Almost six decades after his first hit, Tom Jones is back with his 41st studio album. The legendary singer reflects on a long career that saw him party with icons like Elvis and Sinatra, opens up about his painful struggle since the death of his wife, and reveals how, at 80, he still lives for rock ’n’ roll
For a business as famously fickle as pop, Tom Jones has had a career of eye-watering longevity. Fifty-six years ago, in 1965, he had a UK No. 1 single with It’s Not Unusual. Other artists to top the UK chart that year? The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and his friend Elvis Presley.
Fast-forward to 2021, and 80-year-old Sir Tom is topping the UK chart again, this time for his 41st studio album, Surrounded by Time. At the beginning of this month, he became the oldest man to have a UK No. 1 album, as well as the oldest artist to reach the top spot with newly recorded material.
It’s quite an achievement, not least when one considers that the album of artfully reimagined covers has enjoyed such resounding critical acclaim.
For the record, Dame Vera Lynn, at 92, was the oldest artist to top the UK chart — but that was for a best-of album. And when Jones talks proudly about making music until he drops, the Welsh crooner may yet even break her record.
He’s looking good on a Zoom call with Weekend. He appears much younger than his age. His grey hair is luxuriant, wavy and tousled, and he sports a fashionable goatee. The bronzed face accentuates a set of gleaming white teeth. He wears a stylish black and white check shirt buttoned to his neck.
“It’s a fantastic feeling,” he says of topping the chart with Surrounded by Time, “because I’ve always tried to make interesting albums. Ever since my first album on Decca in ’65… there was a mixture of songs on that one, and I’ve tried to do that ever since.”
He has a simple rule of thumb when it comes to making albums. “What would I like to hear if I went to buy somebody’s album? I’d like to hear a mixture of things. Elvis Presley did it. There are a lot of black singers that I listen to — like Brook Benton, Ben E King — and they did a bunch of things. And, of course, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard and Fats Domino and Chuck Berry.
“I was a teenager in the 1950s, and ’50s rock ’n’ roll left a big impression on me and it hasn’t really left me — it’s still alive and well, living in me.”
Jones’s distinct vocals haven’t dimmed with age, either. He takes better care of that voice than he did when he was at the peak of his popularity. “When you’re young, you think you’re bulletproof. But Las Vegas changes that — doing two shows a night for a month straight.
“Frank Sinatra said to me, ‘Don’t give as much. You cannot sing at that pace — it won’t last. You can’t expect your voice to do it. And he was right because it did take a bit of a toll on me then. Now, I drink plenty of water. I’m aware that dry air is an enemy, especially when you sleep — make sure there’s plenty of humidity about.”
He is philosophical about a life lived at a hundred miles an hour. “Thank God I came out the other end. Some people were not lucky — Elvis Presley being a prime example. I’ve always been a drinker and Elvis was into other things. I remember him introducing me in the audience once — ‘You keep drinking that champagne, Tom, and you’ll be all right. And I said, ‘Yes, I will, Elvis — and I will be all right.”
The choice of songs on his new album is fascinating. He says the likes of The Windmills of Your Mind and Samson and Delilah capture various stages of his life. The opening track, I Won’t Crumble with You If You Fall — written and recorded by the African-American singer and social activist Bernice Johnson Reagon — reminds him of the time he cared for his wife, Melinda, towards the end of her cancer battle. She died in 2016.
“My wife [popularly known as Linda] realised she had terminal lung cancer. I was with her for the last 10 days in the hospital room — I’d just come off tour, I cancelled it, and went to the hospital straight away. We talked a lot, of course. She was the strongest person in the room. I was a basket case — so was my son. But she was calm. She said, ‘Don’t fall with me — I know what’s happening.’ She said, ‘You must carry on. You must be on stage. You’ve got to sing songs. Don’t let this kill you.’”
Jones says he was in a bad way when she died, and adds that he struggled to get back to a sort of normality for two years. “In the first year, I was a basket case and in the second year I tried to kill the pain with alcohol, and that didn’t work.”
It was a period of creative paralysis too. “Nothing really inspired me enough to record since she passed, but then I thought I had to get it together, so I got songs that meant something to me during my lifetime. And that’s what I tried to do here [on the album]. Every song is important to me — there are no throwaways.”
He married Linda while they were still in their teens. He says she was a grounding influence for him throughout his life and without her, he says he might have struggled to cope with the pressures of fame.
