Looking back at Tom Jones’ Vegas era
There’ve been times over the course of his long career when Tom Jones has gone overboard with the beltiness, used his powerful vocal cords like they were muscles to flex, and that’s one reason why when you say “Tom Jones” you have to qualify it with reams of footnotes.
Which Tom Jones? He’s been recording for well over 50 years, starting out with a bunch of pre–Mersey Beat U.K. pop singles with noted pop eccentric Joe Meek, and he’s had more musical personas than anyone except maybe Bobby Darin: R&B shouter, country crooner, Vegas headliner, singer of Paul Anka and Bacharach & David pop songs, and lately, outstanding interpreter of blues and roots music.
You can begin, I suppose, with the Tom Jones of a half-century ago, the Tom Jones who hosted a prime-time variety show on ABC and headlined in the big room at the Flamingo Hotel. The Tom Jones of 1969 represented on the Live in Las Vegas album was all swagger, a lothario in tight trousers and Cuban heels. It was a different kind of masculine assertiveness than what rock gods like Mick Jagger and Robert Plant were projecting in that autumn of Let It Bleed and Led Zeppelin II, although it’s possible to draw a connection between the menace of “Midnight Rambler” and “Delilah,” where Jones essentially maps out a confession to an O.J.-ish crime of passion. And there’s a link between Plant’s orgiastic wailing about offering every inch of his love and Jones getting close to his female fans at ringside with the invitation to “Help yourself to my lips, to my arms… ” He stops that inventory above the waist, but you wouldn’t guess that from the squeals of delight. Jones’s appeal was more like Elvis Presley’s (who was mounting his Vegas-based live comeback around the same time). The Euro-romanticism of Jones’s “Love Me Tonight” was a cousin to Presley numbers like “It’s Now or Never,” and both singers included the Beatles’ “Yesterday” and “Hey Jude” in their ’69 Vegas acts. Both recorded “Danny Boy” and “Green Green Grass of Home.” It’s been reported that Presley checked out Jones’s act when he was prepping his own Vegas residency, and took notes.
AUDIO: Tom Jones “Thunderball”
Jones is like the pop Richard Burton, a singer of such masculine authority and drama that he brings conviction to a nonsensical Bond theme (“Thunderball”), elevates catchy pop songs like “What’s New Pussycat,” “Promise Her Anything,” and “What A Party,” and, as clips from his TV series prove, could stand toe-to-toe and tonsils-to-tonsils with singers as different as Dusty Springfield and Janis Joplin. He could have been one of the premier blue-eyed soul singers if he’d stayed on the “It’s Not Unusual” path (listen to his takes on Wilson Pickett’s “If You Need Me” and Chuck Willis’s “Whatcha Gonna Do” on his debut album), and wouldn’t it have been something else to get him down to Muscle Shoals or Memphis in the ’60s and early ’70s, and throw him the room with those players and some songs by Dan Penn and Spooner Oldham, for example? Hints of that come through even on the eclectic Vegas set: the album opens with Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Turn On Your Love Light,” and Jones is right in the zone on Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle.”
When you can sing like Tom Jones, and there’s little that’s out of reach (he can do “Big Boss Man”—another intersection with Presley’s repertoire—and “If You Go Away” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You”), it becomes all about choices, as with actors as brilliant as Burton (or, let’s say, De Niro or Pacino), whose filmographies are filled with inexplicable misjudgments alongside projects that truly were worthy of their talents. Jones doesn’t get taken as seriously as he should. You can blame things like the cringingly misogynistic Paul Anka song “She’s a Lady,” or the underwear-tossing ritual, or a lot of lousy records in the ’70s (okay, it was the ’70s: a lot of singers screwed up in that decade, give him a break). Live in Las Vegas, where he’s backed by a stellar showroom band (he brought some ace U.K. players along with him) does a terrific job of summing up Jones in the ’60s, the soul and the schmaltz, the rowdiness of “Twist and Shout,” the drama of “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again” (a studio recording augmented to sound ambiently live).
VIDEO: Tom Jones performs “Hard to Handle”
When Live in Las Vegas was released, Jones was hosting the This is Tom Jones TV show and, as much as any albums he made during that period, the performances—especially the duets—from that program are a window into his musical leanings, and examples of his vocal prowess. He joins Aretha Franklin on “See-Saw” and “Spirit in the Night,” does a rock’n’roll medley with Little Richard, gives off sparks with Dusty Springfield on “I’m Gonna Make You Love Me,” sings with Stevie Wonder, joins Crosby, Stills Nash & Young on “Long Time Gone” and Janis Joplin on a rousing “Raise Your Hand.” The show ran for three seasons, and featured a remarkable lineup of guests (the Who, Johnny Cash, Charles Aznavour, Ray Charles), but the studio albums he made after Live in Las Vegas were listless, and even his ’71 sequel to the Vegas set, Live at Caesar’s Palace, lacked the kick of its predecessor. It was a descent into camp, from the cover photo to its material: “Cabaret,” “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” and, inevitably, “My Way.”
But the Tom Jones of 1969 wasn’t only a comic’s punchline, despite the reports of flying undergarments at his gigs. There was always something of the relic about him, for certain, the way his nightclub set lists could transition from “My Yiddishe Mama” to Sam Cooke’s “Shake,” from “Thunderball” to “That Old Black Magic” (these selections appear on his ’67 Live! At the Talk of the Town). That’s what entertainers of an earlier era were expected to do: appeal to grown-ups as well as to the teenagers who might be out celebrating on prom night in the big city. So that’s what Jones did, and maybe he was too hip to give a damn about appearing to be hip; maybe, like Elvis, he genuinely felt that “Danny Boy” was as much a part of his musical makeup as something by Jimmy Reed. When I pull the Live in Las Vegas LP off the shelf, all I can think about is how much fun it must have been to be in the room and watch him do “Hard to Handle” and “It’s Not Unusual.” He hits the “OUT at any time” with such knowing vocal italics that all you can do is smile. The guy could work a crowd.
AUDIO: Tom Jones Live in Las Vegas (full album)
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