Russell Baillie writes about movies for the Herald

Tom Jones: I didn't want to sensationalise anything

Tom Jones hits town this week on the back of a run of acclaimed albums and an autobiography. He talks about his late-career renaissance to Russell Baillie.
Welsh singer, Tom Jones.
Welsh singer, Tom Jones.

Sir Thomas John Woodward OBE is in good voice. It's rumbling down the phoneline in an accent that doesn't seem to have lost a trace of its Welshness despite its owner having departed the valleys for the bright lights of Las Vegas and Los Angeles many years ago.

Tom Jones been a regular visitor to these shores since It's Not Unusual lit up the pop world in 1965. But more than 50 years later, Jones finds himself in something of a late-career purple patch.

He's released three well-received albums in quick succession - Praise & Blame (2010), Spirit in the Room (2012), and Long Lost Suitcase (2015) - all featuring a mix of early rock 'n' roll, soul, blues, gospel and folk songs written by the likes of Bob Dylan, Willie Nelson, Paul Simon, Gillian Welch and many more.

Last year, alongside Long Lost Suitcase, came the publication of his autobiography Over the Top and Back, which charts Jones's colourful career from 60s pop star to 70s television and Vegas fixture, to hitless has-been to repeat comeback king.

It's not a tell-all - you won't find the word "groupie" within its 500-plus pages.

But like Rod Stewart and Keith Richards' books before him, Jones' is an engaging music memoir.

If some of the anecdotes are well worn, Jones and his ghostwriter Giles Smith (who shaped Stewart's account) still spin many entertaining yarns, while between the lines there's a sense of regret and frustration about forever being pegged to his early image and hits.

Still, the show he brings to Vector Arena on Saturday before he headlines Australia's Bluesfest at Easter will still have the likes of Delilah and Green Green Grass of Home in the setlist.

But it's the songs on Long Lost Suitcase - many of them songs he's long loved but never recorded that Jones says are as much a part of his musical DNA. The album's song titles also act as chapter headings in Over the Top and Back again, a book so titled because "I went over the top. I was larger than life. But I've come back to the basics of what I started singing like when I was in Wales."

Did the book require much editing after you had done your bit?

No but they kept more swear words in it than I thought they would.

It's interesting how the book is structured. It's not just a chronological blow by blow ...

I told the man who wrote it all all down for me, Giles Smith, I would like the way I am telling you that is the way I would like you to write it. And people that know me when they have read the book, they can hear me saying it.

Is there an audiobook version? Did you narrate that?

Jonathan Pryce did it because he is a Welsh actor and he has got my accent down. I just didn't have the time to do it myself and I think he's done a great job of it.

I would have thought his voice would have been a bit posh.

Well a little bit. But I think he had to change his accent a bit to sound like me.

You've got a very good memory. Why is that?

I don't know why. People say "how do you remember all that stuff?" It's because I picture it all. It's like a photographic memory. I could see those stories vividly when I was doing the book. They were all coming back to me. When I talk about listening to people singing in the Wood Road Club when I was a kid, I was back there in the story - I was there.

Still, the book is quite a discrete version of your life.

Well, yeah. I put in the book what I thought was important to get to why I am, who I am and why I have lasted so long. I was brought up in Wales and that has contributed a lot so I talked about that a lot and the kind of music that I recorded. That is what I wanted to do. I didn't want to put in there stuff that to me didn't mean anything. I didn't want to sensationalise anything. I just wanted to put down what I was proud of.

Were the publishers happy with that?

Oh yeah. Definitely they said that is what they wanted. All the rest, the other stuff, true or false, has been documented on me over the years. And they said they said "we just want to know what you think." And that is it.

You are writing about yourself as a young man - what do you think of the guy you maybe met again while doing the book?

Well I thought he was determined. He sounded determined. Now when you are older and you have experienced it all, you think "My god for me to think that way. I must have had some balls as a young man".

When I sang some Elvis Presley songs in the pub one night I used to say "yeah I'll meet Elvis one day" ... but I had this feeling that I would. As long as I got my foot in the door, as long as I got a hit record in London. I knew what I was aiming for. I knew I had the gall to do it. Meeting Gordon Mills was very important because he not only became my manager but he wrote It's Not Unusual with Les Reed - that was the thing that kicked it off. I thought if I can get a hit record and I can get in the door, then I have the confidence and the God-given voice. I didn't create the voice but I had the balls to go with it.

Between the lines of the book and the liner notes of the Suitcase album there is almost a sense of regret about where your career went musically. Your career headed into the showbiz cabaret side of things early ...

Yes, looking back at it now it did. They offered me a contract in Las Vegas. My manager said "look this will be great". Frank Sinatra was playing there and Sammy Davis jnr, the Rat Pack was there then and Elvis Presley used to love to go to Vegas. So he came to see me in 68 and said he wanted to make a comeback so there was a buzz there. But then you get the problem is when you make certain moves you are not realising at the time you get stamped with things.

When I went into the Top of the Town in London it was suggested I put a tuxedo on. I said, "Sure, I can wear a tuxedo, what is the big deal?" And all of a sudden you are labelled with that. When I started my TV show they wanted me to start in that with a tuxedo ...

So you were typecast?

Yeah exactly. I was at a party at Lulu's house one time and Elton John was there and he said, "I saw you billed when I was in Texas but I didn't come to the show because I didn't have a tuxedo." Wow, so this is what I have become now. I've become a nightclub entertainer singing to people in tuxedos. Things happen that you don't plan. It just happens like that.

Is there someone else's musical career you wish you had instead?

No. It's not that important. It's just the image thing that is what I didn't intend. Yes I was singing in a tuxedo in Las Vegas but I was doing a lot of soul stuff. I still opened my show with In the Midnight Hour. If you still listen to Live at the Flamingo from 1969, I open with Bobby Blue Band's Turn On Your Love Light. So the material I was doing was of a soulful nature it's just that, you know ...

With your son Mark managing you, it seems the last 20 or so years you've been able to regain some control of your image and your recording career.

Yeah, exactly. He knows what I can do. He knows what is in my heart. So recording the [last three albums] with [producer] Ethan Johns has been a treat.

Your trilogy of albums reminds of Johnny Cash's final albums with Rick Rubin, which became an epitaph. Are these records bit of a final stocktake?

Oh no, I just want to make sure I have crossed all the t's and dotted all the i's. I want to record new stuff - stuff that is new to me. I don't want to rest on my laurels. I don't just want to go out and do the greatest hits year after year. I want to sing with people I haven't sung with before. I want to try new things. I don't want to rest on my laurels.

Who: Sir Tom Jones
When and where: Vector Arena, Saturday, March 19
Also: Over the Top and Back: The Autobiography (Penguin, out now)

- TimeOut

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