Even in lockdown, Tom Jones is living his best life.
The man who swiveled his hips into millions of homes via a hit television variety show in the late ’60s and early ’70s, palled around with Elvis and Sinatra, and enjoyed a remarkable third act in his career via scene-stealing turns in The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Mars Attacks!—not to mention a global smash with a cover of Prince’s “Kiss” in 1994—is now in the midst of a remarkable late-career renaissance.
With a fantastic new album, Surrounded By Time, out now—the fourth in a string of excellent and eclectic releases over the past 10 years helmed by producer Ethan Johns—and fully vaccinated, the proud Welshman is chomping at the bit to get back out on the live stage that made him a household name.
In a recent Zoom interview with The Daily Beast, Sir Tom (he was knighted in 2005) reflects on his long career and remembers his pals Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, his run-ins with Donald Trump, and why he wasn’t wrong to play Israel.
Plus, he makes a plea: “Everyone has got to get the jab!”
The ages in my family run from 94 down to 18 and, independently of each other, everyone knows and loves you. From your early hits and your variety show, to the Fresh Prince on down to Spotify playlists, you enjoy a weird sort of omnipresence.
Well, it’s versatility, I think. The idea of appealing to a wide variety of people, that started when I was a boy in Wales. I had a load of cousins, so there were a lot of weddings that I used to go to and sing at. If we were at a wedding, or any gathering, I would pull on my mother’s skirt and say, “Mom, when are they going to ask me to sing?” I was always ready. When I was very young, I loved Al Jolson. I went to see The Jolson Story, and that was a big influence. The problem, of course, is that he used blackface, but he had a great voice. And I loved cowboy songs. There was a guy named Vaughn Monroe who had a song called “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky.” Oh, that was a big one for me. Give me a table and I could bang it out. And I loved the Hank Williams spoken songs. That’s why I spoke two songs on this new album.
You mean his Luke the Drifter persona.
Exactly. When he did those, they hit me harder than “Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)” or “Jambalaya” or other things that he had done. He had taken on this Luke the Drifter because people knew him as Hank Williams. So, he used to register with me as well. Anyway, I would be singing at these weddings, and I remember one time I was singing a Frankie Laine song, and this old chap threw his cap on the floor and said, “This boy shouldn’t be singing for nothing.” And folks started throwing coins into this cap. I thought, “Wow, I’ve got this cap full of money here.”
But you’d gotten bit by the showbiz bug, and I’m guessing you feel you were getting somewhere because you were versatile?
Exactly! And later, when I started playing pubs and clubs, I could play a YMCA on a Friday night to young teenagers with a rock band that I’d gotten together, and then I would play these working men’s clubs on Saturday nights to the adults. But a lot of younger people came, too, because I took electric guitars into these working men’s clubs, which they’d never seen before in the late ’50s. So, everybody was winning.
You’ve seen so many fads—or cycles—come and go in your career. The Beatles came along and changed the world. Psychedelia came along. Disco. And you survived all of that. Did you worry about the ever-changing record industry, or being branded with “the sex appeal thing” that shot you to stardom early on?
See, the thing is with the sex thing—
“The sex thing.”
The sex thing! [Laughs] My bloody image became so much so that it overshadowed my talent. That’s what I feel. Because people always see more than they hear.
Because you were so prevalent on TV in the late ’60s and early ’70s, especially.
Right. When I did “It’s Not Unusual,” people didn’t know what I looked like yet. And that record, you put that on today and it jumps. But then, I got known via TV as a “sexy guy.” Like that. So, I was playing arenas then in the States, which nobody had done. The Beatles did Shea Stadium, of course, but the Rolling Stones were playing Madison Square Garden at the same time as I went in there. It was only a handful of people that had done it. Elvis hadn’t even played arenas yet. Sinatra hadn’t. But this was in ’69, when I had my TV show. Now, in that setting, when women start screaming when you wiggle your ass, you’ll wiggle it more. You get caught up in that shit.
