The term ‘national treasure’ is brandished all too freely, but for Sir Tom Jones, there’s no more fitting description. It’s been almost 60 years since he first exploded into the limelight as a musical heartthrob, and Jones’ grip on the hearts of millions has only tightened as the decades have passed.
Jones is undeniably one of the most recognisable faces — and voices — of British contemporary culture. While many of his peers have slowed down in the later years of their careers, Jones’ enthusiasm for music has only enhanced with age. Today, he shares his 40th studio album, Surrounded By Time. The record isn’t the sound of an artist who has run out of ideas; in fact, he sounds as fresh as ever. Jones rises like a liberated artist across Surrounded By Time, growing old gracefully, unleashing free from the shackles to produce a record in which he expresses deep emotion.
On the album, Jones tackles the grief of losing his beloved wife, Linda, to who he’d been married since his teenage years. Having passed away in 2016, one year after Jones’ last full-length album release, the Welshman approaches his sorrow on the heartbreaking song ‘I Won’t Lie’. Moving on, with a clear approach to get a few things off his chest, Jones then fires shots at those who have continued to underestimate him throughout his career on the defiant ‘No Hole In My Head’. Without the plethora of life experience that the 80-year-old has accumulated, Surrounded By Time wouldn’t have the same impetus. Each track wouldn’t be laden with such rich emotion, as Jones delivers every line like a man who has seen all of life’s beauty, as well as its ugliness.
The album sees Jones reimagine tracks that inhabit a special place in his heart, a move that sees the Welsh icon spin work from the likes of Bob Dylan, Bobby Cole, and Michael Kiwanuka. Although the original versions all transcend themes, Jones stitches them together across Surrounded By Time to create a glistening melange of sounds.
“Songs are more important to me now, and they take on a different meaning when you’ve lived a long time,” the 80-year-old passionately explains to Far Out remotely from his London home, adding: “And you’ve lived through things, you read more into lyrics than you do when you’re young.”
Following the death of his wife, Jones moved back to the UK from Los Angeles, and his life has never been the same since. Surrounded By Time marks his first album since that torturous period, and for a while, Jones thought that he’d never make another record. “I didn’t think that I was going to make it. It really was just the lowest point of my life,” Jones painstakingly admitted. “We talked for two weeks in hospital in Los Angeles, and my son was there. She said you two have got to look after one another now and hold each other up.
“Because she was my strength, you see, she didn’t take any bullshit from me. I remember I had this house on St. George’s Hill in the late ’60s, early ’70s, I had some friends over from the States, and we were all playing snooker. I think I must have been getting too large, with champagne, cigars and blowing my own trumpet. She said, ‘Excuse me, you don’t really think you’re Tom Jones, do you?’ I said, ‘Of course, I am,’ and she said, ‘It was Tommy Woodward I married, don’t give me this crap’. This fella I was playing snooker with, from New York, said he’d never heard anyone speak to me like that, and I said, ‘She’s the only one who can, but she’s telling the truth’,” Jones wistfully remembers.
The grounding from Linda forced Jones to always remember that he’s still Tommy Woodward from Pontypridd and not lose sight of his true self amid all the thousands of knickers thrown at him on stage. “We were kids together, so we knew one another inside out before I got my first hit record, and that was an important part of my life. Because you don’t ever get that again,” he added with more than a pinch of sincerity.
As first hit records go, few can compete with Jones, who arrived like a whippet out of the traps with ‘It’s Not Unusual’ in 1965. From the moment the track was released, the singer’s life changed for eternity. ‘It’s Not Unusual’ went to number one, and in the blink of an eye, the days of playing working men’s clubs in South Wales were a distant memory as he found himself becoming one of the biggest stars in the country.
It’s impossible to imagine anyone else singing that track, but originally Jones was only asked to record a demo version before it got sent to Sandie Shaw. After he heard it, Jones knew it was destiny for him to sing ‘It’s Not Unusual’, and so did Shaw. Despite people’s best efforts to take it away from Jones, when Shaw heard the Welsh crooner’s attempt — she couldn’t bring herself to take it off him.
After the success of his first release, Jones put forward his follow-up single, ‘Once Upon A Time’. While on the promotional trail for the record, Jones made an appearance on the TV programme Thank Your Lucky Stars. The show should have been a dream but, in actuality, almost ended in disaster during rehearsals when the Welshman ended up in an altercation with The Beatles’ John Lennon. “I wanted to see The Beatles because I’d never met them and I’d never seen them,” Jones recalls. “So I was sitting in the audience with my manager in the afternoon when there was nobody in there, and I’m waiting for The Beatles to come on.
“John Lennon comes out on the stage, and he says, ‘It’s not a unicorn, it’s an elephant’,” Jones explains to me over our call, in which I am immediately struck like a bolt of lightning as he perfectly sings to the tune of ‘It’s Not Unusual’. “I thought, ‘what the fuck?’ He says, ‘How you doing, puff?’ and I said, ‘Come up here, you Scouse bastard, and I’ll show you.’ My manager said, ‘Don’t, he’s a Liverpudlian, that’s his sense of humour’,” Jones poetically remembers.
“It didn’t get to me anyway,” he adds, wistfully. “When I was young, I always used to get into fights. I had a broken nose and shit like that,” he added.
