All Hail Tom Jones

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Tom Jones, Priscilla and Elvis Presley

If you’re not ready to celebrate Tom Jones, this post will be extremely confrontational.

I have always loved the man with no apology, and not just because he and Elvis were good friends (see above). I’ve linked to Tom Jones performances multiple times here (the medley with Jerry Lee Lewis most of all, which is one of the most wonderful joint-performances I’ve ever seen, an injection of joy and star-power and ego).

My good friend Charlie Taylor wrote a review of Tom Jones’ new memoir for the LA Review of Books. Charlie is a music/film journalist, and he knows his shit. I have always loved Charlie’s writing. (I read him for years before I actually met him. Keep your eyes peeled for his “blurbs” in the front pages of any books on the music industry/singers, OR, conversely, Stephen King’s books. I’ll open up a new book and be like, “Oh! Hi, Charlie!”)

His review of Jones’ memoir is not just a review, but an overview and analysis of Tom Jones’ voice and career. It’s so excellent, so thoughtful. Here’s Charlie:

You have to keep in mind the supple, muscular assurance that has long defined Jones’s vocals. No description has ever bested Dustin Hoffman’s, who reportedly told Jones that when he opened his mouth, it was as if a tiger had leapt out. No one who lacks confidence could sing that way.

That’s exactly right. That’s the thing that people sometimes miss about Tom Jones, because of his sprayed-on pants and his shirt open to the navel and whatever else. Not to mention women throwing their panties onstage, because we all know that there is nothing sillier than female fans, right? /grrrrrrrrr

Here are some beloved clips.

1. The Jerry Lee Lewis / Tom Jones rock ‘n’ roll duet from 1969. Unbelievable.

2. Tom Jones singing the hell out of “We Can Work It Out.” Make fun of it if you like. I get it. I do. The jigsaw-puzzle dancers, the orange jumpsuit, Tom Jones’ come-hither bulge. I get it. But here’s the deal, and it’s so important: YOU try wearing a skin-tight orange outfit and actually OWN it so that it seems somehow right – and not just right, but honest. YOU wear a skin-tight orange outfit and make it seem like your second skin. I can almost guarantee you: You will FAIL. This is Tom Jones being honest. Which, I get it, could be seen as HILARIOUS. But the man is a star. What else is he gonna do at this point in his career? Strum a guitar in a corner wearing blue jeans? Nope. This is what he MUST do.

3. Tom Jones and Wilson Pickett did a duet of “Hey Jude” that is so joyful, so intense, that it far surpasses the original. It’s part of this longer medley.

They are so phenomenal together. Read Charlie’s piece again. What I see here is that Tom Jones is being his full-on fabulous self. Very few people have a voice like that. But he also cedes ground to Pickett. It’s subtle, but it’s there. He’s not trying to compete with Pickett. He has such great respect for the man’s voice. (Their real-life relationship is irrelevant. What I am talking about is the two men as artists.) So there’s this subtle feeling that Tom Jones is being both AWESOME and also, even though it’s a duet, letting Wilson Pickett REALLY have the floor. It comes up really clearly in the final section of “Hey Jude” when Wilson Pickett goes OFF. Jones waits. He doesn’t try to compete. He waits, generously, humbly, before joining in again when the time is right.

I’ve been on a Tom Jones tear since I read Charlie’s piece.

Once again:

Overlooked Again: Charles Taylor on Over the Top and Back : The Autobiography

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18 Responses to All Hail Tom Jones

  1. Patrick says:

    This is not really to argue about this – taste is taste after all, subjective that is to say – just my way of looking at this, which you mostly anticipated anyway. I’d just say that wearing an orange jump suit well is still wearing an orange jump suit, I always viewed Jones in general as kind of campy, or kitschy maybe. He is a performer, you remember his songs, I’ll give him that, just the flash doesn’t really work on me. I suppose in one way it helped him, standing out from the crowd as a singer, giving him an easily recognizable identity, but then maybe hurt him by making him look less serious about his music.

    Nice write up by Taylor, I kind of borrowed that last sentence from him.

    • sheila says:

      All of what you’re saying is kind of my point – and I’m not saying I think the orange jumpsuit is even attractive – but I’m adding to this conversation what I think has often been missed about Tom Jones, and something Charlie “gets” – an awareness of him as a performer, and how wearing an orange jumpsuit like that is not campy or kitschy – it’s the choice of a showman who can fill it out and looks like he was born to wear it.

      Any one else would put that thing on and look like a douche-bag. And if you say, “Well, he still looks like a douche-bag” – oh well, we’re going to have to disagree, at least on how we look at this. I’m talking about showmanship, not fashion choices. And wardrobe is part of showmanship.

      Out of all those Vegas-y guys back then, he’s still going, and growing, and changing, and recording.

      And the voice is one in a million. One of the greatest all-time voices.

  2. TraceyK says:

    I think Tom Jones is hugely talented. I grew up in Memphis and in the mid 70’s, my parents went to see HIM in concert, but never Elvis. I was incredulous. I think Tom has a lot of love for his music, but I do admit to having given him a little side-eye for claiming how close he was to Elvis. I know they were friends but I don’t know that they were FRIENDS. And I’ve heard one or two interviews of his where he has said some slightly questionable things about Elvis. Of course, the man is dead now and cannot defend himself. (Entertainers claiming to be friends with Elvis now that he’s gone is another rant entirely lol. ) But you’re right that he was and is an electric performer.

    • sheila says:

      // in the mid 70’s, my parents went to see HIM in concert, but never Elvis. I was incredulous. //

      Ha! That’s amazing!