And I was caught up in it. The first tour, I’ll admit it, I did not realize that it was taking over. But I read a review and it said, “When the band struck up, Tom Jones came on in a tuxedo, ripped off his bowtie, opened up his shirt, the women screamed, and everybody had a great time.” And I thought, he hasn’t mentioned my voice. No mention of my voice, good, bad or indifferent. They were looking at the reaction of the audience more than they were what was going on onstage.
And Mars Attacks! and the Fresh Prince—later on—did you do those because you were getting older and to get away from the sex appeal thing and to find another niche?
Well, no. The first thing was, Quincy Jones was doing the music for The Fresh Prince, and he knew me very well. And they had already set up that Carlton was a Tom Jones fan. He was doing “It’s Not Unusual” before I came on there. So, they said, “It would be great if you would actually appear on the show as his guardian angel, because he’s going through this depression and he wants to kill himself.” And I knew the movie that it originally came from, It’s a Wonderful Life, when the angel comes down. So, I said, “Great. Let’s go and do it.” So, we did it. And it had a big impact. But you never know. I always hope people don’t say, “What the fuck’s he doing now?” But I thought it led them to other things I’d done. As for Mars Attacks!, Tim Burton called and said, “When I was growing up and I used to watch your TV show, I thought, if anybody could save the world, it’s Tom Jones.”
I love that.
That’s what Tim Burton said, on my life! He said, “You’ve got to be in the picture. You’re going to save the world from Martians.” I said, “Great.” So, these things fell into place.
You’re just a guy from a mining town in Wales. Does it surprise you the impact you’ve made? And does it surprise you when the audience keeps coming back?
Yes. It’s thrilling. When you’re on the stage, when you put something out there, especially a song that you really like, that you really want to do, and you do it and they go, “Yes! We get that! We get that.” Well, there’s nothing like that. And this is the truth: I pity non-performers. I do. I feel sorry for them. Because they’re never going to feel that. Maybe they will in a different way, but unless you get on that stage and pour your soul out and get the feedback, there’s nothing like it.
Did you ever see it as a job? Was it ever a slog for you?
The only time it was hard was when I was doing two shows a night for a month straight in Las Vegas, because I was going through problems, because I could not hold back. Elvis Presley told me, “You’ve got to hold back.” On my life, this is the truth, he said, “You’ve got to have more voices with you, so that when you hit those top notes, you cannot sing. You’re going to blow it.” He said, “Sometimes, I don’t even sing it.” He had a tenor in his band hitting the notes, so sometimes he could just mime it! And I said, “Yeah, but see, I love the fight, that I’m hitting that fucking note. I got to do it!” And Frank Sinatra told me the same thing. He said, “Come to Palm Springs with me. I’ll show you vocal things. You can get as much out of it, but you don’t have to put as much into it as you are.” And I said, “Well, thank you very much, Mr. Sinatra, sir, but I can only do it in a certain way.” He said, “But you won’t be able to talk.” And he was right. I got these nodules on my cords, and I had to get them taken off. I had more in me that I wanted to get out than my voice would allow, and I’ve got a big voice. So, I had to learn that light and shade.
At that point in your career—in the early ’70s—and you’re hanging out with Sinatra and Elvis, but really you’re just a kid from Wales. I mean, come on.
Exactly! I got pictures on the walls. When I first met Elvis Presley, I had three singles out. “It’s Not Unusual,” “What’s New Pussycat,” and a song called “With These Hands,” which is a ballad. Here I am, I’m only just 25 then, on this closed set, and I see Elvis walking towards me singing “With These Hands.” Well, when I was in Wales singing in pubs, I would sing, “It’s Now or Never” or “Blue Suede Shoes” or whatever. They’d say, “Shit. You’re doing that as good as Elvis Presley, Tom.” And I said, “I’ll tell him that when I meet him.” And they went, “Oh, for fuck’s sake. You’re lovely and everything, but Elvis Presley?” I had a feeling I was going to meet him. Well, when he’s walking towards me singing “With These Hands,” I see all these fellas in my mind going, “Fuck me.” So, I said to him, “If the boys back home could see me now.”
