Some might call it a renaissance, but the continued ascendance on disc of Tom Jones since 2010 has not been based on any revolutionary marketing plan. Rather, by drawing from the roots and influences that fed his earliest ambitions, he has released a series of works that present his natural talent stripped of artifice. He’s even stopped dyeing his hair. Finally, in his 70s, the real Thomas Jones Woodward has broken free.
The new album, ‘Long Lost Suitcase’, is the third in a trilogy devised alongside Kings Of Leon/Ryan Adams producer, Ethan Johns, which delves into a deep well of musical heritage and presents spartan, personalised interpretations, all anchored by the still-forcible range of that iconic voice.
It began with ‘Praise & Blame’ in 2010, when the duo mined a sterling selection of gospel and spiritual songs, covering Bob Dylan, The Staple Singers and Sister Rosetta Tharpe among traditional numbers. ‘Spirit In The Room’, which followed in 2012, was more secular, and saw Leonard Cohen, Paul McCartney and Paul Simon given the raw, rootsy treatment that the pair had perfected. ‘Long Lost Suitcase’ completes this revisionary adventure by welding blues, soul, country and rock and roll effortlessly together in one richly expressive finale.
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Hand-picked by Jones and Johns, the songs resound with intimacy, in sound as well as theme, as Tom explores his past and memories through pertinent picks, such as Willie Nelson’s ‘Opportunity To Cry’, Hank Williams’ ‘Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used To Do?’, The Rolling Stones’ ‘Factory Girl’, and, in a poignant nod to his friendship with the late King of rock and roll, Gillian Welch’s ‘Elvis Presley Blues’.
Their resonance is echoed further as these and other song titles have also been adopted as chapter headings in Tom’s first ever autobiography, Over The Top And Back.
A companion piece to the album, the book is a thrilling insight into the highs and lows of a life dedicated to music. It details his first forays with a band in his native Wales, the first flushes of fame in London and the conquering of America, before revealing the anguish he suffered escaping the derision of his Las Vegas residencies, the imposed sex-symbol status, and the subsequent strain of the ’80s. It follows his comeback in the ’90s all the way up to his role as a mentor on the BBC’s The Voice, and recounts incredible dalliances with a host of famous friends, including John Lennon, Burt Bacharach, Janis Joplin, Frank Sinatra, and, of course, Elvis Presley.
In the ornate surroundings of London’s Savoy Hotel, Clash sat with Tom to discuss his new album and book and, finding him in a suitably reflective mood, took the opportunity to discuss some past collaborations that survive on YouTube. It’s plain to see that his enthusiasm for his work has diminished none, and the passion he radiates when talking about his craft is arresting. We could have spoken for hours, but other journalists were waiting their turn.
‘Long Lost Suitcase’ is the climax to a trilogy of albums you’ve created with Ethan Johns. Were three albums together always your intentions? Did you have a vision for the series?
Yeah. With Ethan, each time I went in with him – with ‘Praise And Blame’, for instance, in 2010 – we recorded a lot of stuff, and we record them with a rhythm section – very sparse, so if he needs to add anything to it, he can. But the vocal is with the rhythm track; you can’t separate the vocal. We’ve got no backing tracks, which sometimes is a bit of a pain, because sometimes you want a backing track if you want to do a TV [appearance] or something, but we can’t do that; we have to have musicians that play live. Which is a good thing, really.
But we record a lot of things, and then when we think about which ones to put on an album, we might bring something out that we did before. Or, in the case of ‘Elvis Presley Blues’, we tried it a couple of years ago and it didn’t really come off. The girl that wrote it, Gillian Welch, we tried to do it similar to what she did, because we thought it was a very good version, but it wasn’t right. Ethan said, ‘Well, we’ll put it away for now.’ And then, earlier this year, he said, ‘Do you want to have a go at ‘Elvis Presley Blues’ again?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but how are we gonna do it?’ He said, ‘I think we should do it just you and me. I’ll play guitar on it and you sing it.’ I said, ‘Yeah, okay,’ and then he said, ‘Then maybe we’ll get to the essence of it.’
And ‘He Was A Friend Of Mine’, which we had tried, and he had used a bottleneck on it but it was clanging a lot, and he said, ‘I think we should do that basically the same way - to record them with just guitar and voice - because they’re so strong, the both of them, lyrically and melody-wise, that I don’t think we need anything else.’
