It's not unusual to be loved by all
There aren’t many singers who are selling almost as much in the Noughties as they did in the 1960s, but Tom Jones’s voice and charisma are ageing well – as a Dublin audience will get to experience next month
UNLIKELY AS it may seem – or, indeed, sound – 69-year-old lad Tom Jones is still on top of his game. It’s unlikely because Jones has been for so long on the outskirts of credibility. Here is a man, a bloke’s bloke from Pontypridd in Wales, who once revelled in a racy reputation with the ladies, selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door in order to make enough money not to work, who made his name with a series of ballads and mid-tempo songs in the 1960s, and who then based his career in the west coast of the US, from where he carved out a highly lucrative career as a consummate supper-club performer and entertainer.
And yet, come the late 1980s, as he was approaching his 50s, his lack of standing with the critics (and with the public, who had steered clear of buying his records from 1977) was reversed when he returned to the charts with A Boy from Nowhere(1987) and his eye-opening version of Prince’s Kiss(1988). Since then, he has been one of the mature Mister Go-Tos whenever younger acts want to rub up against a genuine, if modest, showbiz legend.
“All I wanted to do was to become a professional singer, you know,” says Jones in his hotel suite in Las Vegas, where he performs regularly throughout the year.
“Not to have to work at something I didn’t want to do which is something a lot of people have to do in order to survive. I thought, if I could sing for a living then it would be heaven for me. I didn’t know how far it was going to take me or how long it was going to last. I just knew I loved to sing.
“I’ve always been a working-class person. I’ve never forgotten where I come from and, indeed, I’m proud of it. I loved singing in the clubs in Wales – it’s just I couldn’t make enough money at it to become a professional, so I had to go to London in order to record music. But I loved playing them, I was having a ball there. I had to do jobs during the day to make ends meet, but that was just a means to an end.”
Jones has become something of a touchstone in how to transcend the notion of the “guilty pleasure syndrome”; in retrospect, it’s the music as much as the man. There are several performers in or around his age (such as Tony Christie and Marianne Faithfull) that have tried to make significant comebacks (often in the company of hipper-than-thou, younger musicians) but who have failed because the back catalogue just isn’t up to much.
That 10-year gap from 1977-1987 notwithstanding, Jones’s hit rate is substantial, and it’s difficult to think of any one music act (the exception, perhaps, is Bob Dylan) that is charting as high in the Noughties as they were in the 1960s.
IS IT DIFFICULT to maintain a level of quality? “I’ve been lucky in that respect, because my voice is a natural one – I don’t have to do anything to it. To take care of it you have to be aware of certain things – I drink a lot of water, and humidity is important. I don’t drink too much alcohol, which I tend to do from time to time. If I’ve got shows to do, then I put something of a block on it. You have to pace yourself when you’re doing gigs or television shows. When I was younger, of course, maybe I didn’t have to work as much because everything worked so well, anyway. Now I have to take a bit more care of it, but I’m not a fanatic – I have wine with dinner, and I have the occasional pint. I just have to watch what I’m doing, that’s all.
“My voice dictates to me what I can do, what’s possible, I reckon. Sometimes it just seems to work by itself – notes come out and I think to myself, my God, how did I do that? Did I sing that? It’s the same with the greying of my hair — it’s owning up to not trying to be something I’m not. I didn’t let it go grey before because every time I previously dyed it there were little patches here and there. As time went on my hair naturally went grey, so once it went all one colour I kept it. I’ve never tried to cover my age, never wanted to give people the impression that I’m younger than what I am.”
Jones dismisses the notion of pop artists continuing in order to prove to themselves they can still cut it. He does so, he says, because he still enjoys it.
“And I haven’t felt the effects of it wearing me down, either. I still enjoy the shows as much as I did in my 20s, maybe even more so, because my voice, amazingly, is still working. When you’re younger you know you have a strong voice and it comes out, but when you get older and it’s still there, you think, well, why would I want to stop while I can still do it? It’s a great surprise, I have to say.”
SPEAKING OF SURPRISES: Jones will be arriving in Dublin on September 24th (aka Arthur’s Day) for two special shows in celebration of the 250th anniversary of Guinness. While he and other acts will perform at Hop Store 13 during the day and evening, he will also, at an unspecified time, be whisked off to a city-centre pub (the location of which will be a heavily guarded secret until minutes before he’s due on stage) for a 30-minute, sweaty, in-your-face, eyeball-to-eyeball gig. So – a Tom Jones gig. In a Dublin pub. Belting out the likes of Delilah, Thunderball, What’s New Pussycat?and It’s Not Unusual. We can already envisage the roof of that particular Dublin pub being blown off by sheer force of personality and audience reaction.
“Sometimes, to be musically stripped down like that is really good,” enthuses Jones. “Some people are scared of it. They can’t perform unless they have a full-blown sound system, musicians and all the business – they get thrown. If you love to sing, or perform, sometimes it’s good to go into areas like that. And to be asked to sing in a Dublin pub on Arthur’s Day is great.
“Well, you know, I’m Welsh and it’s a Dublin pub – it’s a perfect fit. And I enjoy a pint of Guinness myself, although I hope I don’t consume too much of it before I sing!” And it isn’t, he is at pains to clarify, that he plays very large venues all the time. “The venue I perform in regularly in Las Vegas is a 1,000-seater nightclub, so I play all kinds. I played Glastonbury earlier in the summer – more than 100,000 people staring at me. In the daytime. But to me, whether you’re in front of a dozen people, or thousands, you still have to put on your best performance.
“Glastonbury was great, though – it was all ‘We want Tom, We want Tom’ before I came on, and one of the papers the day after said ‘It’s not unusual to be loved by everyone’. The Red Dragon was flying, and I was flying! Not bad for someone who’s 70 next year, is it?”
Tom Jones plays Guinness Hop Store in Dublin on September 24th