When I met Frank Sinatra, he wanted to talk to my mother and father more than he wanted to talk to me. We were having a drink with him in this bar, and my mother and my father, they were thrilled to bits. He’s talking to my father, and he says, “How did you make this fella with this voice?” And my dad says, “Mitchells & Butlers.” It was a beer that he used to drink. It’s an English beer, but he loved that Mitchells & Butlers. He told Frank he reckoned he got drunk one night, came home, gave my mother one, and there I was. Well, Frank thought it was fucking hilarious. He was laughing his bollocks off.
You’ve now made four records with Ethan Johns over 10 years. Praise and Blame, the first one, is such a great record. Spirit in the Room, Long Lost Suitcase, too, because they gave a real arc to the project. With this one, though, there’s a real reflectiveness to it. There’s a finality to it, with a lot of spoken parts to it, and a moodiness about it that is different than those other records. You’re 80. You’ve still got a great voice, obviously, and there’s charisma, too, but do you feel your greatest skill is as an interpreter of songs, especially now?
I really do. I try to take songs and inject myself in there. I think to myself, even now, what would I do with this if I wrote this song myself? How would I express this? You’ve got to learn it. You’ve got to get it in you. You don’t even necessarily have to sing it, but you’ve got to know it. That’s it. And I’m always seeing the story in my mind when I'm singing a song.
We’re still in the middle of lockdown. This is your first record in four or five years. I’ve got to imagine at 80, you’re putting your heart and soul into it because it might be the last one, but do you see this as a last record? Or do you want to get back out there and perform?
Definitely! At the moment, the only outlet I’ve got is The Voice, the TV show. We’ve got to wear masks, but we’ve got to get through it, and we’ve got to follow the rules. If we don’t, it’s jumping the gun and we’re not going to get anywhere. And I tell everyone, you’ve got to get injected. I’ve had the two, so I feel bulletproof. But everybody else has got to be as well. As for doing shows, you want to have an audience there, but they’ve got to feel comfortable. They’re not going to come to a show unless they feel comfortable. And the only way they’re going to do that is if they’ve had the shots. So, we’re waiting.
You’ve performed a lot in Israel. A lot of performers don’t do that because of the situation there. Maybe you’ll say you’re just a singer, but what are your thoughts on that?
I was talking about this today, funnily enough. When I did go to Israel, when a lot of performers wouldn’t go, I was in Los Angeles and they said they would love me to go to Israel. I said, look, as far as I’m concerned, entertaining should not be political, unless there’s something happening, like with apartheid in South Africa years ago, where we wouldn’t go there then until we could get mixed audiences coming in. There are certain things you’ve got to make a stand on. But I mean, if there’s a problem with Israel with other countries, that’s their problem. I want to go there to make people happy. If I can help put some light onto a situation, I’m all for it. That can be for Arab people as well as Israeli people. They’re people. They’re all people. And as long as I’m safe, as long as I don’t get shot at for doing it, then I don’t mind. When I got back to L.A., this Jewish fella came up to me and he says, “Thank you for being a friend of Israel.” It had so much of an impact on Jewish people in L.A. Then I came back to London, and I went and did a Jewish charity, and I got up with a little band there, and there was a standing ovation. Look, I don’t see people as Jews or gentiles or Black or white. People are people. They want to be entertained. If I can do that, I’ll do it.
I’ve got to imagine you crossed paths with Donald Trump when you were in Atlantic City or in New York or wherever. When you look at us from over there—he’s pretty out of the picture now—but up until recently, you must have been thinking we’d gone mad.
[In an American accent] “What the fuck is your problem?” Exactly! I mean, I lived in America for 41 years, so I got used to it. I still use American expressions of things. But Donald Trump, when I knew him in Atlantic City, he was the owner of the hotels I was singing at. When he came in to see the shows, he wanted the spotlight to be put on him, and to be introduced as the owner of the hotel. Great. I said, “I’ll have a chat with him backstage, sure.” To me, he was nothing but a businessman-playboy. Or playboy-businessman. [Laughs] I didn’t even know that he was interested in politics. Because he wasn’t in politics, not in those days. Then all of a sudden, [he’s] this guy who was on reality television, or so-called reality, with a combover. But that’s why I love that song.
