Star Scene: Tom Jones

By Jane Rocca

Tom Jones goes back to his musical roots on his latest album Long Lost Suitcase – the final installment in a trilogy of releases that saw him work with producer Ethan Johns. The 75-year-old singer who is in town to perform at the Byron Bay Blues Festival and headline shows across the country met with Jane Rocca.

Sir Tom Jones-smLong Lost Suitcase is essentially a covers album – how did you go about selecting the songs that include originals by Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, The Rolling Stones and Hank Williams?

I’ve always been known for recording big arrangement songs. This time I wanted to strip it back and get back to the blues, rock and soul songs that defined me as an artist when I first started in Wales. It was thanks to my producer Ethan Johns who really was the first guy to say ‘I think you need to sing without being swayed by big arrangements’. He took me back to that starting point before I recorded It’s Not Unusual and it felt good. As far as the songs go, I chose those that resonated with me – songs that meant something.

Ethan Johns is the son of legendary Rolling Stones and The Who producer Glyn Johns – what did you learn from working with him on your last three releases?

Ethan was the first producer who could hear things in voice that hadn’t been explored. I liked that about him instantly. Of course his dad worked on some amazing records like The Rolling Stones and The Who, but he’s a force in his own right. He taught me to let go of the persona that is Tom Jones and bring it back to where it all began. He got me back to the nitty-gritty and found what makes me tick.

You covered Bob Dylan’s What Good Am I? Were you nervous doing this one?

[pullquote]What’s your scene?
I come from a rock, soul and blues background. It’s nice to be back. [/pullquote]Ethan and I did that song in 2010 for my Praise & Blame album. He told me to just sing it, not perform it. I was made to think about the words and not worry about the microphone. That was the first time anybody had said that to me. I did it and it paid off. Something happened on that recording and the field musicians we used also felt it. When we heard it back, it had an intimacy that I hadn’t experienced before on record.

And Bob Dylan asked you to sing that very song at the MusiCares event last year while he accepted the honorary MusiCares Person of the Year award?

I believe Bob Dylan was happy to accept the award but did not want to perform at the event. He said he would only appear if he could get 10 key people there – I was one of them. The song has been recorded by a few people over the years but when I tackled it I never really thought that it would be something he’d speak up about. You really don’t know what the original artist thinks about the song until I got a call from Bob myself – it was a big deal – I had never met the man before and he asked me if I would perform What Good Am I. I couldn’t say no. The others on his list to attend were Beck, Neil Young and Sheryl Crowe.

Tell us about your friendship with Little Richard?

[pullquote]Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page appears on my early recordings and John Paul Jones also played on loads of my records –he came and played bass on many early Tom Jones albums. [/pullquote]I talked to Little Richard late last year and early this year to wish him a Happy New Year. He’s in a facility in Nashville – I don’t know where exactly but when I called him he immediately asks about my son. He asks if my grandchildren are singing yet. He tells me he wants me to start the Tom Jones gospel quartet with them. He then starts singing Strange Things Happening Every Day [Sister Rosetta Tharpe recorded this in 1944 for Decca] down the phone line and I respond by telling him I recorded that song. I close my shows with it every night. He was screaming for joy down the line going nuts. He is still as sharp as a tack.

Who were some of the artists you hung out with when you launched your music career in the 60s?

Too many to mention them all [laughs]. Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page appears on my early recordings and John Paul Jones also played on loads of my records –he came and played bass on many early Tom Jones albums.

When I first got to London with my band I would tour and play a lot with the likes of Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and The Yardbirds. In those days they organized package tours – a variety of artists on the one bill.

Tom Jones HILLTOP_03__0017

You have a lot of respect for Jerry Lee Lewis. He also appeared on your TV variety show in the 60s. What does he mean to you?

[pullquote]I thought if I write a book and I have to start dealing with cheap shots like what Kirk had to deal with. This book is not about my sex life or relationships like that. [/pullquote]I met Jerry Lee in 1964 when he played a club in London and I had my first single out Chills and Fever. I remember taking him my version of Green Green Grass of Home and he said it was going to be a number one hit. I have Jerry Lee to thank for that because he released an album called Country Songs for City Folks and on it was a version of Green Green Grass of Home. I would never have listened to the Porter Wagner original. It was only via Jerry Lee that it was on my radar.

You’ve written an autobiography Over The Top and Back – have you said all you have to say through it?

People had been asking me to write a book for years. One of the things that turned me off was seeing Kirk Douglas on a Johnny Carson show talking about his book The Ragman’s Son. It was about his family and coming from Russian Jewish parents to the US. He wrote a meaningful book about humble beginnings to becoming a Hollywood star. Johnny starts by saying the book is great but what about Lana Turner [they co-starred in the 1952 film The Bad and the Beautiful]. I thought if I write a book and I have to start dealing with cheap shots like what Kirk had to deal with. This book is not about my sex life or relationships like that.

It’s about the important things to me from my family to my wife. Sex sells I know that, but this autobiography honors a part of Tom Jones that isn’t about that.
I come from a rock, soul and blues background. It’s nice to be back.

What’s your scene?
I come from a rock, soul and blues background. It’s nice to be back.

Tom Jones performs at Hamer Hall on March 25 and March 26.
He also appears at the Byron Bay Blues Festival over Easter Weekend.
For more information visit http://www.tomjones.com

About Jane Rocca 1 Article
Jane Rocca is a music journalist who celebrates 20 years in print journalism this year. She writes for The Age, Sydney Sun Herald, Sunday Life magazine, West Australian and Shortlist in The Age. Her work has been published in Rolling Stone, GQ, Australian Style, Cream, The Face UK and WWD New York. She is also the contributing fashion and lifestyle writer for The Weekly Review and spends way too many hours buying shoes, collecting vinyl and drinking cocktails. She has published three cocktail books via Hardie Grant since 2003.

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