Jones, Tom (1940-)

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Jones, Tom (1940-)

Many comparisons have been drawn between Welsh singer Tom Jones and rock legend Elvis Presley. Both appropriated singing styles associated with black R&B music, both became infamous for their sexually charged dancing styles, and both were loved for over-the-top Las Vegas club performances in the 1960s and 1970s. Indeed, Jones and Presley maintained a well-documented admiration for each other and often performed cover versions of each others' songs. However, Jones' diversity and longevity far exceeded Presley's. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, when many of his contemporaries had devolved into all-but-forgotten lounge lizards, Jones performed pop, rock, country, and dance tunes, often collaborating with a roster of acts half his age for the ears of equally young listeners.

Born Thomas Jones Woodward in Pontypridd, South Wales, on June 7, 1940, Jones grew up in the song-filled atmosphere of a coal-mining community, often putting on performances for his mother in the family living room. However, Jones' days of such youthful frolic were relatively short, and by age seventeen he was both a husband and father. Having no real training in a trade, Jones bounced between a number of odd jobs to support his growing family, including glove cutting and selling vacuums door-to-door. Nevertheless, Jones still found the time to sing at night in local dance halls, and after a number of years he had earned a sizable reputation fronting Tommy Scott and the Senators, a rock and soul outfit influenced by R&B singers Solomon Burke and Jackie Wilson, as well as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis.

After being discovered by songwriter and manager Gordon Mills in 1963, Jones was able to sign with the Decca label. Jones' debut single was only mildly successful, but the follow-up, "It's Not Unusual," became a giant international hit, as well as Jones' signature tune. However, the unbridled sexual delivery of Jones' singing, as well as his pelvis-thrusting dance moves, were considered too racy for conservative broadcast companies like the BBC. Moral squeamishness could not restrain public demand, and after "It's Not Unusual" was leaked out by an off-shore pirate radio station, Jones became a highly visible sex symbol. Throughout the 1960s, many of Jones' singles were major hits, notably the Burt Bacharach-penned "What's New Pussycat," and he honed his stage performance touring with world-class acts like the Rolling Stones.

During the 1970s, Jones occasionally scored with singles like the uptempo dance cut "She's a Lady," but his presence on Top 40 charts gradually declined, perhaps due to changing currents in pop music. However, his popularity as a live performer grew. Fully the master of his wide-ranging voice, Jones injected such raw passion into his stage shows that often adoring fans were moved to tossing their underwear at Jones' feet. He became an essential booking for the top clubs in the Las Vegas circuit, and was even given his own television variety show on the ABC network, This Is Tom Jones.

For years, Jones kept a relatively low profile, but in the late 1980s his career took on an expected new breath of life. Beginning with a remake of the Prince song "Kiss" in collaboration with the British electronic innovators the Art of Noise in 1988, Jones worked with many younger acts from diverse musical backgrounds, meeting with a high level of approval from all age groups. In 1992, for example, Jones masterminded a unique six-part series called The Right Time in which he gave tribute to a number of musical genres through intimate performances with acts as wide-ranging as Joe Cocker, Stevie Wonder, the dance groups EMF and Erasure, and pop warblers Shakespears' Sister. Continuing in this vein, in 1994 Jones signed to the Interscope label, a company devoted almost exclusively to edgy young acts like Nine Inch Nails and Snoop Doggy Dog. As with country legend Johnny Cash, it seemed that Jones was able to extend his legacy into the generation of the 1990s, largely without the element of irony or kitsch appreciation that tinged the later careers of other 1960s holdovers.

—Shaun Frentner

Further Reading:

Macfarlane, Colin. Tom Jones: The Boy from Nowhere. New York, St. Martin's Press, 1988.

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Jones, Tom (1940-)

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