That’s why I thought of it. You’ve got the song “Talking Reality Television Blues” on the new album.
“The combover comes on and sold us the moon!” But Donald Trump, when we saw that insurrection in Washington, because it was on the news over here, you can’t help but think, “What the fuck?” It’s unbelievable. I called a friend of mine in Las Vegas and I said, “What the fuck is happening over there in Washington where that thing is on the news?” “Yeah, he was robbed,” he said. I said, “What?” I thought I knew this guy. He said, “He was robbed. He won that election and they robbed him.” I said, “What about all the fucking people going nuts in Washington?” “Oh, couple of people, nobody really got hurt.” Five people got killed! I thought, “Wait a minute. I’m talking to a guy that I know. What the fuck?” He’s a Trump supporter, sure, but what the fuck? I talked to another American friend, and I said, about getting the jab, “Thank God, huh? At least we’ve got the light at the end of the tunnel with this vaccine. Have you had your jab yet?” “Oh, I’m not getting it. It’s all a conspiracy. They’re telling us more people are dying than really are. It’s propaganda. It’s not real.” And I thought, “Fuck me.” These are friends of mine. You wonder, wait a minute, “What is happening in America now? Are they going through a Twilight Zone period, or what? What is happening? This is crazy.”
Let’s end on a lighter note. You’re a guy who has been out there performing, making records, doing films and TV, for your entire life. We’ve all been in lockdown now for over a year. But my editor sent me an article about how you’ve got a twelve-pack and you’re drinking less, and you’ve got a trainer and you’re doing inversion therapy. Obviously, you’re living through this just like the rest of us. But what has lockdown been like for you?
Well, I had TB when I was a kid, right? From the time I was 12 till I was 14, which to me is a very important time, because you’re going through puberty. You’ve got a fucking hard-on and you don’t know why. It’s a certain part of your life where… [Laughs] Well, you know. So as far as lockdown, I think about young people, most of all. Because when I got out of bed, I got with my girlfriend, and she got pregnant! So, I look at these kids, and they can’t go to school, and that’s a big thing. They’re missing out on education. With communications, of course, computers and stuff, at least they’re getting something. But kids need to get out and play with one another. And their parents having to hold these kids indoors? That’s a fucking big chore. I don’t have that problem.
I’m sort of sitting pretty, because I don’t have to worry financially. But a lot of people are up against it. If they don’t get their jobs back soon, they’re going to be in the poor house. But mostly I go back to when I was a kid, thinking, “If I could just get out and play with my friends, I’ll never moan about anything again as long as I live.” Well, here we are again. A bigger lockdown, because everyone’s locked down, but you think about that—I do, anyway—and I think how lucky I am that I don’t have to go out to work. I love to sing, and that is a problem. But so what?
Do you think there will be a rush to get out there and see live shows, or do you think there will be a slower return to normalcy? You have a broad age range in your audience, but there are certainly plenty of older people in there. Do you think those people will feel safe going to see live music in large crowds?
Well, this is what I’m saying about getting vaccinated: They’ve got to get vaccinated. But I think people are dying to get out to mingle; to be with other people. We’re pack animals. We love to go around in packs. So, I believe people want to get out and be entertained as much as we as entertainers want to get out to entertain. So, the sooner we can get there the better, but we’ve got to be careful. And I think people are going to be spoiled for choice, with everybody wanting to get out and perform; all the musicians that are on the fucking breadline. So, the sooner we get this ball rolling again, the better it’s going to be for everybody concerned—for the people that are out to enjoy themselves and the entertainers that are going to entertain. It’s a win-win situation.
Just don’t everybody get their girlfriend pregnant immediately afterward.
Exactly. Wear a mask and a rubber. Don’t forget the rubber.