Tom Hibbert – “Who the Hell Does Tom Jones Think He Is?” (1991)

December 7, 2009 at 1:01 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

A March 1991 article on Tom Jones from Q magazine…

The big-boned “boyo” stands in the centre of the room engaged in an elaborate mime: he crouches as he runs his clenched fists down along his legs; he wiggles his hips “suggestively”; he purses his lips. He lets rip a blustering laugh born of a million man-sized cigars, wipes his brow, “Bloody hell, man, hoo hoo!”

Tom Jones, giant-voiced wonder from Pontypridd, has been re-enacting, before my very eyes, the moment enshrined in popular music history, when an adoring and over-excited female member of his audience was first moved to take off her drawers and forcibly fling them at her brute-like idol.

It was 1968 in America, a supper/nightclub called the Copa Cabana: “I perspire, you see, and these ladies would hand me table napkins,” says Jones with evident delight. “But one night…I remember it very well.” And in case I missed his lavish impression of de-knickering manouevres the first time around, he runs through it one more time with feeling. It is all very exciting. “Bloody hell! It was very exciting!” says Jones, beads of desirable perspiration peeking out on the lightly tanned forehead. “Bloody hell, man!” Tom Jones has been assaulted by lingerie ever since. If there is one thing Tom Jones is famous for, it is mopping his face with underwear whilst trimly trowelled into the tightest of trousers. What a sensational lark it must be to be an internationally renowned machismo-riddled sexy devil of 50 when you might as easily have ended up a redundant coal miner with all manner of unsavoury lung disorders. Bloody, as they say in Pontypridd, hell…

Tom Jones, wearing a sensible “sweater” and a highly polite pair of spectacles (despite the Bel Air-styled tan, he looks this day more like a burly greengrocer than any veteran Sex God of the entertainment industry), is granting an audience in a friend’s home in New Malden, Surrey. He has just “de-planed” from Los Angeles, back here to visit the little wife in Wales, to take part in a documentary film for the BBC and to complete a new long player for his new record company, Chrysalis. Jet lag doesn’t touch this man. As his son/manager Mark (moustachioed thirtyperson in tweeds) brings him a cup of tea, the Tom Jones pelvis goes into automatic thrust: it’s like some kind of nervous tic, perhaps – Jones stands and his hips go a-wriggling. “I’m sort of like always full of this nervous energy sort of thing, you see,” he says by way of explanation. “Bloody hell!” and the hips go BOOM!

Jones was 24 years old when he discovered that by the simple trick of moving the lower regions of his magnificent body about a bit (whilst perspiring, scrunching up the eyes, dangling the little finger over the microphone lead and moanin’n’groanin’ things like “It’s not unewseworll to be lurved at any tiiiiiime!”, “For there’s a guaaaard and there’s a sad old padraaaaaay!”, and even “So he got some striiiing and he got some woooood!”, yup!) he could drive mature women WILD. He had come from his native Wales to London, this musclebound boy with the big voice, signed a management deal with Gordon Mills and was performing – as Tommy Scott and the Senators – in Oxford Street’s Beat City club.

“The bloody movements were instinctive!” he says in that deep and booming Valleys voice. (Watch those nodules, Tom!) “It came out of the ’50s rock’n’roll, going to the dance halls in Wales and learning to jive and bloody Elvis Presley was, of course, being the one, so you look at Elvis and you think, Cor! That’s bloody good!, and so you try to do it naturally. That’s what I did. I was just bloody dancing when I was singing and that’s all it was. It was not contrived. But as you go along you learn that if there’s a move that you do and you get a reaction from it, you think, Bloody hell! That must be a good one. We’ll keep that in!” Tom Jones leaps to his feet to demonstrate a particularly good move that he must keep in: the hips go BOOM! Presto!

“But when I realised the moves were bloody working was in Beat City in ’64. What happened was we were one of the resident groups that were there and The Rolling Stones had cracked it and they were playing there one night and I was used to playing to people of my own age but in come these teenyboppers, these bloody kids to see The Rolling Stones. So I’m on stage and I’m doing the thing and I can see these kids looking at me a bit funny…” Jones throws his head back and, mouth agape, assumes a look of of absolute horror. “They were looking at me like that, see, because I was very adult for my age. I thought Bloody hell! These kids are looking at me funny! So when Mick Jagger came on I could see the difference in me being masculine and him sort of camping it up and the kids were screaming at him whereas with me they’d just looked at me funny, even though we were doing basically the same kind of material, bloody Chuck Berry stuff, you know. The bloody kids couldn’t take me! But I couldn’t camp it up. I didn’t look that way. I would look like somebody in drag or something. I wasn’t pretty enough. I wasn’t a boyish-looking person. I wasn’t effeminate so I knew that was out. I had to do my masculine thing and hope that it would work.”

The masculine “thing” has served Jones well these 25 years, taking him to Atlantic City and Las Vegas where his hen night party pieces (for well-heeled hens) made him wealthy indeed, a lusty tuxedoed balladeer going “Why why whyyyy Deliiiilah!”, “suggestively” loosening the black bow tie whilst the hips went BOOM! and the underwear rained down. And yet Tom Jones is not entirely happy with his career lot, he will tell you. He is – yes! – bored with underwear.

