Tom Jones on Meeting Elvis, Recording With Bacharach, ‘Panty Magnet’ Phase
Decades later, Jones was one of the 10 singers requested by honoree Bob Dylan to sing at this year’s MusiCares Person of the Year tribute. Jones can’t imagine such a request coming from Dylan back in 1968. “No way. Bob Dylan must have hated me,” he says with a laugh.
Some critics labeled Jones’ music as schlock mainstream entertainment with no connection to the rising counterculture of the Beatles, Stones and Dylan. And yet, back in Treforest, Wales, Jones had begun much like those contemporaries, performing rock and R&B covers in a village band he led called Tommy Scott and the Senators. It was his first stage name. (He was born Thomas Jones Woodward in 1940.)
He found a manager, changed his name to Tom Jones, and recorded a debut album that was a wide mixture of pop vocals, ballads and “some rip-roaring shit,” Jones says now. But it was the urgently effervescent “It’s Not Unusual,” with Jones’ muscular come-hither baritone, that topped the U.K. chart and reached Number 10 in the U.S.
He piled up other hits in the same accessible pop vein that decade, including “Delilah,” “Help Yourself” and “Thunderball.” Jones was on Decca Records with the Rolling Stones, but the distance between them grew even further during his four-hour recording session on Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “What’s New Pussycat?” It was the theme song for a 1965 movie comedy and played into his growing image as a sex-symbol crooner in open shirts and tight pants. Jones hesitated, then dove right into the song.
“I thought, ‘I’m going to punch the shit out of it on “What’s New Pussycat?”‘ And Burt said, ‘That’s what I want. It’s a crazy song for a crazy film. … I have to have a voice of authority.’ It’s sort of a backhanded compliment: ‘I’ve got to have you, but this is the song,'” he says with a laugh.
Since Jones was not a songwriter, the direction of his music was limited to the songs that were available, he explains. The same kind of material kept coming his way. “They were iconic records. I’m not saying I don’t like them,” he adds of the hits. “When Burt convinced me to do that song, it took a while. He did say, ‘This is not a rhythm & blues song.’ Soul music had kicked in by then, and I wanted to do Wilson Pickett songs, Solomon Burke, Sam and Dave, and Otis Redding. But I wasn’t getting the songs.”
From 1969 to 1971, he hosted This Is Tom Jones, a weekly TV variety show that the singer used as a means to stretch out and collaborate with his musical heroes and contemporaries, from Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard to Aretha Franklin and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. The show began in London, but moved to Hollywood after it was picked up by ABC, where mainstream entertainment like Robert Goulet and Barbara Eden dominated the agenda.
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