“One hundred per cent,” he says. “She was part of me. You don’t know it until you lose it, though. It was only when she passed away that I realised how important she was to my life. She was always there — even when she wasn’t. She toured with me in the early days and if she wasn’t physically there, she would be on the phone. I talked to her every day.”
Jones has always been upfront about his womanising — he had, reportedly, hundreds of affairs — but he always insisted that there was just one woman he truly loved. There’s a note of great sadness in his voice when he talks about the realisation after her death about what a positive impact she had on him. “You’ve got to learn a lesson,” he says, “not to take things for granted. You’ve got to try and realise who’s important and who’s not.”
One of the people who’s most important to him is his son, Mark Woodward. Jones says they are more like brothers than parent and child, and that’s understandable when one considers that Jones had the boy when he was just 16.
“He was born in April ’57 and I turned 17 that June. He’s always been with me. He came on the road with me from the time he was 16. He’s learned how to put a show on — he could do the lighting and the sound and all the logistics of it. And he’s been the one who’s picked songs with me over the years.” Mark has also acted as Jones’s manager for more than 30 years. “When Gordon Mills [the legendary English showbiz manager] passed away, Mark took over. I said to him, ‘If you can, I’d rather you do it than have a manager.’”
For years, Woodward was a backroom figure in the Jones story, but on the new album he serves as co-producer with the in-demand Ethan Johns. “I said to him, ‘Why don’t you produce it with Ethan and, you know, get the credit that you deserve? He’s an unsung hero, really.”
Having made a fortune in the business, Jones is not making new albums because he needs the money. He says he has a strong work ethic and a desire to keep going for as long as he can.
“It was my upbringing — a working-class family in South Wales. A lot of those values have carried me though life. There was a lot of singers in my family — I realised at a young age that I wanted to be a professional singer. There was no doubt in my mind — I didn’t want to do anything else.”
As a judge on the hugely popular The Voice UK, Jones believes would-be singers have to have an unerring drive in order to make it. “You’ve got to have that passion — that’s what I tell young singers today. You’ve got to want this because it’s not easy. But if you love it, you can make it easy. And be true to yourself — take advice, but at the end of the day, it’s down to you. You’ve got to make choices and those choices are your own. Do the best you can — even when you’re picking songs that others have done before.”
It was Swinging Sixties London that he had to break into and it wasn’t easy — especially when it came to getting the right look. “When I first came to London in ’64, they said, ‘You’ve got to straighten your hair — that curly hair doesn’t work anymore. And I said, ‘I don’t believe that’ — I did try to straighten it, but it looked stupid. Then they said, ‘You’ve got to get your nose fixed,’ because I had a busted nose — and I always wanted to do that — and I thought, ‘That’s fine. Break your nose and reset it.’ I’ve been in worse punch-ups than that!”
Jones says he had a steely determination to make it and the success of the Beatles and the Stones paved the way for fellow British acts such as himself to make a lasting impression in America. The days of knicker-throwing from rabid audiences would soon follow.
He struck up a lifelong friendship with Van Morrison during those early years in America. “We started the same time,” he says. “I remember him later telling me that we’d been in this club and there were a lot of English groups there, and Van told me, ‘You know, you were the only one that would talk to me.’ Maybe we had a Celtic kinship already. He was Irish, not English — and neither was I. And we just hit it off.”
Jones says he was careful to avoid some of the pitfalls that his compatriots experienced. Even as he was rising to star-hood, he could see similarly feted stars fall off the wagon. “I never got involved with drugs because I didn’t see anything in it. Why would you go into a toilet and sniff cocaine off the back of a bloody thing — the atmosphere is wrong. You know, I liked pubs and restaurants — fine wines and Cuban cigars — but to go and hide in a corner and do something? I don’t see the point of that.
“You can have fun and games,” he adds, “which is fine, but anything that’s going to harm your performance, whether it’s the stage or the recording studio, you have to stop. You’ve got to be the best you can be in order to survive. Don’t fall foul to all that other shit. I tried to have a drink before I went on stage and that doesn’t work, so I don’t do that now.”
He says his love of making music is as strong now as it was when he was appearing in front of a huge US TV audience on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1965 or having a worldwide hit with the lascivious Sex Bomb in 2000.
“I remember Sir Geraint Evans, who was a bass baritone opera singer, and him saying to me, ‘Your fire still burns in you, doesn’t it?’ And I said, ‘Yes, it does.’ And he said, ‘That’s it — if the fire burns, you have to keep stoking it. And if you go out, you have to try to rekindle it. But if you love it, you will do it.”
‘Surrounded by Time’ is out now.