“The problem with the underwear,” he says, “is I don’t want it to become a joke. I’ve had youngsters say to me, Ooh, ooh, it’s tacky, isn’t it? To youngsters it’s tacky seeing women do it. Youngsters don’t like to see adults do certain things – they don’t like to see their parents having sex, you see. And reviews I have, they say, ‘The place was packed with middle-aged women’, which is not true. There’s lots of men in there at my shows but they are overlooked and all they ever say is women throw underwear and they never mention my bloody voice. Oh Christ, bloody hell, I don’t want underwear to overshadow the talent. The voice is the thing, you see. I don’t want to be a caricature of myself. Shit, I just want to get the voice over.”

The voice is a very large voice – “I don’t sing like I’m on bloody tranquilisers. I’m aggressive, you see.” But the voice has not always been well served by the material; many a Tom Jones tune (“The Young New Mexican Puppeteer” springs instantly to mind) has been, well, regrettable. Jones would not necessarily agree.

“I’m bloody proud of my records. If you put on ‘It’s Not Unusual’ today, it’s still a great record. Even ‘What’s New Pussycat?’, when I first heard it I thought, Christ! What the bloody hell do they want me to sing this for? But Burt Bacharach explained, I want the big voice to sing this bloody crazy song, and you put it on, it’s a classic. There’s nothing mediocre about the hits that I’ve had. The problem is I’m just too bloody versatile.”

Indeed. The bloody versatility has enabled him to be everything from token “raunchy” rock’n’roller for the over-60s set to groaning ballad person, from somewhat bland MOR C&W “artiste” to reborn “hip” legend with the 1988 Art of Noise-directed ‘Kiss’. Jones’s musical career has not been a model of stylistic consistency. Mention of this tends to cheese him off.

“It’s always been a problem because people don’t know where to put you. If you pick up the History of Rock’n’Roll, you won’t see my name in there but I should be in there because I’m a bloody rock’n’roll singer. I never sold out because I like to do all sorts of songs. It’s all about a big voice but it’s a double-edged thing because if you are versatile like me people say, What are you, then? Youngsters say, You sing rock’n’roll but you’re not a rock’n’roll singer, are you? You sing ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ but you’re not Frank Sinatra, are you? No, I’m bloody Tom Jones! People don’t take you seriously, half the time…”

One person who failed to take the great man seriously, he recalls, was Janis Joplin who, in 1969, appeared on his TV show This Is Tom Jones.

“Oh, yes, she thought I was really straight, like an establishment TV figure because being on bloody TV the rebel side had gone away from it. And we did a duet which was a rock’n’roll scream up – I don’t remember the song – and after it she said, Man! You can really sing! She was so surprised. And so I proved a bloody point there!”

One person who did not fail to take the great man seriously was Charles Manson. Once This Is Tom Jones had made the singer an international celebrity, Manson decided, apparently, that the Welsh “pig” should be “offed”: Jones’s name appeared on a hit list alongside Frank Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Steve McQueen. Manson’s wheeze was that one of his female followers should tempt the bellowing idol into a bed situation and therein slit his throat. Oo-eee!

“It all came out at the trial that Manson used to tell all his followers that people like me were all bullshit and I had to be destroyed. So he wanted to bump me off and that was scary. People like me, we’re never safe. It’s scary.”

How unusual it must have been for this innocent from Pontypridd to find himself dwelling in madcap Hollywood in the 1970s. Here is a man who was brought up never to swear in front of the ladies, who was trained in primitive pub machismo rituals from an early age. “There was all these aunties and uncles and all these cousins all going to the same pubs and you’ve got to be able to drink and they’re watching you and your old man is saying, Are you feeling alright? and you say, Yeh! while the room is spinning, and you’ve got to try and get home first before you bloody throw up. It’s a pride thing…” Next thing you know he’s a superstar in LA, on a Manson hit list, in Elvis’s hotel suite, drugs and girls for the asking, etc. Enough, you’d think, to turn a fellow’s head. Not this fellow. Oh, no. Tom Jones is proud of his level head.

“I never got into those drugs and mad bloody things like that because of my background and being proud of Wales. The thing is – I’m positive because I’ve thought about this – if I became a nutcase with drugs and bloody things, if I became a junkie or what have you, I wouldn’t be able to go home. I wouldn’t be able ever to go home again. And that’s always kept me sane. I like being sane. If I didn’t, I suppose I would be nuts.”

“Forced” into exile by the hefty tax demands of a Labour government in the 1970s, Jones turned his LA residence into a home from home.

“They speak English in America so it wasn’t like I’d gone to live in France or somewhere which is completely alien, but I had HP Sauce there and a telephone box from Wales which I put out by the pool. I almost went and bought a bloody Cadillac instead of a Rolls-Royce – that’s how pissed off I was with the British government, bollocks. But I thought, No, I’m not a Yankee Doodle Dandy, I’m a Welshman, me.”

Not even Jones’s drug-soaked chum Elvis Presley could divert him from the path of sane, Wales-styled living.

