Tom Jones: The Voice

Born Thomas Jones Woodward in Treforest, Pontypridd, Wales in 1940 to home-maker Freda Jones and coal miner Thomas Woodward, Tom Jones got music from an early age. “In fact I was born to sing,” he says to The Blues in that deep baritone voice of his.

He got his first taste of public performance belting out The Lord’s Prayer at school, while at home he was digging rock’n’roll. Elvis Presley’s Heartbreak Hotel made him pick up the guitar and “do it myself”, and as a 15-year-old teddy boy he started performing at the working men’s clubs, dance halls, YMCAs, “lots of blues, country, folk standards, songs I’d heard on the radio”. In 1963, he joined Tommy Scott And The Senators as their frontman and recorded for Joe Meek. The following year he debuted with a cover of Chills And Fever for Decca; his breakthrough came with his second 45, It’s Not Unusual, a song penned by his manager Gordon Mills and songwriter Les Reed intended for Sandie Shaw. When she turned it down, Jones recorded it and it hit the UK No.1 and US Top 10 in 1965. The same year he recorded the theme for Clive Donner’s comedy What’s New Pussycat? and in 1966 the title theme for the James Bond film Thunderball. Green Green Grass Of Home in 1966 landed him his second No.1; 1967’s I’ll Never Fall In Love Again and I’m Coming Home plus 1968’s Delilah all made No.2.

The hits slowed down over the following decades but never quite went away; then Reload, a duets album from 1999, introduced him to a new generation and a trilogy beginning with 2010’s Praise & Blame witnessed his blues renaissance. Now Long Lost Suitcase, the final part of the trilogy, sees him working with producer, guitarist and keyboardist Ethan Johns at The Distillery in Wiltshire alongside a band including Andy Fairweather Low. Imelda May guests on a cover of the Milk Carton Kids’ Honey Honey. Elsewhere Jones stamps his authority on Jesse Fuller’s Raise A Ruckus, Billy Boy Arnold’s I Wish You Would, Willie Dixon’s Bring It On Home and Little Willie John’s Take My Love (I Want To Give It All To You). “I’ve come home,” he says.

**There’s a sense with your last three albums – 2010’s Praise & Blame, 2012’s Spirit In The Room and this year’s Long Lost Suitcase – that you’ve come full circle. Is that how you see it?
**Well, yes, because when I started out singing in south Wales, it was just me singing and playing acoustic guitar in the working men’s clubs, and I would do blues songs, country songs, skiffle songs. I used to do Wabash Cannonball, the folk song, that was a favourite, also Lonnie Donegan’s Rock Island Line. I was drawn to Tennessee Ernie Ford songs and Big Bill Broonzy, too.

How did you discover the likes of Big Bill Broonzy?
I had TB from the age of 12 to 14, and I was in bed all day and I listened to the radio. It was a lifeline and the BBC would play everything. You’d get a Mantovani symphony and then Mahalia Jackson or Big Bill Broonzy’s _Black, _Brown And White, and then of course you could listen to Radio Luxembourg through the night. It was very exciting, you’d get these little rays of light in the middle of a programme. We couldn’t afford a guitar so my mum bought me a ukulele, and I’d play along to these songs. I still like playing the ukulele now.

Did you always want to be a singer?
Yes, I always knew I was going to be a singer. My mum said, and this is the truth, that I could sing before I could walk. I’d be making baby noises to the radio when I was crawling around the kitchen.

What was the affect of rock’n’roll on you as a boy discovering your own music for the first time?
I was 15, which is just the right age to be when it hit. I was working in the local glove factory and Rock Around The Clock came on and I thought, ‘Jesus, what is this?’ Through that, I got Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and I thought, this is going to knock everything out, there’ll be no more silly pop songs, and it did change everything for a while. I remember meeting the soul singer Arthur Prysock in a New York nightclub. In New York they saw It’s Not Unusual as a rock’n’roll record, and he said to me, ‘You’re that kid that sings rock’n’roll. You’ve put me out of business. The kids don’t want to hear anything but rock’n’roll.’ I was like, ‘Sorry about that.’ Thinking about it now, the only blues singer who survived rock’n’roll was Jimmy Reed, as he always had a rhythm player with him so you could jive to it. He was the only blues player on the jukebox with Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, Little Richard back then.

