On the cusp of 81, the Welsh pop icon still knocks ’em dead as Surrounded By Time sees him tackling tunes by Dylan, Macca, the Stones and more
It’s a tricky transition any time a performer attempts to evolve from a pop star into an artist worthy of being taken seriously. Just ask David Cassidy, the Monkees or Herman’s Hermits.
On the other hand, Tom Jones provides proof that credibility can be achieved, and the number of kudos he’s accumulated throughout a career that’s lasted more than 55 years, one that’s taken him from a mega-successful pop star and a string of chart topping hit singles (“What’s New Pussycat,” It’s Not Unusual,” “Green, Green Grass of Home,” Thunderball,””Delilah,” “Help Yourself” etc.) through to a lifetime of awards and accolades — a Grammy Award in 1966 as Best New Artist, a Golden Globe, an Ivor Novello Award, an MTV Video Music Award, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a pair of Brit Awards and recognition as an Officer of the British Empire, OBE — provides the ultimate affirmation.
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With a long time residency in Las Vegas, ongoing appearances several hit television shows (including two of his own) and an added stint as an actor, there are few areas of artistic endeavor where he’s failed to find favor. Indeed, his has been a remarkably resilient road forward that’s led to respectability and recognition as one of the world’s most enduring artists.
VIDEO: This Is Tom Jones
In the past decade, Jones has accelerated his artistic stride via his collaboration with producer Ethan Johns, a partnership that has resulted in four exceptional albums — Praise & Blame (2010), Spirit in the Room (2012), Long Lost Suitcase (2015) and his new effort, Surrounded By Time. Featuring covers by Bob Dylan, Tom Waits, Billy Joe Shaver, Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, Richard Thompson, Jagger and Richards, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and John Lee Hooker, each of these albums have found him continuing his ascent into the highest realms of artistic excellence.
Surrounded By Time is especially auspicious, given that it finds him tackling themes that focus on mortality and the challenges faced from a personal and pensive point of view when one is forced to find a compromise between destiny and desire.
“If something did happen to me, it would have to be an accident,” Jones, who turns 81 in June, says matter of factly. “I’m taking better care of myself now than I ever did. It’s like the old saying, ‘If I knew I was gonna live this long, I would have taken better care of my myself.”
His humor aside, the album has in fact given Jones reason to shore up his strengths and reconnect with his muse after a tumultuous period that found him coping with the loss of his wife Linda after 59 years of marriage and the subsequent return to his native U.K. after decades living in Los Angeles. An artistic achievement of considerable merit, it’s also given him reason to reflect on a career that’s fairly unique in terms of both triumph and transition.
“After my wife died, I wasn’t in any mood to record,” he reflects. “I was doing live shows, but I couldn’t really get my head around trying to get some new stuff together.” Eventually he decided to dig through a collection of songs he had accumulated over several decades, choosing the material that best suited the sentiments he was feeling at the time. One song, “I Won’t Crumble With You If You Fall,” related directly to Linda’s passing and her plea that he remained strong even after her loss. Other tunes tap songs that came from the pens of Dylan, Cat Stevens, Todd Snider, Tony Joe White, and Bobby Cole. One number — “Samson and Delilah” — found him co-composing with Johns and Jones’ son Mark Woodward, who serves as the singer’s manager and creative consultant.
Unlike many other artists, Jones admits that he’s a nostalgic sort. He frequently refers to the stars he became friends with over the years, from the obvious (Elvis Presley) to the unlikely (Milton Berle).
“I’ve got pictures of the people that I’ve known on my wall in the flat that I’ve got in London now,” he muses. “I’ve gotten all the old pictures out that I’ve had from when I did the TV show. Louis Armstrong is on there, Ella Fitzgerald is on there, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley…they’re all on my wall. And I look at them and think, shit, I look a lot thinner, and I’ve got a lot more hair. But God, that was me, and I did experience all that stuff. It’s a wonderful thing.”
His reminiscences take him back to his beginnings, when he was simply trying to support his young family in the workingman’s environs of his Welsh neighborhood where he was raised. “I remember an old chap that I knew when I worked a paper mill as a teenager,” he recalls. “This old fellow said to me, ‘I hear you can sing, people say that you can sing. I said, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’ So he said, ‘Well, why don’t you go for it?’ and I said, ‘Well, because I’m trying to hold on to this job.’ I got married at 16, and I wanted to keep the job until I was 21, and then I’d go for my break. In the meantime, I needed to make some money. I certainly couldn’t afford to give it up. And he said, ‘If you do that, when you’re old like me, you’ll have memories. Make sure that they’re good ones. You’ve got to make your memories, and capture the things that are going to become memories, so you better make sure that they’re good ones.”
Not surprisingly then, each of the songs on the album provides a tale from his trajectory. He points to one track in particular that has him reflecting back on his childhood memories.
VIDEO: Todd Snider “Talking Reality Television Blues”
“We do a song that Todd Snider wrote called ‘Talking Reality Television Blues.’ I relate to it because it refers to a lot of the stuff I’ve lived through. I remember when TV started in 1952 in Great Britain. I had tuberculosis at the time, so I was bedridden, and I couldn’t leave the bedroom for two years. That was from 1952 to 1954. So my mother and father bought me a TV set, and it was the only one on our street. We saw the coronation of Queen Elizabeth for the first time. It had never been shown on television before, because we never had television in the U.K. prior to that event. So that was shown live on television. And then there was the moon landing which I remember watching live on television when I lived in the U.S.. It made it look as easy as driving a car.”
Berle, television’s first big star, also had an impact on him, in a profound and personal way.
“Milton Berle was very big in the States, but we didn’t know him in Britain in those days,” he notes. “I didn’t anyway, until I met him when I went over to the States. He was a funny guy. I remember him smoking a Cuban cigar and when he gave one to me to smoke, I went to crush it out in the ashtray afterwards. He said, “You don’t do that. You need to just let it lay there. That’s because when ladies are in the room they’re not going to like the cigar smell.’ He said they wouldn’t smell the cigar smoke unless you squashed the butt in an ashtray. You just needed to leave it alone. I still smoke Cuban cigars, and every time I put it in the ashtray, I don’t bloody squash it.”
Ironically, he would also make the acquaintance of a future American president, none other than Donald Trump. The reasons for those encounters weren’t at all unexpected.
“Yes, it was pretty obvious why he would come to my shows,” Jones muses. “I used to sing at the hotels that he owned — the Taj Mahal, Trump Plaza and the Trump arena. So he would attend many of my shows, and sometimes he’d want to be introduced. That wasn’t surprising, considering that most of my audiences were 70 percent women. We often had to put a spotlight on him in fact. I used to think of him as being like a playboy businessman, a developer who knew he was gonna get into politics. Which, of course, he did.”
VIDEO: Tom Jones “No Hole In My Head”