If you’ve ever had the desire to see a man cry, you really should’ve been at my house a few days ago.
After years of trying to secure an interview with Sir Tom Jones – yes, that’s right, the man behind "It’s Not Unusual," "Sex Bomb," and a version of Prince’s "Kiss" that, in its own way, transcends the original – I was finally handed the opportunity on a silver platter. In preparation for the release of his '60s variety show, "This is Tom Jones," on DVD by Time-Life, I was to be granted a half-hour’s telephone time with the man. I spent the day getting my questions ready and preparing myself, so that I could have an actual conversation and not just stammer myself silly. Therefore, when I finished a wonderful 30-minute interview with Sir Tom, I was rapt with pride and ecstatic at the thought of playing it back for my wife, who’s as big a fan as I am. So I leaned down to rewind the tape…and found that, despite the fact that the red light had been on to indicate that it was all powered up, due to the tape being slightly out of line, not a single moment of our conversation had been recorded.
Okay, I exaggerated a moment ago: I didn’t actually cry. I did, however, manage to spit out a stream of f-bombs that put to shame Hugh Grant’s character in "Four Weddings and a Funeral." (Just ask my fellow editor, David Medsker, who was the recipient of my first post-interview phone call.) At my mother-in-law’s urging, however, I sat down with my original questions, wracked my brain, and was able to come up with some pretty solid recollections of Tom’s responses.
Bullz-Eye: So I received the advance of the "This Is Tom Jones" collection, and, well, being a fan, I guess it goes without saying that I’m loving it. It’s the first time I’ve ever seen any of these performances, but how long had it been since you’d seen these episodes?
Tom Jones: You know, I hadn’t seen any of them in years since sitting down to put them together for this set.
BE: Did you have a hand in picking out which shows would appear on the set?
TJ: Well, I did, in that I went through and I picked out the ones with the people I liked the most, and then I left it up to the powers that be and let them handle it as far as making sure we could use them in the set.
BE: Do you happen to remember when someone first came up and pitched the idea of you doing your own variety show?
TJ: I do. I was 28 at the time, and they asked me if I’d be interested in doing the show. And I’d done half-hour shows already in England…in black and white, since it was before they started doing them in color…but I wasn’t all that certain about the idea of actually serving as a host. In fact, when it first started, I really didn’t think that I could do it. But once I got going, I realized that I could, of course, and I’m glad that I did.
BE: Not that you haven’t shown a gift for comedy over the years, with "Mars Attacks" and your appearance on "The Simpsons," but I was really impressed with your aptitude in the first few episodes of your show. Had you done any acting prior to the series?
TJ: Not acting, no, but I’d toured with a comedian in the past, and I’d always loved comedy.
BE: It strikes me that you’re almost playing a character when you’re on the show, playing up the ladies’ man aspect of your persona in some of the between-song comedy moments. Was that part of your reputation already pretty well in place by then, or was it the show that served to cement it permanently?
TJ: No, that was pretty well in place by then. Pretty much from "It’s Not Unusual" on, they realized that the ladies were really interested in what I was doing! What people too often forget, though, is that men like what I’m doing as well. I had to keep reminding them, "You know, these women aren’t coming to my shows alone. They’ve got husbands and boyfriends who’re coming along with them!"
BE: You had some of the biggest names in entertainment appear, from the worlds of both acting and music, but I think some of my personal favorite moments are when you team up with other musicians. How much say did you have in selecting your musical guests?
TJ: Well, you know, the network was more interesting in traveling the middle of the road, so that’s why we had guests like Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, or Barbara Eden, who was doing "I Dream of Jeannie" at the time. But that was one of the things I insisted on, that I be able to balance it out with artists like Janis Joplin or Aretha Franklin. The network wasn’t really that pleased about it, but that was something important to me. I wanted to be able to have people on the show who I actually wanted to see perform, or to sing with.
BE: So I’m guessing The Who were one of your picks, then.
