include some earthy blues classics recorded with Jools Holland, formerly of Squeeze, and the hip-hop fusion album he did with Wyclef Jean that even has Jones rapping.
In June, Jones sang “Thunderball” at the American Film Institute tribute to Sir Sean Connery at the Kodak Theatre. On his tuxedo lapel, the singer wore a red-striped ribbon and medal indicating his recent knighthood. It caught the eye of Connery’s son, who said he hadn’t seen one before.
“I told him that’s because I got everything. There’s a list of stuff, right. There’s things you wear for different occasions, and I bought all of it. Medals, cufflinks, tie-pin ... everything.”
For the miner’s son, the visit to Buckingham Palace to become a knight of the realm was an emotional life moment, but (despite dropping a lot of cash on the accessories) he is not one of those knights who insist on being called “sir.”
“I think Ben Kingsley is the only who does that, you know, corrects people on it,” Jones said. “I mean, Mick Jagger doesn’t, Elton John doesn’t.”
Jones said he often thinks about being the sickly child who stared out his window at the other kids charging up the hillsides of Treforest and he counts his blessings. “When you’re a kid ... you never think to yourself, I’m so glad I can run up this mountain, you just do it. Me, I was always glad and smiling when I could finally run up that mountain.”