      Not sure about the “questionable” things he said – but yeah, they vacationed together and their wives were friends. Shrug, it’s between them.

      I need to check out Tom’s latest stuff, the country and gospel stuff. I’m glad he’s doing it and he seems to be really happy doing it.

      • sheila says:

        oh and people claiming to know Elvis –

        it’s like the Sharon Tate murder. If the number of people who said afterwards “I was supposed to be there that night” actually had shown up on that night, it would have been a party of thousands of people.

        Humanity can be silly that way.

  3. carolyn clarke says:

    My family and I have been Tom Jones fans from way back. This is slightly embarrassing to admit in public, but what the hell. We had sing-a-longs in my family. I don’t know why but we did. We sang together at Christmas and other times. Five kids, 2 adults and we made an amazing amount of noise. My father had a pretty good voice. He was a baritone who had sang with my grandmother and my uncle in church, a Baptist church where you were required to sing. Anyway, Tom Jones songs were our go-to songbook. Not just “What’s New, Pussycat?, but also “The Green, Green, Grass of Home” and “I Who Have Nothing”. My personal favorites are “Leave Your Hat On”. I don’t know who does that better, him or Joe Cocker and “Kiss”. I like his version better than Prince’s.

    • sheila says:

      Carolyn – I absolutely love the image of your family sing-alongs – plus the Tom Jones factor!

      and I agree with you on “Kiss.” Charlie mentions that in his piece and says basically the same thing. It’s a killer version.

  4. Melissa Sutherland says:

    I stop being apologetic about my love of this man and his voice a long time ago. I’ve never had the love for Elvis that you do but I do get it. But Tom Jones, man, he could sing. I only saw him once in person, somewhere out in NJ, twenty some odd years ago. It was an amazing, amazing night. I’ve never forgotten it. I went with my niece and her soon to be husband, and my favorite cousin. I had to drag them there, and I think they were humoring me. But they walked away in awe. Thanks for this piece. Am going to read the book, and the review.

    • sheila says:

      Melissa – envious that you saw him! I need to get on the stick and go see this man perform while he’s still with us!

      // But they walked away in awe. //

      amazing. When I saw Liza Minnelli in Vegas – one of the women I went with was so not into it. She was going because she loved to play blackjack, and what the hell, go see Liza, too.

      At the end of the show – this woman – was on her feet, tears streaming down her face, screaming, “BRAVA! BRAVA!”

      It was one of the most startling transformations I’ve ever seen!! Liza DEMANDED it.

  5. Paula says:

    I saw Tom Jones in concert around 1994 at the Circle Star Theater. The tickets were a joke at the time, a friend’s idea of a funny and drunken girl’s night out for my birthday (we can throw our panties at the stage, ha). In the end, it was one of the best concerts I have ever been to. He was such a physical force, from the moment he ran down the ramp onto the stage. His performance and that voice just drug you along, even if you didn’t want to go. You hear people talk about charisma but let me tell you, it is real. This was a smaller venue and we were right up front and all I could think about was touching those muscles and that sweat, which was truly out of character because he was a 54-year-old man and I was not attracted to older guys. So much alpha male just demanding that you look at him. Seeing him live changed everything about my perspective of his appeal as a celebrity and as an artist.

    • sheila says:

      Paula – wow, what an incredible memory, what a visceral thing!!

      // So much alpha male just demanding that you look at him. Seeing him live changed everything about my perspective of his appeal as a celebrity and as an artist. //

      Just amazing. He is so free with himself – so free that sometimes you’re like, “Wait a second, is he putting me on here?”

      But he wasn’t.

      And boy did he back it up with a voice. That voice is otherworldly. Better pipes than Elvis, and Elvis had three octaves.

  6. Great post Sheila. What the Show Biz element kept a lot of narrative-driven critics from realizing, then and now, is that TJ was/is a genuinely great blue-eyed soul singer (which really just means he’s a great soul singer). I’m reminded of Bobby Darin’s line (copped from Sandra Dee) about people hearing what they see. But I’m also reminded of Suzie Quatro’s line about Abba: “Any MUSICIAN who says they don’t love Abba is LYING.”

    Any SINGER who says they don’t love Tom Jones is LYING.

  7. Patsyann says:

    Love love love Tom Jones. I think performers like Lada GaGa now are similar to Tom – there is so much PERFORMANCE that their talent is sometimes overlooked. Of COURSE Lady GaGa can freaking sing, just listen to her.

    Although how anyone could ever say Tom Jones couldn’t sing? Actually I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say that, but I’ve seen people dismiss the singing because of the performance, and that’s a shame.

    My family has two major reasons (or had) for being diehard Tom Jones fans – one, the paternal side of my family has been headed by a Tom Jones for as far back as we can trace the line. My brother was a Thomas Jones, my dad was, my grandfather was, etc etc. There were so many of them that only one got to be Tom at a time, the rest had to go by nicknames or middle names. My grandfather got to be the Tom Jones and my dad and brother both went by middle names. I don’t think anyone ever claimed a blood relation to Tom Jones the singer, they were just Welsh. :P

    The second, sadder reason is that “Green Green Grass of Home” was my brother’s favorite song. He died in 1972 and I have no memories of him (he was 20 years older than me). To the end of her life my mom cried when she heard that song, but she smiled at the same time. Now when I hear it I think of them both.

    • sheila says:

      Patsyann – wow, what a beautiful comment! The whole “Tom Jones” lineage in your family is hilarious! “only one got to be Tom at a time”- Ha!!!

      I am so sorry about your brother. that song really is killer.

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