TJ: They were! Yeah, I had known The Who for awhile, because they used to do package tours back then, and they’d play the first half of the show, then I’d play the second. A lot us all came up at about the same time, so we were playing together on these types of tours. I played with the Rolling Stones; I played with them at a club in London. I played with Van Morrison back when he was with Them. So, you know, it wasn’t hard to get these people to do the show, because I’d already known them. Like the Moody Blues. And because of that, they knew what I was about, and what I could do. Like Janis Joplin, she knew what kind of singer I was, and she looked forward to singing with me. And I knew Graham Nash, from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, back when he was in the Hollies.
BE: That actually reminds me: I was kind of disappointed to find that some of these episodes have had segments removed. Like, in the one with that great performance with you and Stevie Wonder, the Hollies originally had a song at the end, but it’s not on the DVD. Was it just too cost-prohibitive to include every single moment from every single episode?
TJ: Well, I think that was some of it. And, also, I’ve got a rough cut of the DVD, and the one I’ve got has Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young performing, but then I got a note saying that it won’t be on the final version because…I don’t know, but I guess Neil Young wouldn’t sign off on it. He doesn’t ever want to release anything that he’s ever done…but it’s not that he thinks the performance is bad. He loves it, and, in fact, he wants to use it on something that he’s putting out himself! So I’m thinking, well, that’s a bit strange, and can’t we work something out? But I guess not.
BE: You know, as far as some of the fashions you’re wearing on the show…
TJ: Yeah, they’re something, aren’t they?
BE: I was actually wondering if, in some cases, the events we’re seeing onscreen were the sum total of when they were in fashion.
"I do have such different audiences, and they're all ages. You've got the people who're up front and want to dance, but behind them, you've got the people in the expensive seats who just want to sit there and enjoy the show. Basically, I feel like if you can be polite for the first ¾ of show, all bets are off after that." TJ: (laughs) Yeah, they did look a little ridiculous at times, particularly in the production numbers, where the costume designer tried to put together outfits that matched what was going on in the song.
BE: I have to say, the one you’re wearing during your first songs with Aretha Franklin makes you look like an extra from "Star Trek: The Motion Picture."
TJ: Well, see, there you go: we were ahead of our time! Actually, if you go back and watch, in the concert sequence, you see the blocks light up when I step on them. Years later, they did that in "Saturday Night Fever." So, you see, we did that first.
BE: Was there anyone whose appearance on the show led to long-term friendship?
TJ: (considers the question) Well, I had met several of the people already who ended up on the show, but, for instance, Jerry Lee Lewis was on the show, and I’d met him before, but we stayed friends and kept in touch for many years afterwards. The same with Little Richard, I’d known him as well.
BE: Do you know if the British release of the DVD will contain a more Brit-centric line-up of episodes? Because you had some shows with guests like, say, Sandie Shaw, who was definitely more popular in the UK.
TJ: You know, I don’t know, but that’s a very good question. But I do know that the episodes generally ran the same here as they did in England, so they tried to use artists who had at least some sort of profile here already. And music wasn’t usually a problem, but there were some concerns about the British comedians not doing well in America, though the other way 'round was never an issue because the British have always loved American comedy.
BE: I know a duet between you and Van Morrison is getting ready to be released as a single, but I wanted to ask you about "Stoned in Love," with Chicane. That was one of my favorite songs of 2006, but when I saw you perform it live, I couldn’t help but think, "Damn, I want a version of this that’s just by Tom!" I mean, I may have even liked it better without Chicane!
TJ: Yeah, thanks! The thing is, it generally comes about because of people writing a song and thinking that, "Hey, you know what, Tom Jones would sound good here." And the ones who actually contact me to see if I’ll sing on it are sometimes surprised when I like what I hear and I say, "Ok, yeah, I’ll do that." But, you know, I enjoy doing that, getting the chance to work with different artists. It’s always the most fun when you work with someone who’s different, who’s a really unexpected pairing.
BE: Actually, this gives me a perfect opening for a question I’d wanted to ask for a friend of mine: do you happen to remember anything from your experience of recording that cover of "Gimme Shelter" with the guys from New Model Army?