Is there a progression that goes through the three albums?
Yeah. As I say, we record a lot of stuff, you see, and then we go back and do it, but we’ve got a lot in the can now that we could [use] – bonus tracks and things – or we could put another album together. There’s certainly enough stuff, which I really like. But for this one, we brought in Andy Fairweather-Low, who played on a lot of the tracks that we did on this album.
So, this is different to what we did before, but the players – we’ve still got Jeremy Stacey on drums and Dave Bronze on bass – so the only thing we added was Andy Fairweather-Low, who added a great second guitar, so that left Ethan to play more lead, because Andy was laying down a really strong rhythm. So it is a trilogy in a way, because it’s done with the same musicians in basically the same way, just different songs.
When you revisited those older songs to translate into your own voice, did you discover anything new within them?
Yeah. Well, with ‘Elvis Presley Blues’, with Gillian Welch doing it, she sang [mumbles lyrics to remind himself] “like you’ve never seen,” and then she does it again, ‘like you’ve never [voice descends to low tone] seen’. She goes to that note there, and that is a depressing note to me. So that’s what was wrong with the first time we did it; we were doing it like that. And I said to Ethan, ‘I don’t think we need that third note, that third chord. I think we should just keep it up. If we’re going to do it just guitar and voice’ – because I wanted it kicking, the first time we did it – I said, ‘why don’t we raise the key and kick the shit out of it?’ So we tried that, but that didn’t work.
So, I wanted to get somewhere between that. I wanted to kick the shit out of it but not in a shit-kicking style. We wanted to get some soul into it, rather than mild like she did it. I don’t know whether you’ve heard the original, but it’s more sort of folky in nature. Really nice, but I didn’t want it to be nice. But I wanted it to be a tribute.
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We wanted to get some soul into it...
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It ended up having a really cool rockabilly sound.
Exactly. Mark, my son, he said to Ethan, ‘Why don’t you get an industrial-sounding guitar on it?’ Because Elvis, in his day was an innovator, so we wanted to do something that would make people go, ‘What is that?’ So Ethan came up with that tremolo, but he’s not striking the chord every time – he just hit it once. I don’t know how he keeps the sustain up, but he does. I think he just hits it when he changes the chord on it. And then we took it up higher than what we originally did, because I said, ‘I need to be pleading on it, so I need to do it in a higher key.’ And then he said, ‘What about if we put some old Sun Records echo on it?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, yeah, let’s do that,’ and we did it. And it just came together. It turned out great. I played it to Priscilla Presley a couple of weeks ago when we were in LA, because I see her quite a bit in LA, and Jerry Schilling, who was one of the Memphis Mafia. We went to this party one night, and Jeff Franklin – he’s a TV producer and a big Elvis Presley fan, and a big fan of mine as well – he’s got this cinema in his house, which has got a great sound in it, so I said, ‘I’ve got my CD.’ I said, ‘I want to play Priscilla this song.’ She couldn’t believe it. She said, ‘What a haunting tribute to Elvis you’ve made.’ So I’m glad she likes it.
Your previous two albums have been your most successful in a long time. Did the success and popularity of them, in addition to your heightened exposure on TV, bring pressure on you to perhaps cover more mainstream songs this time around?
No, no. With ‘Praise And Blame’, we signed with Island Records at the time, and we tried to do different things. You know that band The Feeling? I tried some things with them, and they were very good, but still didn’t have a spark. So we thought, ‘Who could we try next?’ A guy at Island Records, Louis Bloom, he said that he’d been talking to Ethan Johns about recording some rock bands. He called Ethan and said, ‘Would you record so-and-so?’ and he said no, ‘And what about so-and-so?’ ‘No.’ ‘Well, we’ve just signed Tom Jones.’ ‘Yes.’ So Louis called Mark and said, ‘Ethan Johns is interested in recording Tom,’ so we had a meeting with him.
He said, ‘I hear things in you that hasn’t come out yet, but I know they’re there, though. What do you think about going into a studio with just a rhythm section, and we’ll pick some songs that we like and do ’em?’ I said, ‘Well, that’s like starting over again. That’s like I used to do with my band in Wales; when we rehearsed before we went to do shows, we’d go into the top room of a pub and sat around like this and worked on it.’ He said, ‘Well, that’s what I want.’ Because he thought, and rightfully so, that because I did ‘It’s Not Unusual’ with a big band, it sort of almost charters a course for you, without really knowing it. I didn’t plan on it, but I knew that ‘It’s Not Unusual’ was a hit song. I knew that. [Producer] Peter Sullivan said, ‘We need something to punch it.’ So, brass. Once you get that thing, you’re in there.
