Keeping Up With Mr. (Tom) Jones

BY JIM MELLOAN | Sometime in 1965 or ’66, I recall seeing an album by Tom Jones in Baron’s, the local drug store in Westfield, NJ. I thought he was the ugliest man I’d ever seen. Looking back on his album covers now, I can’t imagine which one it was. He doesn’t look at all bad to me now on his first album, released in the U.S. as “It’s Not Unusual.” Obviously I had a lot to learn about what appeals to women.

 “It’s Not Unusual” has reached the half-century mark, having aged just as well as Tom Jones.  Photo: rare records.net.

“It’s Not Unusual” has reached the half-century mark, having aged just as well as Tom Jones. Photo: rare records.net.

Fifty years ago, his first hit, the song by the same name, was climbing the Billboard Hot 100. On the May 22 chart, it was at No. 15, and it peaked in the U.S. at No. 10 the following week. In the U.K. it went to No. 1, helped to the top by heavy play from Radio Caroline, an offshore pirate radio station. It was a spectacular song that launched a spectacular career. Jones will turn 75 next month, and remains active.

Jones, born Thomas Jones Woodward in Treforest, South Wales, hooked up with manager Gordon Mills, also from South Wales, in 1964. Mills, who co-wrote “It’s Not Unusual” with Les Reed, had Woodward change his name to Tom Jones to capitalize on the popularity of the 1963 movie of that name. It was the first of several iconic tunes that epitomize what Jones does best: brassy bombast.

“It’s Not Unusual” was followed up by the even more audacious “What’s New Pussycat?” — the Bachrach/David theme song to the first movie scripted by Woody Allen. That one went to No. 3 in the U.S. “Thunderball,” the theme to the James Bond movie, was written by John Barry and Don Black in an admirably similar thunderous vein, but it did not do very well, and so for a while Mills turned Jones to country songs, with the biggest hit being “Green, Green Grass of Home,” a No. 1 hit in the U.K. at the end of 1966. My family lived in London from 1966 to 1970, and I remember my mom bought that one (not sure if it was a present or because she liked it). Wasn’t really my cup of tea, but I have since enjoyed performing it myself; it’s easy to play.

In 1967 Jones first played Vegas, where he met Elvis Presley, and the two were good friends until Presley’s death in 1977. It was here that his stage presence developed: gyrations, unbuttoned shirts, and tight pants, which provoked female hysteria of a much more sexual sort than that enjoyed by The Beatles. The panties and hotel keys started to be flung onstage. Jones estimates that for a while he was bedding about 250 groupies a year. He stayed married to the girl he married at age 17 (they had a son, Mark, Tom’s only offspring, in 1957). Once, though, she beat the shit out of him for his infidelities. Among his hookups was Mary Wilson of The Supremes. Cassandra Peterson, better known as Elvira, says she lost her virginity to him.

In 1968 Jones returned to form with the magnificent “Delilah,” followed by “Help Yourself.” His TV show, “This Is Tom Jones,” ran on ITV in the U.K. and ABC in the U.S. from 1969 to 1971. You want a hot party? Check out his duet with Janis Joplin on “Raise Your Hand” from that show. As the culture continued at fever pitch into 1970, he was a guest on an extravagant Raquel Welch special “Raquel!” along with showbiz stalwarts John Wayne and Bob Hope.

Nineteen-seventy-one saw “She’s a Lady” — one of many “Lady” songs from that era, in what was perhaps a futile attempt to appease feminists by raising the pedestal.

And then, for a long time, not much. From 1980 to 1988 Jones released a lot of country material, including nine songs that made the U.S. Country chart, but there were no crossovers. But then, in 1988, he came back with a vengeance, teaming up with The Art of Noise to cover Prince’s 1986 hit, “Kiss”. The video shows him in fine form, sure of himself, full of himself, and onto himself. That song made No. 5 in the U.K. but didn’t chart here. In 2000 he released a similarly self-aware hit with “Sex Bomb,” a “duet” with a German DJ/producer named Mousse T., who mutters along to the words and does seem to wear a lot of mousse, and bears some resemblance to Charlie Sheen.

Jones has had a couple more Top Ten U.K. hits since then, and since 2012 he has been a coach on The Voice U.K.

Wow, you really do know what’s happening, don’t you, Mr. Jones?

Jim Melloan is a writer, actor, musician, and editor. He does occasional columns for this publication on pop music from 50 years ago. His radio show “50 Years Ago This Week” airs Tuesdays from 810 p.m. on RadioFreeBrooklyn.com.

 

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