TJ: Actually, I was trying to come up with their name a moment ago when I was talking about working with someone unexpected! My son was my manager at the time, and he mentioned to me the idea of working with them on this cover song, and that it was for a charity project, and he said, "Yeah, there are these guys, New Model Army, they’re a good band." And, of course, I was already familiar with the original song by the Stones, so I said, "Yeah, I’ll do it." And they were a great bunch of guys, and it was a good time.
BE: For proof as to how even a few years makes a difference in how you’re perceived, when I told our Editor-in-Chief about doing this interview, he said, "Tom Jones? When I think of him, I totally think of Carlton on 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’!" Did that lower or change your demographic!
TJ: Yeah, it did! A lot of older black people knew me already, because I’d been around in the '60s and they’d seen my show, but the younger black audience really didn’t know anything about me, so that was their first experience with me. But you’re right, different aged people know me for different things. I also have a lot of people who’ll come up to me and say, "You’re Tom Jones from 'Mars Attacks’!" (laughs)
BE: My wife and I were both wondering how it feels for you to have such decidedly different audiences between here and the UK? I mean, we saw you over here a few months ago, an old lady kicked my wife when she tried to dance in the aisle! And, y’know, I just can’t imagine you could go to a Tom Jones concert in the UK and even be allowed to not dance!
TJ: (laughs) Yeah, I know what you mean, and it can sometimes be a problem, because you’re right, I do have such different audiences, and they’re all ages. You’ve got the people who’re up front and want to dance, but behind them, you’ve got the people in the expensive seats who just want to sit there and enjoy the show. Basically, I feel like if you can be polite for the first three-fourths of a show, all bets are off after that. I did a show in Cardiff, where I’m from (in Wales), and my nephews went, and one of them witnessed a confrontation between the two kind of crowds -- a younger fan who was trying to dance and the older woman who’s wanting him to sit down, and you’ll have to excuse my French here, but, finally, the younger guy just said, "Excuse me, grandma, but would you please fuck off?" (laughs)
BE: Are you disappointed that your last few albums haven’t been released in the States? I kept hearing rumors that a more U.S.-centric version of Reload was in the cards, but it never appeared.
TJ: I am, because it’s definitely a situation where I’m playing to crowds who haven’t heard a lot of the new material. Now, I still play a bit of it, anyway, because some of it, like "Stoned in Love," stands on its own whether you’ve heard it before or not. But, yeah, it’s definitely disappointing. And you’re right, there was talk of doing a version for the U.S., and we were going to get together with some American artists to record new songs and replace some of the British artists who didn’t necessarily have major profiles in the U.S., but it just never got off the ground. I don’t know if it was V2 or what, but it just didn’t happen.
BE: I was really pleased with your blues album with Jools Holland. It was also nice to be able to play it for someone and say, "Ok, I know you just think of 'It’s Not Unusual,’ but this is the real Tom Jones."
TJ: Oh, yeah, thanks, thanks a lot. And, yeah, that’s another one that was really disappointing that it wasn’t released in America.
BE: Given your pride in Wales, have you ever thought about doing an album completely in Welsh? I know the lead singer of Super Furry Animals took a stab at one a few years ago.
TJ: The problem with that is that while I know Welsh I don’t really speak it, so I’d have to learn what I was singing, and the effect would be lost. Many years ago, I had done a song called "Not Responsible," and I was told that if I’d just record an Italian version of the song, it’d be a massive hit in Italy! So I did. But the problem came in the translation, because, you see, the way they’d translated the lines, I was actually singing, "I am responsible!" And after going through all that trouble to record a special version, it was the original English version of the song that ended up being the bigger hit, anyway!
BE: Last question: when you tried to get your female fans to stop throwing their panties, did you really expect that it was going to take?
TJ: No, not really. (laughs) My son and daughter-in-law, they said, it lessens your impact as a singer when you go out there with all the underwear, but, you know, I never want to tell an audience what to do. That’s not what a performer should ever do. So they still throw them, and I’m sure they’ll always continue to throw them, but now I try to just leave them on the stage. I don’t pick them up and wipe my brow with them anymore. (cackles)