In Praise of Tom Jones
Mark Seddon is the former United Nations Correspondent and New York Bureau Chief for Al-Jazeera English TV. He reported from eighteen countries during that time, including North Korea, China, Haiti, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. He has interviewed, amongst others, Ban Ki-Moon, Lech Walesa, Tony Blair, Hans Blix, Michael Foot, Mia Farrow, and George Clooney. In a journalistic career spanning over twenty years, he has been Editor of Tribune and an elected member of the UK Labour Party's National Executive Committee. He has written for most British newspapers and many magazines, including The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Mail, The Times, The Spectator, New Statesman, Private Eye, British Journalism Review and Country Life Magazine. For a number of years he was a Diarist at the London Evening Standard, and has also reported for, amongst others, the BBC and Sky TV. He lives in Buckingham, England.
Tom Jones’ old friend Elvis Presley once told him “You have the voice of a black singer. Are there any black people where you come from?” To which this multi talented vocalist replied, “Yes, when they come out of the coal mines”. Jones, or to give him his full name, rather than the one he awarded himself as a stage name, Sir Thomas James Woodward OBE, is Seventy this year. Born in the small mining town of Trefforest in the South Wales Valleys, this living legend is still plying his trade – long after most of us would have donned our carpet slippers and retired.
There is much to marvel at with this most remarkable man, who in his time has sung R&B, country, dance and techno music, and who last year took the Glastonbury Festival by storm, his repertoire enthusing massive crowds of all age groups. Last month, he performed in Norwich at the local football stadium, once again defying all of those who have periodically written Jones off, as his career went through its ups and downs.
Jones remembers a few years back, getting out of a chauffeur driven car at the studio he was due to be practising, was nursing a heavy hangover and thinking “why am I doing this?” That is until a young lad working on a construction site and carrying a hod of bricks, called over and asked “How are you doing?” At which point, recalls Jones “I thought there for the grace of God go I”. For back in the early 1960s in the Valleys, there weren’t many ways to escape going down the pit, and a young Tom Jones thought he had at least found one way – working as a hod carrier on a building site. Apparently, he used to get in trouble with his boss, who said that the lad was “a dreamer”, who spent far too much time singing.
But another escape was to tour the working mens clubs with his R&B routine, which is where good luck, in the form of music manager, Gordon Mills, finally struck. Mills talent spotted Tom, and although he had written and composed the track “It’s not unusual” for Sandie Shaw. Sandie persuaded him that the son was made for Tom. So then began Tom Jones’s meteoric rise to stardom, a rise that was to make him a massive hit in the United States. “I remember going from absolutely nothing, to lying in a hotel bed room in New York, and since it was hot, I had the window open. All I could hear was the noise of the cab horns, and thinking to myself ‘I can’t believe I am here!”
There will be thousands of American women, now mostly middle aged, who would have given anything to spend some time with the man who took Las Vegas by storm. He used to play to packed audiences, his raunchy looks, tight pants and unbuttoned shirts utterly irresistible to women, many of whom took to throwing their knickers or hotel bed room keys on to the stage. Tom Jones reckons that he became rather too raunchy, and his sex appeal took over – to the detriment of his greatest asset, his voice. He recalls one night in Madison Square Garden, being surrounded by women as he tried to exit the stage. They grabbed him, as his body guards tried to pull him away. “It was very frightening”, he recalls. Jones’ affairs became legendary, and yet despite his womanising, he has remained married to the same woman for fifty years. “She beat me black and blue”, after reading about one dalliance in the paper, he recalls, “But I just stayed still and took it”.
By the mid Seventies, the Tom Jones appeal had begun to subside – but then, after the death of Gordon Mills, his son Mark became his Manager, successfully re-inventing and re-introducing his father to a whole new generation of music lovers.
With Tom Jones, what you see is what you get. He is not pretentious, not self destructive. He does not boast about his talents, and in my view was thoroughly entitled to return to his local village many years ago in a Rolls Royce. Amongst the huddled terraces, here was a local boy who had made it, and taken both sides of the Atlantic by storm.
What a giant! Long may Tom Jones reign supreme.
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