**You saw Jerry Lee Lewis perform in Cardiff in 1962. What can you remember about that show?
**It was at the Sophia Gardens, it was tremendous. Johnny Kidd & The Pirates closed the first half, he had a really hot band, and I thought, ‘How is he going to follow this?’ Johnny was in his leather and wearing his eye patch and he came on strong, but Jerry Lee Lewis just floated on; it was insane. When I met him years later, I said to him, ‘Were you influenced by Professor Longhair?’ Because some of his runs were identical to Professor Longhair’s and he said, ‘Professor who?’ I said, ‘Professor Longhair’. He said, ‘I was born with what I got.’ I was like, ‘Jerry Lee, come on!’ And it’s all in his book, he wrote about it, he started out playing in New Orleans, he was listening to those guys.

Freddie Fey’s record shop was the place to be in Pontypridd wasn’t it?
On a Saturday afternoon me and my teddy boy friends would be hanging about outside as he played all this tremendous blues, R&B, gospel in the shop. That’s where I first heard Elvis. Not the Sun sessions, it was Heartbreak Hotel, and also Jerry Lee Lewis’ Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. It was an eye-opener.

**So how did you make the leap from rock’n’roll fan to singer?
**I was 15, 16 and as soon as I heard Elvis playing guitar I thought, I could do that, and I started singing anywhere I could get up and sing, so it was pubs and working men’s clubs. My first paid job was at the Wood Road Club aged 17. My father took me in there, pretending I was 18, and when the concert party didn’t turn up the chairman of the club asked me to fill in. I sang six songs and he gave me a pound. I thought, ‘Wow, this is great.’

Your first band was Tommy Scott And The Senators. How did you join them?
They had a gig at a YMCA on a Friday night. Their singer hadn’t turned up, so their bassist asked me to fill in. I didn’t want to do it, but they twisted my arm, and my God, it was amazing. I was up there doing all these rock’n’roll numbers, and I knew I wasn’t going to be playing the acoustic guitar after that. For me this was it. I’d made it.

**They were one of the first south Wales rock’n’roll bands, weren’t they?
**Yes, we took rock’n’roll into the south Wales working men’s clubs, we had a show every night. The first time we turned up, they’d booked me as a solo singer with an acoustic guitar and I’ve got electric guitars and drums. They want to pay us off, but I persuade them to give us a go anyway as they know me, and we start with I Believe – Elvis did it, The Platters, Frank Sinatra – then _My _Mother’s Eyes, My Yiddishe Momme and then we hit them with Great Balls Of Fire. By the end of the night the secretary of the club has called the police station and asked for an extension until 12, so we could play longer. From that moment on I set my sights on London.

**So you went there and recorded for Joe Meek.
**We recorded a demo and sent it off. Joe Meek heard it, we auditioned for him at Holloway Road. We went up a flight of stairs – there was a kitchen and two rooms – we recorded in the front room, and the control room was in the back room. He looked like a teddy boy, wore mohair suits. We cut five sides with him, but he couldn’t get any of them released, so he ripped our contract up in front of me. Of course I was naive and didn’t realise it was only a copy.

**You chose to cover Ronnie Love’s Chills And Fever as your debut 45 for Decca.
**Yes, Joe Meek had suggested we do the song for him, which we did, and it made sense to do it for Decca. By this time I had a manager, Gordon Mills. He saw me as a rock’n’roll singer. Gordon had seen me sing in a club, he said, ‘You’ve got to be in London.’ This was 1964, I knew he was right. Chills And Fever didn’t happen, then I got It’s Not Unusual.

Which was written for Sandie Shaw.
Gordon Mills and Les Reed wrote it for her, and I did the demo in Regent Sound studio in Denmark Street. I knew it was going to be a hit, it was obvious, and I told Gordon Mills if I didn’t get the song I was packing it in and going back to the clubs in Wales. I didn’t know what else I could threaten to make these bastards jump. Les wanted it to go to Sandie because she’d already had hits, so why take a chance with me who nobody knew? But God bless Sandie, she turned it down.

**In the US, It’s Not Unusual was classified as a rock’n’roll record, and it’s been covered by Marvin Gaye and The Four Tops among others.
**They thought I was black, the DJs, the listeners, the pluggers. I’m not too fussed about the Marvin Gaye version, but [The Four Tops’] Levi Stubbs, he got the essence of it. There’s a live version of it from a club show, they open with it, and he says, ‘This is a tribute to Mr Tom Jones’ and it is tremendous. Even with What’s New Pussycat?, I was playing the Brooklyn Fox one time and these black girls were walking down the street saying, ‘Hey baby, what’s new pussycat?’