“Elvis never took any drugs in front of me, you see. Elvis would go into the bedroom and then he’d come out sort of drunk. I’d say, Hey, Elvis, let’s stick some records on, but he’d be popping in and out of the bloody bedroom and I thought that was a bit funny. And when he went to see Nixon and Nixon made him a narcotics agent, the reason for that was that Elvis wanted a federal licence for a gun – he was obsessed with guns and he wanted to be able to carry a gun anywhere. So he had an audience with Nixon and then I saw him in Vegas and he said to me, What do you think of this? Nixon has made me a narcotics agent! And he burst out laughing and all his bodyguards burst out laughing. He seemed to think it was hilarious, man. And I thought, Well, what’s so bloody funny about that? I didn’t understand the joke at all. I was a bit bloody naive, I suppose…”

Tom Jones, naive, as green as that celebrated grass of home, recalls his first, and only, personal brush with the nuisance that is drugs.

“I was in the Cromwellian one night with a bunch of people and they were handing around like a Vick’s Sinex inhaler and I had a cold so I said, Can I borrow that? And I sniffed it and I thought, Jesus! Bloody hell! It was like if you were on a roller coaster! The bloody thing was full of Amyl Nitrate! Since then I’ve been in showbusiness parties and they’re all in the kitchen around the table with cocaine on there. Carry on, God bless, I say, but it looks ugly to me It looks horrible to see somebody with a pipe up their nose. Same thing with smoking a joint. Pfffff pffffff…” Tom closes his eyes in mock ecstasy, miming the bizarre actions of a pot smoker. “…Pffff pffff. Uurgh. That’s not attractive. I like to go into a pub and have a beer. When I first got into this business I was drinking beer and smoking Woodbines and Gordon Mills said, One day you’ll be drinking champagne and smoking cigars, and I said, You must be bloody joking! But you learn things like that, so I like wine with dinner and I like a cognac afterwards with a cigar and then, if it’s early enough, I’ll have some champagne. Sometimes I get carried away a bit but that’s as far as it goes…”

To hear him talk in this innocent manner, to observe the remarkably youthful face (with just a hint of surgery around the nose and gills) as he speaks, you would imagine that Tom Jones is an entirely vice-free entity. Can this be so? What of the ladies, Tom? What of the ladies? Since Jones emerged from a country and western coma that lasted from 1980 to 1986 and re-established himself in the British hit parade with ‘The Boy From Nowhere’ and ‘Kiss’, the tabloid press has treated us to a nice parade of “gymslip”-styled Tomfoolery. TOM JONES FATHERED MY CHILD…ROMEO JONES BUYS RING FOR COLLEGE GIRL CINDY…TOM JONES: HE TOOK MY VIRGINITY IN POSH HOTEL…runs the tittle-tattle, and that’s without even mentioning the ancient dalliance with Mary Wilson of The Supremes. The still-married Welshman seems unruffled by such prying; after all, when you are a singing Lothario whose hips are ever going BOOM!, when you are a macho man from the valleys who has never disguised his “sexist” principles (“The man should be the provider and the man should make the decisions. Women are happier that way,” he says) this kind of publicity is hardly likely to do any damage to the reputation, is it?

“Well, no, it’s not, is it?” His smile has gone all coy. “And the reason I haven’t gone nuts and taken people to court and all that is because you think, Now wait a minute, it is overblown and it is a lot of bloody hearsay but are they saying anything that’s really bad about me? If I’m going out with some young lady, that isn’t a bad thing to say, is it? They’re not saying that I’ve killed somebody or that I’m molesting children. I’m just a virile chap, so as long as the missus doesn’t get pissed off, it’s OK. I wouldn’t want people to think that I’m jumping on everything in a skirt that moves and my wife is the sweet little innocent Welsh girl that puts up with all this, but it’s not that far-fetched what they say about me. I suppose I am Jack the Lad to a point.”

Tom Jones, ladies’ man, has his star set down on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He is colossally proud of that. He is proud, too, of his great big voice – “The ooold house is still staaanding though the paint is cracked’n’dryyyyy” – and of his lovely Wales, once more his home. He has, as they say, a sound bottom: he is, it seems, a simple soul. Correct? Towards the end of the interview he gives just one tiny indication that he might, in any way, be “nuts” when I ask him who (the bloody hell) he thinks he is and he says:

“I’m nobody, really. I’m only a singer. But there’s a responsibility there, you see. You can turn love into complete hate. It can be done. When you’re on stage sometimes, when everything’s going great, you think to yourself, If I made a wrong bloody move here, if I said something like, Fuck you all, I could turn an audience that loves me into hating me. With a few words. If I wanted to. It’s there. It’s in your mind. Love and hate is very close. Words can do so much, make people that love you suddenly hate you just by something that’s come out of your mouth. You could shit yourself, it’s so scary!”

To be brutally frank, I am not at all sure what the old boy is going on about here and, alas, I never find out for he must leave now for Wales and he is up on his feet. And what is this I see as he shakes me firmly by the hand? Yes. A distinct twitch in the hip region. Not BOOM!, exactly, but a definite twitch. My undergarments remain secure and shipshape.

Tom Hibbert

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