Tom Jones went into Lillie’s Bordello looking for a drink and found a new career as a consulting songwriter. It was about four years ago, and the Welsh singer was in Dublin for an award show when he headed over to Lillie’s, the famed Grafton Street club.
“I saw Bono and said hello and asked him if he wanted to come upstairs for a drink and a chat. We got to drinking and talking there, and I asked him if he would write me a song. He said, ‘What I’d love to do is write a song about you. And I want it to be a Tom Jones song, not a U2 song. Tell me about yourself. I remember what I saw on television, but tell me about before you got into show business . . . . How much of that did you bring with you and how much of you is still back there?’ ”
In the swirl of the club that night, the two stars, one born in 1940 and the other in 1960, talked about fame and rhythm, hard times and melody, and Bono was taking notes about his elder’s previous life as a ditch digger and his youthful desire to have the right shirt and the right shoes to cover up the soot of his past as the son of a coal miner.
The conversation eventually led to “Sugar Daddy,” a song of coiled funk and randy charm that would fit nicely on a mix tape between James Brown’s “Sex Machine” and Justin Timberlake’s “Sexy Back.” “Sugar Daddy” is the centerpiece on Jones’ new album, “24 Hours,” out today, but more than that, it set the template for the collection.
After finding nothing but frustration in the submissions of young songwriters, Jones decided to sit down with the more promising of the bunch and give them guidance in finding “the real Tom Jones and what he sounds like,” as the star himself put it.
“That was the beginning of it, back with Bono, although I didn’t know it at the time,” said Jones, 68. “That was the start, that was the first one. The first time I talked to somebody about my ideas and they wrote it down. That was the key. I have ideas all the time, but I don’t think to write them down. I suppose I should . . . It’s been difficult getting good songs, the material I need. I should have put myself into it sooner.”
The first single from the album, “If He Should Ever Leave You,” has gotten airplay on KCRW-FM (89.9), and the earliest reviews for the album have been upbeat about its strongest moments and generally forgiving of its perceived missteps. All of this is welcome news to Jones, who in recent years had the sense that he was missing in action in the U.S.
“I had an album called ‘Reload’ that did well in Europe, and it wasn’t even released here. It was terrible. I mean, I live in America, this is where I am most of the time, and I do loads of shows here. To have a hit record overseas but not have it out here, it’s frustrating. Then I did an album with Wyclef Jean which, again, did well worldwide but was not released here.
“So for this one I signed with a new label, S-Curve, an American company, and we’re aiming it here. America first. We’re aiming all over the world, but it’s very important for me to get a hit here. We haven’t had [anything] negative so far, it’s all been positive. But you never know until it goes out to the public. That’s the test.”
This week, Jones will hit “Good Morning America,” “Live With Regis & Kelly” and “The Today Show.” In December, he’ll hit “Tonight Show” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” Then there are chats with Rachael Ray, Tavis Smiley, a barrage of morning radio shows, all set up by his new publicity teams at S-Curve and also Shore Fire Media, the same New York publicity firm that handles Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello.
Jones, clearly, is a man on a mission. He’s had plenty of hits -- “It’s Not Unusual,” “Green Green Grass of Home,” “What’s New Pussycat?” among others -- but he says he feels an urgency to burnish his legacy.
“I want to be a contender. Just because of my age, I’m in the autumn of my career. That’s where I am. I was in the spring when I started. I went through the summer and that was great. And it was a long summer. A great summer. Now, well, maybe I’m getting serious, thinking more. I feel like I have to do something now. I want to do as much as possible before I can’t do it anymore. I want to do it while my voice is still with me.”
Jones has an intriguing spot in pop culture. There is no denying his powerful vocal instrument, but his choice of material often has been suspect. This is the fellow who recorded “The Young New Mexican Puppeteer” about an Albuquerque boy who carved wood into the shape of Mark Twain and Jesus Christ. Also, his sex panther stage reputation can veer close to lounge lizard territory.
Still, younger artists such as Tori Amos, Portishead and Trevor Horn have, like Bono and Jean, collaborated with him after listening without prejudice. It helps too that Jones has a sly wink in the spotlight, goofing on himself on “The Simpsons,” “The Emperor’s New Groove” and Tim Burton’s “Mars Attacks!”
Two years ago, Jones went into the studio with a stack of material collected for him and high hopes. But the tunes, all by songwriters half his age, fell flat because they seemed to be writing for a Jones caricature, the oversexed Vegas Lothario singing novelty songs. There was also an attempt to duplicate the sort of success Jones and the Art of Noise had with a revamped version of “Kiss,” the syncopated Prince song.
The producers thought that Jones could work some magic with the Arctic Monkeys hit “Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor.” Jones gamely gave it a go and performed it at the Concert for Diana in 2007, honoring the late Princess of Wales. “I got slated for it,” Jones moaned. “That was that.”
Jones was “grinding the gears,” as one member of his management teams says, so he retreated to the road, going on tour in South America. From those original sessions, only two songs made it onto the new album, most notably “The Hitter,” a gripping Springsteen song about a fighter.
The production team of Steve Greenberg, Michael Mangini and Betty Wright (the trio behind the first two Joss Stone albums; Greenberg is also chief executive of S-Curve) had Jones take “The Hitter” from its acoustic origins into a soulful setting that sounds like Wilson Pickett channeling “On the Waterfront.”
So Jones had a song by Bono and Bruce, the hard part was the rest of the album.
“We tried again and the first writer came in with a song called ‘T-Shirt.’ I said, ‘What is that?’ She said, ‘You look good in a T-shirt, I can’t wait for you to take it off.’ I said, ‘I don’t think so.’ Then she said, ‘Well, let’s talk about you, then. You’ve been married a long time. How do you manage that?’ I told her that my wife and I, well, look, we’ve been married a long time, about 50 years, and there’s always been a lot of ups and downs, but the road always leads to her. I said it and she wrote it down. That became the song ‘The Road.’ Just like with Bono, I gave them guidance and ideas and they found me, they found a Tom Jones song that fit the real me.”
The music-as-memoir approach continued. Jones has co-writing credits on more than half of the album. For the second go-round, Jones primarily worked with producer duo Future Cut (Lily Allen, Kate Nash and Estelle), which plucked ideas from the singer’s old Decca records. Snippets of brass from the track “I’ll Never Let You Go” they liked enough to re-record and weave into “If He Should Ever Leave You.”
In the studio, Jones sang into a vintage microphone and, with arrangements of baritone sax and plenty of room, the resulting songs have an Amy Winehouse-style return to vinyl-era soul for the digital era. At least Jones hopes so.
“We’re keeping next year pretty open to see what happens with this CD. The size of venues are determined by how good the record does. The fans need to hear it on the radio; it’s a reminder that sparks them to come to show. They see you on TV for the first time in a long time and then the crowds come. If it’s what we hope it will be, then there will be bigger venues. A European tour . . . all of it. We hope. And I can’t wait to play these new songs for the crowds. It’s like I always say: If they’re quiet at the beginning, they won’t be quiet at the end. Not when I’m done with them.”