And then Burt Bacharach shows up and he wants me to do ‘What’s New Pussycat?’ again with a big production. And then, when I did ‘Green, Green Grass Of Home’, I heard Jerry Lee Lewis do it very simple, and then Les Reed – I mean, the way it turned out, it was a great record. He said, ‘We need to make a pop record out of it, cos country don’t sell in Britain,’ and then he came up with the strings and the choir. Again, big. So most of my records have always been big, arrangement-wise, so I never did get back – until now – to what I originally started as, which was a ’50s rock and roll singer, really, playing in dance halls in Wales. I was doing Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley and Fats Domino and Gene Vincent; that was the shit that I liked. And then, coming into the ’60s, I liked the Roy Orbison songs.
But I wasn’t fussy on the… Rock and roll had been whitewashed in America, because Jerry Lee had married his cousin [and became] out of favour, Elvis went into the army, Chuck Berry was in jail, Little Richard became a preacher – all the original rockers were out of the picture – so they brought in Paul Anka and Frankie Avalon and Fabian. England went very much the same way – Terry Dean and Vince Eager; all these clean-cut pretty boys – except for Johnny Kidd And The Pirates; he stuck to his guns. And Cliff Richard – God bless him – but he’s a clean-cut guy. So I wasn’t going for that.
For me, it was edgy rock and roll music. And The Beatles felt the same way; when they started, they still had velvet collars, dressing like I was dressing. That’s what it was. So with these albums, really, we’ve gone back to the start. I said, ‘We’ve done the big records, great – nothing wrong with it – but now we need to get down to it.’ And thank God, everybody that’s reviewed the albums have said the same. One guy said, ‘It’s the first time I’ve really heard Tom Jones sing! It’s always been big production records, but now we get to the man,’ which is exactly what we wanted to do.
You’ve had many offers throughout the years to write your own biography but you always turned them down. Why finally do one now?
The one thing that put me off years ago, Kirk Douglas went on The Johnny Carson Show, and he had written a really good book called The Ragman’s Son, because his parents were Russian immigrants. His father was a rag and bone man, so he wanted to tell the story about coming from that and becoming a Hollywood star, right? And it’s a great book, I’ve read it, it’s wonderful.
So he’s on The Johnny Carson Show plugging this book, and Johnny says, ‘Well, that’s all very well and good, Kirk, but did you bang Lana Turner?’ Kirk said, ‘Johnny, this is not about that. This is about me, about my acting, my talent.’ ‘Yeah, but look at the leading ladies you’ve had,’ Johnny Carson said. ‘Did you do it with whatshername?’ He said, ‘It was a great film! Think about it as a great film. The film I did with Lana Turner was a great film.’ Then I thought, ‘This is happening to everybody.’ If you’re an actor or if you’re in the limelight and you’ve got a pretty assistant, ‘Ooh, is there anything happening between you?’ You know what I mean? They always want to know, ‘What’s the sex element here?’ Which is irrelevant to the real person…
To the art.
To the art! If you’re an actor, the talent that’s there. But they’re more interested in what was Sir Laurence Olivier’s life like with Vivienne Leigh – was she good in bed, and all that shit. They always go there. So I thought I don’t want to go there – and it’s been well documented anyway, the things in my career. So I wanted to do a book – I wanted to do a Ragman’s Son – but I was scared of it, because I didn’t want people to turn it around. I had a meeting with Penguin Books and they said, ‘No, we don’t want that.’
There’s been biographies put out before, but they haven’t been authorised, you see. But the public don’t know that. Once they see ‘autobiography’, they think that’s it. They think that it’s me. I mean, I’ve had people come up and say, ‘Oh, I love your book, Tom. Can you sign it?’ I say, ‘It’s not really my book. It’s a load of interviews that I’ve done and they’ve put them together and they’ve made stories up around them.’ So that was bothering me, and I thought it should be – if I’m allowed to… There’s a lot of interesting stories that I have in Wales, even before I came to London. There’s characters there; there are things that are very important to one’s character that is built from where you come from. ‘What was the environment like that you grew up in?’ And I thought that was a very important point.
