Formally knighted Sir Tom Jones by the Queen in 2006, Jones says he nearly quit the music business after his wife of 59 years, Linda, died suddenly of cancer in April. He continues, however, amid a flurry of activity that includes the release of an autobiography Over the Top and Back, and his introduction to a whole new generation of British fans as one of the judges on the UK version of The Voice.
We talked to Jones over the phone from Brazil, where he was preparing to return to the US for a few more weeks of touring.
Tom Jones: It's a good question. I haven't really tried to analyze it. But it's very gratifying to know that people enjoy what I do now. Thank god the voice is still there, but as far as the songs, I think I'm living them more now - getting into them and expressing them.
Songfacts: A lot of the songs on your last three albums were written by contemporary songwriters. Are they songwriters you know?
Tom Jones: I know of them. I don't know them all personally, but they're songwriters that I've heard. I haven't recorded anything and said, "Who is that?" I didn't do any of that. I wanted to do stuff that I'd heard people do.
The three albums that I've done with Ethan, that's what we've worked on. We said, "What songwriters do you like? What do you like by certain people that you would like to do?"
Bob Dylan of course was one of them, and I did "What Good Am I?" Leonard Cohen, we did "Tower of Song." And Willie Nelson. Paul McCartney. On Spirit in the Room, I did a Paul McCartney song. So yes, I knew who the songwriters are. There's a lot of songwriters.
And then one day, he said, "What if you just sing it? Pick a key, sing it, and I'll follow you and let's see what happens there."
I do basically the same thing on stage - my guitar player plays and I sing.
Songfacts: Do you get response from some of these writers? I understand Dylan really liked your version of "What Good Am I?"
Jones: Yeah. That was a huge compliment. MusiCares, which is the organization that wanted to honor him, had been offering it to him for years. And finally [in 2015], he said, "I'll do it as long as you can get me the 10 people that have recorded my songs that I like."
And thank god, it was my version of "What Good Am I?" that he liked. So that's a great thing, coming from someone who has written something and saying, "I love the way you did that." Coming from Bob Dylan, it was a big compliment.
Jones: I don't know. Because at times over the years, they've come up to me and said, "We love that song you're doing" - something they haven't heard me do before. I've never had any bad reactions to things that I do, as long as I do the other ones.
Songfacts: You've said you thanked Prince for "Kiss," which you made into a hit, but didn't ask him what he thought of your version.
Jones: Because I saw a movie once that Bette Midler did called The Rose, which was based on a Janis Joplin character. She goes to see Harry Dean Stanton, a country singer, because she'd recorded one of his songs. She says she's a big fan of his, and just before she walks out the door he says, "Could I say one thing to you? Don't you ever record one of my songs again."
That hit home. I thought, shit, I'm never going to ask a songwriter what he or she thinks of my version. I'll leave that to them. That always sticks in my mind. So I just thanked him for writing it.
Songfacts: The songs you choose all seem to reflect your life.
Songfacts: What made you decide to write your autobiography?
Jones: I wanted to write about things [growing up] that are important. And Penguin Books in England said, "That's what we want. We don't want any crap. We don't want any sensationalism."
Those things have been written anyway. Whether they're true or whether they're lies, you'll always get sensation. So I said, "I don't want that." And they said, "Neither do we. We want you to be as real as possible and say it in the way you feel it."
So that's the way it was presented. I had the final say in it. If there was anything in it that I didn't particularly like or thought wasn't important enough, it wouldn't go in there. I thought it turned out great.
Songfacts: You got to write it before the sudden death of your wife in April. Did she like what you had written?
Jones: She read the book and loved it. So I'm glad I did it when I did it because [her cancer] was very quick, and it was very sudden. She didn't know she had it and it wasn't a long, drawn out thing.
Songfacts: I understand you considered ending your career at that point.
Jones: I told her, "I'm finished, I don't think I'll be able to do it." But she said, "You must do it."
So that book is even more important now, because I don't think I could bring myself to write it now. I'd feel too sad to write about it now.
Songfacts: Has your musical approach changed as a result of her passing?
Jones: I feel it has. Because, again, I read things in the lyrics. As I do with a lot of songs now, more than before because I knew how she felt about a lot of these songs. They've become more important to me.
November 7, 2016
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