When Tom Jones first met Elvis Presley, he recalls the King asking him "How do you sing like that?" referring to the influence of blues, R&B and gospel music out of the American South that were always evident in the Welsh singer's vocals.
After Jones explained that "It's just the way I sing," Presley pressed him, telling him "I sound like this because I grew up hearing this music in black gospel churches in Mississippi. How did you do it?"
"The radio," was Jones' answer, an anecdote he shared Wednesday night during the recording of a performance for KCRW-FM's (89.9) Apogee Sessions series that's slated to air Dec. 22. "It was the records I heard on the BBC, and at night on Radio Luxembourg," which had a long history of playing a wide variety of American roots music.
That music formed the foundation of a Welsh boy's musical education, and now, some seven decades later, he has returned to the elemental styles he first fell in love with. That music often took a back seat during most of his career to the grand-scale pop and rock with which he achieved fame and fortune through hits such as "It's Not Unusual," "What's New Pussycat," "Delilah" and "She's A Lady" among three dozen records he placed on the Billboard Hot 100 from 1965 to 1994.
On Friday, "Long Lost Suitcase," the third album he's recorded with English producer Ethan Johns, arrives to complete a trilogy that represents a remarkable late-career artistic rejuvenation for Jones, who looks and sounds fully reinvigorated by this recent return to the music that's closest to his heart.
As with its predecessors — "Praise & Blame" in 2010 and "Spirit in the Room" in 2013 — "Long Lost Suitcase" presents Jones applying his still-steely vocal cords to an invigorating batch of songs that few 75-year-olds would have the courage to tackle, especially any with as long a tradition of playing Las Vegas showrooms as Jones has.
On the new album he sounds equally comfortable on the classic country of Willie Nelson's "Opportunity to Cry" and Hank Williams' jaunty "Why Don't You Love Me Like You Used to Do" as he is with the rollicking rockabilly-cum-skiffle workout "Honey Honey" by L.A.'s own neo-folk duo the Milk Carton Kids, the down-and-dirty shuffle of Los Lobos' "Everybody Loves a Train" and the electric blues boogie of Billy Boy Arnold's "I Wish You Would."
Jones turned in two sets Wednesday, bridged by a short question-answer session with KCRW host Anne Litt, in which he shared a few of the anecdotes he covers in his just-published companion autobiography, "Over the Top and Back" (Blue Rider Press, $26.95).
He and his gutsy quartet played several songs from the new album, a few from "Praise & Blame" and "Spirit in the Room" — Jones' spine-tingling version of Leonard Cohen's "Tower of Song" from the latter among several highlights of the evening — and inspired reworkings of his old-school hits "Delilah" and "It's Not Unusual."
It was part of a short promotional tour for the book and album, and he is expected to undertake a full-fledged tour next year.
The Times will have a more in-depth story on Jones, his book and the new album in the days ahead. Stay tuned.