**How aware were you of the Brit blues scene in mid-60s London?
**Oh, very aware of it. The Rolling Stones, The Animals, Pretty Things, I felt a real alignment to them, because we were listening to the same music, drinking at the same clubs, performing on the same TV shows, and of course any time I got a chance to do a second song on a TV show I would do a blues number.

When I did Ready Steady Go!, T-Bone Walker was on there and he spent more time with me than any of the other bands, including the Stones who were also on the show. We had a cup of coffee in the canteen while all the bands just stood around watching. He loved It’s Not Unusual, said it was one helluva record and that he could hear the blues in my voice. As for his performance, he said he had to play and sing live. He wouldn’t mime – which is what everyone did on the show – and he did play live. It was the first time I ever saw a guitar player use the stage as a sound box to create feedback, he played a chord with his left hand and put the face of his guitar to the stage and wow, feedback! He then picked up his amp with the other hand and walked off with it.

Solomon Burke was another who had you in a lather.
Gordon Mills was with Bert Berns, told him how he was managing me and he gave him Solomon Burke’s Rock ’N Soul album to pass on to me to hear. I thought it was amazing, and from then on I was doing Cry To Me and If You Need Me in my live set. I went to see him at the Flamingo in 1965, it was the first soul singer I ever saw. He walked into the venue and I tapped him on the shoulder, said, ‘I’m Tom Jones’. He said, ‘The singer?’ I said, ‘Yeah’ and he told me to grab hold of the back of his cloak, and he walked in with his crown on, ready to go, and I followed him up. The next time I saw him sing, I went backstage and he gave me a crown and said, ‘You can’t be the king of rock’n’soul because I am, but you can be the Prince Of Wales.’

In New York the girls were walking down the street saying, ‘Hey baby, what’s new pussycat?’

**You almost signed to Motown in 1966. How did that come about and why did you turn them down?
**Well, on the strength of It’s Not Unusual, What’s New Pussycat? and With These Hands, they said they wanted to sign me and I had a meeting with Berry Gordy. He said to have a white man from the UK who sounded black on the label would be great; but Gordon Mills thought I’d get lost on the label and turned the offer down. Even though the Green Green Grass Of Home hit No.1, Berry didn’t think they pushed it enough. He said if Motown had had it, it would have been the American national anthem. I met Holland, Dozier, Holland some time later and they said the songs they were giving to The Four Tops were intended for me, and the only one on the label who could sound like me was Levi Stubbs.

Paul McCartney wrote The Long And Winding Road for you.
That was a case of bad timing. I saw Paul in the [London club] Scotch Of St James. I said to him how I’d love him to write me a song. He said he would, then a while later, when I had a song coming out on the Friday called Without Love, Decca’s Peter Sullivan came along on the Wednesday and said how Paul had sent this song over. The problem was, though, if I wanted to do it, I had to do so as my next single, so I’d have to put a block on Without Love. Decca didn’t want to delay putting out a single but of course it would have been at least a month before Long And Winding Road would be recorded, so they’d be pissed off and Paul wouldn’t budge so it didn’t happen. When I heard Ray Charles do it, I thought, ‘Oh shit!’ because that’s just what I would have done with the song.

**You got to sing with some amazing acts on the US TV show, _This Is _Tom Jones – including Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson and Sammy Davis Jr – between 1969 and ’71.
**What an opportunity, although it was hard getting the acts I wanted. If they sold albums, if they were commercial, then there was no problem, so we could get Wilson Pickett and Aretha Franklin. But when I wanted Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis, they were like, they’ve not been on TV since whenever… I was like, ‘So what?’

Then when I was doing duets, if it was with a black female singer, I had to be careful about how close I stood to her. I mean what bullshit, but I couldn’t hold hands with her and the song content couldn’t be sexy. I remember with Nancy Wilson, we were going to do the Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughan number Passing Strangers, and the producer and censor said you can’t do that song because of the line, ‘Strangers can be lovers again’, because of the implication. We did River Deep, Mountain High instead. I did a cover of [Blue Mink’s] Melting Pot with [dancer and actress] Paula Kelly and the censor almost fainted: ‘You can’t say you’re going to put all the people in a pot and they are going to come out brown.’ Bullshit.