So then I thought, okay. So Penguin Books said, ‘This is what we want. We want the stories of the people that you’ve met – what were the circumstances? Things that you know about Elvis’ – because I knew Elvis very well – ‘and Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis, Jr., these great people that you’ve known, that you’ve lived the same time as these people’, which is very important. ‘What was it like when you first came to London?’ Because the music scene had changed from America to Britain – everything was focused on London, thanks to The Beatles. I was part of that, and it’s an exciting time.
I’m being told we’re running out of time…
Well, I have long answers; that’s the problem.
But since you mentioned the people you once knew or worked with, I wanted to quickly ask you about some of them. There are incredible videos on YouTube of you singing with a variety of artists, mostly taken from the TV shows you hosted in the US in the ’60s and ’70s, when they were guests, and I want to ask about them.
The look on your face when you’re sitting next to Ella Fitzgerald, you look like you’re sitting next to God. She was very acrobatic with her vocals, and impressively so. Did you think, ‘Shit, I have to live up to this’?
Yeah. Well, I thought, ‘Well, I can’t compete with Ella Fitzgerald, because she’s a scat singer.’ She invented it, that thing. And I knew she was going to do that with ‘Sunny’. I knew she would play with it – she’d jazz it up. And I’m not a jazz singer, so I couldn’t go there. If it was more of a gospel song, and it was with Mahalia Jackson, that would have been a different thing. But I’m sitting with Ella Fitzgerald, who was one of the greatest jazz singers ever. So I knew I couldn’t compete. I tried to get a little loose on it and jazz it up a little bit, but that’s not my forte, so I thought I’d just stick to my guns – I’ll just do what I do – and she appreciated that. I thought I’d let her fly on it, and she did.
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I thought I’d let her fly on it, and she did.
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On the Ray Charles duet, he asks you about warming up, and you say, ‘I’ve been warming up for this spot since I started singing,’ like it had all been building up to that moment. Was working with him a dream come true?
Unbelievable. But the best for me – Ray Charles being one of them – but Jerry Lee Lewis… I mean, I bought ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ in 1957, you know what I mean? And Little Richard – to have those guys on, it’s incredible. And then later on Aretha Franklin and Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder, which were all great, but my boyhood heroes and my teenage heroes was rock and roll. Little Richard and Jerry Lee – I was looking at them thinking, ‘Fucking hell!’
You had the opportunity to invite these people onto your show.
Well, there’s another point that I’d like to make, now that you brought it up. With that series, it was ABC prime time television. Now, they want middle of the road people – they want TV guests. They want Robert Goulet, they want Barbara Eden, who was in I Dream Of Jeannie on ABC. They want those people; they’re pushing for those. Ella Fitzgerald was one of those, because she was very well known. Ray Charles, yes, but Jerry Lee Lewis? Jerry Lee married his 13-year-old cousin. ‘Ooh. We haven’t had Jerry Lee Lewis on the television since the ’50s.’ I said, ‘Well, if you want me to sing with Barbara Eden, I’ve got to sing with Jerry Lee Lewis.’
And the same thing with Wilson Pickett – they didn’t want Wilson Pickett on there. I said, ‘I have to have these people!’ ‘Little Richard hasn’t been on television…’ I said, ‘I don’t give a shit! I want them. If you want me to do what you want, I’ve got to have my say.’ And, funnily enough, the ones that are on YouTube, 90% of them are the people that I picked, not the ones that they picked, because they didn’t last!
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Well, if you want me to sing with Barbara Eden, I’ve got to sing with Jerry Lee Lewis...
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In the video where you’re performing with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, when you open your mouth and start singing, there’s a look of sheer pleasure and awe on David Crosby’s face…
Yeah. I thought, ‘I’ll give it some stick here’, because they were… I knew Graham Nash from The Hollies, of course, so he knew what I could do, but I think the other ones were taken by surprise.
I think there’s a bit of competition there between you and Stephen Stills, reaching for the highest vocals.
Oh yeah! And he’s a high singer, you see, so I thought, ‘Right, shit, I’ll be at the top of my range here,’ because that’s the way you sing it. He was up there like this, so I thought, ‘Fuck it, I’m going up there!’
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‘Long Lost Suitcase’ is out now on Virgin/EMI. Over The Top And Back is out now, published by Michael Joseph/Penguin.
Words: Simon Harper