'I'm not that young guy in tight pants anymore' - Sir Tom Jones reflects on 6 decade career, talks Imelda May, Van Morrison, Irish gigs, and getting back to basics
When Sir Tom Jones chats he’s teeming with tales of personal relationships and interactions with everyone from Elvis to Prince to the Queen of England.
Such is the reality of life as a living legend.
The 77 year old star is currently traversing Europe on tour, enjoying something of a renaissance in his six decade-long career.
While he’s best known for booming hits like It’s Not Unusual, What’s New Pussycat, and The Green Green Grass of Home, Jones’ most recent albums take him back to his working men’s clubs roots, when he was Tommy Woodward singing gospel, country and blues.
Producer Ethan Johns stripped things down to just Jones’ incredible voice and a rhythm section on his critically acclaimed trilogy of albums; Praise & Blame (2010), Spirit in the Room (2012) and Long Lost Suitcase (2015).
The evergreen star still plays the hits on tour, but it’s all a far cry from the snake hips and knicker-throwing of his early days. And there’s a sense he’s thankful for that - this is, he says, the most enjoyable period of his long, successful career.
“It is, because I didn’t know I was going to last this long,” he tells Indepenent.ie. “When you start off you have no idea, you’re so young and you’re just thinking about getting on with it. But I used to wonder, I used to wonder what I was going to be like as an older person… The voice is still working, thank God it is.
“I would say that when you’ve been around a long time you look at [your career] in a different way. You get a certain amount of respect when you’ve been around as long as I have. It’s a different thing, a different feeling.
“I’m not that young guy with tight pants anymore. I have white hair. I recorded a song Leonard Cohen wrote, Tower of Song, and it opens, ‘Well, my friends are gone and my hair is grey/I ache in the places where I used to play’.”
These albums are the most autobiographical of his career. He lost his wife of 59 years, Linda Woodward, last year and so singing this particular collection of songs is particularly poignant.
“It’s emotional,” he says. “It’s always emotional. Every song I’ve ever recorded is emotional to me.”
His powerhouse voice has seen him duet with stars including Stevie Wonder on Superstition, Aretha Franklin on See Saw, and Tina Turner on Nutbush City Lights, as well as more contemporary artists including Cerys Matthews and our own Imelda May.
Dubliner May, who is enjoying a change in direction herself right now, teamed up with Jones for Honey Honey on Long Lost Suitcase, with backing from Irish roots band Rackhouse Pilfer.
“Imelda is a great person,” he says. “We went to dinner and we had a really good time recording. She’s a natural singer. She’s like myself in that respect, and we did a whole lot of things, different kinds of songs, and I love that. She’s not stuck in a rut.”
Jones has also enjoyed a fifty plus year bromance with Sir Van Morrison, with whom he has toured and duetted on many occasions.
When they first met at celeb hangout, the Starlight Room, in London in the early 60s they felt somewhat alienated from the swaggering English artists present including The Rolling Stones and The Animals.
“Van Morrison and I are basically the same, our interest in music is very similar and so we get on great together. We always have. I met him in 1964 and we’ve been friends ever since,” says Tom.
“We often talk about how we first met in London and, you know, we were in a club one night and all these English bands were there. We were the only two Celts there, Van and myself, and we were chatting and he said, ‘You know these English bands are stuck up? They don’t want to talk.’ I said, ‘I know, it’s because we’re Celts’ and that was it, we hit it off right away.
“We work well together and when we do duets, when we do shows together - we’ve done quite a few shows now - we pick songs we both like and I think that comes across. He loves it and so do I.”
He says they will “definitely” work together again. In fact he’s hoping Morrison will write a song for his next album.
While he has dabbled in writing his own material, Jones' real talent is in interpreting and conveying the emotion of a lyric, whether his own or another artist’s.
He has recorded songs written by Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Van Morrison, Prince and more but never seeks the artist’s opinion on his interpretation.
“I remember watching a movie called The Rose that Bette Midler did and she was a rock singer, a Janis Joplin like character, and Harry Dean Stanton was a country singer/songwriter,” he says.
“She recorded one of his songs in the movie and she went to see him and she told him she loved his writing and as she was about to leave he said, ‘Just before you go I just want to say this to you – don’t you ever record one of my songs again’.
“If I recorded somebody’s song and they said that I don’t know what I’d do. So I don’t go too strong into what people think of my version of their songs!
“Even when I did Kiss, Prince had put his own stamp on it but he left it wide open. His was in falsetto, and that was the only sound on it, as opposed to big arrangements on other records. When I did it with Art of Noise it was something different.”
That recording was the first video of Jones’ to be played on MTV and marked something of a comeback for the star in the late 80s.
His career trajectory might have been very different if he had moved from Decca Records to Motown in the 60s. He has previously spoken about feeling regret over not making that move. Today, however, he says he has no regrets.
"The songwriters from Motown, years later, they said that when we heard you might sign with us we started writing songs for you and then we gave them to the Four Tops!" he laughs.
As for regretting it, he says, "No, not really. I’m still here. It’s been fine. It would have been interesting. [Berry Gordy, Motown Records founder] was very keen on signing me at that time. When I recorded Green Green Grass of Home, I saw Berry in London and he said that if he had recorded it it would have been a national anthem in America. But I did okay with it anyway!"
The current tour includes dates across Europe, including a headline set at Punchestown Music Festival on July 30, followed by a run across the US. The Welsh star says it’s like playing to the home crowd when he plays Ireland.
“Irish audiences have always been great to me,” he says. “I always think it’s the Celtic thing, because I’m Welsh and they understand that and I think the Irish are very similar to Welsh people. The only difference is the accent. The feeling [at gigs] is the same.”
He has no fear taking to the stage in the wake of the terror attack at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester.
"No, no," he says emphatically. "You can’t think about that. You wouldn’t go out the door. You’ve got to carry on regardless. I don’t think about it. It’s a terrible thing that happened. But it can happen anywhere. It doesn’t have to be a concert.
"It doesn’t affect me – I feel very sad about it – but it doesn’t affect me in that way. You can’t think about it. You’ve just got to get on with it. You’ve got to be oblivious to that and just get into the music and hope everything goes alright."
Once the tour wraps in October he'll resume his position on the coaching panel on The Voice UK, which he loves.
"It's all about the voice, it's about listening to other singers, trying to give them advice, which is what I've been doing anyway," he says.
"Young stars come up and ask me what to do when they start off and I tell them what happened to me and The Voice is a continuation of what I already do really."
He feels young artists have much more opportunity to get their material heard now.
"Defintely, without a doubt it's easier to get your stuff out there now," he says. "There’s more access to people. Before, you couldn't. You had to do an audition for a record company and hopefully if they liked you sing they’d take it from there. That was the only way. You had to have a hit record.
"Now you can get stuff out there without getting a hit. People will know what you do. So I think there are more opportunities now."
He adds, "Getting a record contract is just getting your foot in the door. When I signed to Decca in 64, the first record didn't make it, the second was It's Not Unusual. In those days it was three strikes and you’re out. It was a three single contract we signed for. If I didn’t have a hit by the third record it was goodnight, okay, that was it. You still had to get a hit song. A record contract was not a guarantee."
Sir Tom Jones headlines Punchestown Music Festival on Sunday July 30. Tickets from Ticketmaster. For more information on Tom Jones including albums, autobiography and tour dates check out www.tomjones.com