**What was it like singing with Aretha on the show?
**She was great. Very quiet and private, wouldn’t say much but when she sang, Jesus Christ! When I first heard I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, well I thought it was Nancy Wilson, their voices are so similar, and I went out and bought it on the spot.

**2010’s Praise & Blame, the first in a trilogy ending with Long Lost Suitcase, rejuvenated your career. What was the initial idea behind the albums?
**Island wanted to celebrate my then upcoming 70th birthday. They suggested a Christmas record, which I just wasn’t ready for, so then they suggested putting me with the producer Ethan Johns and we got each other immediately. We decided to go back to basics, to go back to the source. It was just me singing live with a rhythm section, no overdubbing, no gimmicks, no complicated horn and string arrangements. Just get the song down in the first, second, third take, capture the meaning of the song, its spirituality, its life, and capture that moment, right there. And I think that’s what we’ve done. It’s what I always should have been doing, it’s natural, honest. And Ethan’s way of recording in that stripped bare studio setting, it was exactly what I wanted and needed to do.

**How did the process compare to the 60s?
**Playing with the band on these records took me back to playing in the clubs in the 60s with just a rhythm section, and getting that earthier sound. When I was making records for Decca in the 60s, I’d go into the studio and the songs would already have been arranged. You’d have to fit into those arrangements for better or worse. Sometimes it could be restrictive, but here we were playing off one another and that really comes across in the record. We could all speak our mind, chip in with ideas and suggestions, we’d set the key and off we’d go. It was amazing. You could feel the shift in gears, it was like we were a pulse, we were as one. And if we did it wrong we didn’t overdub, we just set off on the journey all together again.

**One of the first songs you got down was Run On.
**The Blind Boys Of Alabama do a great version of this and Elvis does a great version, and I didn’t want to copy either the Blind Boys or Elvis. I said if we do this we have to really add something to it, and we decided to kick it up. We came up with a more rockier version – which seems like a strange thing to say, we did a more rockier version than Elvis but we did – it’s more alive, it’s more earthy.

Playing with the band on this new record took me back to playing in the clubs in the 60s

**How does Long Lost Suitcase differ from the other two albums in the trilogy?
**The song choice is more personal. These songs could be autobiographical. I really relate to them, and the album title comes from the fact that I got a lot of them out of old suitcases, literally on cassettes and records that were packed away in the cupboard. So a song like Bring It On Home, which is written by Willie Dixon, but I knew from the Sonny Boy Williamson version, I’ve been wanting to do that for years but just never got around to it. Also Take My Love (I Want To Give It All To You) by Little Willie John and Tomorrow Night by Lonnie Johnson – well Elvis and Jerry Lee had both done it and I thought I’d love to do it too – and I had Andy Fairweather Low in the studio with me and he said, ‘Let me play Tomorrow Night.’ And he played the shit out of it too. Raise A Ruckus by Jesse Fuller, that was another one. Debbie Reynolds sang that in How The West Was Won, different words but the same song.

**One of the standout tracks on the album is your cover of Gillian Welch’s Elvis Presley Blues. You first met Elvis in 1965 and were close friends up until his death in 1977.
**He was really a gospel singer you know, he was raised on it. He got his moves straight from the black preacher, and gospel, blues and country are all wrapped into one in the southern states. When we were doing Vegas, he’d be in his suite in the Hilton, he’d come see me perform at Caesar’s Palace and after the show he’d want me to go back with him to sing all night. I’d have another show to do, but he’d be like, ‘You know Kris Kristofferson’s Why Me Lord.’ We’d start singing and then I’d say, ‘Elvis, look at the time.’ I’d be just out the door and he’d be, ‘Tom.’ ‘Yes Elvis’, ‘Why me lord’ and I’d be, oh shit, here we go again.

**Finally, by the time this interview is published, you’ll have headlined Bluesfest 2015. Are you excited?
**Oh yes, it’s very exciting to be headlining the festival with Van Morrison. We did some songs together on Red White And Blues, which was directed by Mike Figgis and a part of The Blues series produced by Martin Scorsese, and we both really enjoyed singing together on that. I’m hoping we can do a bunch of songs together again for this. We both love Jimmy Witherspoon so I’d like to see us doing One Scotch, One Bourbon, One Beer. We’ll see.

Long Lost Suitcase is out now via Virgin EMI