Tom Jones

by Roger Catlin

A pop star more than a half century ago, Sir Tom Jones is still singing and recording at 76. His latest recorded work has come with producer Evan Johns, on a trilogy of albums that revive classic R&B songs and pay homage to songwriters from Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen to Tom Waits, Richard Thompson, Billy Joe Shaver and Gillian Welch. They enliven a tour set that still features a passel of his old hits, from "It's Not Unusual" to "What's New Pussycat?" to his career-reviving cover of Prince's "Kiss."

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.
Songfacts (Roger Catlin): You've been singing for 50 years. Is it an easier profession now or more difficult?

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.

Ethan Johns, son of legendary Glyn Johns (Rolling Stones, The Who) has been producer of Jones' well-received albums of the 2010s. The trilogy began with the gospel-tinged Praise & Blame that included work from Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jessie Mae Hemphill, Bob Dylan and Pops Staples. It continued with 2012's Spirit in the Room that included covers of Leonard Cohen's "Tower of Song," Paul McCartney's "(I Want to) Come Home," Richard Thompson's "Dimming of the Day" and Tom Waits' "Bad as Me." Jones' latest album, released in 2015, included his takes on Willie Nelson's "Opportunity to Cry," Sonny Boy Williamson's "Bring It On Home," the Rolling Stones' "Factory Girl" and "Honey Honey" by the Milk Carton Kids.
Songfacts: What was your intention when you chose these songs?

Jones: I wanted to put my own interpretation on them. Gillian Welch is a great writer. She sang "Elvis Presley Blues." When I first recorded it with Ethan, it was a couple of years ago and we did it very similar to the way she did it and it wasn't doing anything different to what she had done, so Ethan said, "Look, let's just sit on it for a while and maybe come up with some idea for it."

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.

Born in a coal mining family in South Wales, Tom Jones began singing in high school and dance halls. His first hit, "It's Not Unusual," in 1965 was punched up with horns, so his subsequent releases were as well, including "What's New Pussycat?," "Thunderball" and crooning hits like "Green, Green Grass of Home" and "Delilah" — all of which remain parts of his current live show, though some come in different arrangements.
Songfacts: I suppose you must get fans who would rather you sing just the '60s hits.

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.

Who is "Delilah"? The song's co-writer, Sylvan Mason, told us the story.
But I shouldn't say "as long." They really like it and they like new arrangements. I do a different arrangement on "Delilah," and people love it. I've had no bad feedback. Everybody is loving what I'm doing. So that's it.

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.

Sir Tom Jones is widely known in the UK for something beyond his recordings and tours: He's also been one of the prominent judges in the British version of The Voice. It started in March 2012 when he sat on the swivel chairs alongside, Jessie J and Danny O'Donoghue of The Script. After four seasons of the show, the BBC replaced him with Boy George, but with the new season switched to a rival network, ITV, Jones is back on the show, which begins a new season this winter. His fellow judges will be once more, but also Jennifer Hudson and Gavin Rossdale of Bush (whose ex-wife will return to judge on the US version of The Voice).
Jones: That's what's happening now. It's looking back, but it's going forward, because I know I'm reading more into the songs now than I would have done as a young person.

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
Photo: Rick Guest

More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 3

  • Audrey from MinneapolisLove your work with Ethan. Also love Help Yourself!!! Thank you Sir Tom Jones
  • Sandy from OhioLoved a song I saw him and another famous lady singer do called Didn't It Rain!
  • Spotifythrowbacks.comTom is one of the greatest performers ever lived!! We need to bring this kind of music back!
see more comments

Editor's Picks

Dino Cazares of Fear Factory

Dino Cazares of Fear FactorySongwriter Interviews

The guitarist/songwriter explains how he came up with his signature sound, and deconstructs some classic Fear Factory songs.

Weird Al Yankovic

Weird Al YankovicFact or Fiction

Did Al play on a Beach Boys record? Did he have beef with George Lucas and Coolio? See if you can spot weird but true stories.

Timothy B. Schmit of the Eagles

Timothy B. Schmit of the EaglesSongwriter Interviews

Did this Eagle come up with the term "Parrothead"? And what is it like playing "Hotel California" for the gazillionth time?

David Bowie Lyrics Quiz

David Bowie Lyrics QuizMusic Quiz

How well do you know your David Bowie lyrics? Take this quiz to find out.

Christmas Songs

Christmas SongsFact or Fiction

Rudolf, Bob Dylan and the Singing Dogs all show up in this Fact or Fiction for seasonal favorites.


AC/DCFact or Fiction

Does Angus really drink himself silly? Did their name come from a sewing machine? See if you can spot the real stories about AC/DC.