Jones’ background meant that he was privy to the occasional moment of fisticuffs, and grew up drinking in Wales with his coal-mining family, listening to them regale stories. It was playing the local working men’s clubs that gave him the confidence to take on the world and, to this day, they remain the toughest shows he’s ever played. “If you didn’t deliver, they’d get you off the stage and would physically sort you out,” he said from experience. “In those days, a lot of pop singers around if they were born where I was, they wouldn’t get on the stage. They wouldn’t even entertain it,” Jones fiercely adds.
Jones cut his teeth by playing in front of hard-nosed coal miners and it gifted him with the confidence to play in front of anyone — even a room full of dangerous New York Mafiosos. After a request from Jules Podell, Jones performed at the notorious Copacabana Club in 1968. “I was there singing in front of these gangsters, their girlfriends and their wives,” he recalls, as though it was yesterday. “I was asked, ‘Are you nervous being in a strange country in New York and singing in front of these Mafia guys and their wives?, and I said, ‘Excuse me, I’ve sung to Welsh coal miners and their wives’,” Jones chuckled.
It wasn’t just the Mafia in the US that took Jones to their hearts. From 1969 until 1971, The Tom Jones Show aired on ABC, ushering in a new dawn of celebrity status. The variety show format saw him sing with some of the most legendary names in music history, such as Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Little Richard. However, among the most glittering list of stardom, it was Janis Joplin who stood out the most.
“She was very similar to what I was when I first came to London. I said, ‘Look, this is what I do, and this is the way I want to do it’,” Jones recalls of Joplin. “I remember her coming on there (The Tom Jones Show), and they had this set. She said, ‘I can’t walk through fucking plastic raindrops singing this song.
“Then I did a rehearsal with her band, and she wouldn’t come on unless her band played, which I loved. When we did ‘Raise Your Hand’, which was a scream-up, she said to me, ‘Wow, you really sing’,” he cackled.
“That had more of an impression on her than anything else, blasting the shit out of ‘Raise Your Hand’. She was no bullshit. She used to walk around with a shoulder bag with a bottle of Southern Comfort poking out of it and a dog. It reminded me of Oliver Twist,” Jones blissfully remembered.
Jones has sung with all his heroes and lived a life that few would have ever thought was possible for a boy from Pontypridd. Regrets in his time at the top are few and far between, but missing out on the chance to release The Beatles’ song ‘The Long and Winding Road’ after Paul McCartney offered him it is one. “It was bad timing,” Jones admits. “I saw Paul in a club in London called The Scotch of St. James. We were in there one night, and we were chatting. I said, ‘Do you think you could write me a song Paul?’, he goes, ‘Sure’.”
However, an issue with the release schedule of Decca Records didn’t offer him much time to spare and, unfortunately, would leave Jones rueing an opportunity missed. Jones’ new single was coming out on a Friday, and while in the studio on Monday, a demo of ‘The Long and Winding Road’ turned up on behalf of Paul McCartney via Peter Sullivan. Upon hearing the demo, Jones said: “‘Oh, that sounds great. Let’s do it.’ And Peter Sullivan says to me: ‘the problem is Paul said it has to be your next single, or he’ll do it himself.'”
Jones tried to move heaven and earth to make ‘The Long and Winding Road’ his next single. However, studio time was at a premium and, on top of that, Decca needed to book session musicians, and the process would have taken two months longer than the label wanted to wait.
“I said, ‘It’s a shame because this is a great song’. I really knew it, right there and then. I said, ‘Could you talk to Paul and ask him? Could it be the next single?’ They said ‘no if you don’t want to do it now, he’ll do it himself’. I should have put my foot down,” Jones regretfully adds.
“This song I’ve got on Surrounded By Time, ‘No Hole In My Head’, I should have practised then what I preach now, because it says, ‘everybody thinks my head’s full of nothing, They want to put their own special stuff in, Fill up the space with candy wrappers’. I should have said then, ‘I want to do this song’, but I was on my own. Nobody would back me up.”
Not standing tall on that occasion is a source of anguish for Jones. With age, he’s revelled further into his no bullshit attitude, which he litters across his first album since 2015. The record is eclectic, beautifully obscure in parts, and it’s clear as day that Jones is loving every second of creating music that he believes in.
It takes a special kind of artist to record 40-studio albums, but don’t expect Jones to retire anytime soon. On Surrounded By Time, he proves that his voice is just as vital as ever, and it hasn’t weakened in the slightest. “When people used to say to me, ‘How long do you think you’d want to be on stage?’ I said to them about 97,” Jones says. “Now, I don’t know why I came up with 97, but I did. I want to sing as long as I can. A lot of old people lose the flexibility, especially with their vocals.”
Things feel more throw away in the current musical climate than ever before, and careers are cast away to the wolves before they’ve had time to prosper. Of course, the reality of the industry as we know it today suggests that many view 80-year-old singers are seen as monoliths, artists to represent yesteryear, out of touch with current musical desires. The beauty of Surrounded By Time is that Tom Jones vehemently battles against that premise.
Hearing Jones sing in candid terms about the fears that come with growing old in a seldom-heard manner is an emotional listen, and he proves that his voice is still necessary. Jones has spent most of his life in the public eye, while his career has had its share of peaks and troughs — Surrounded By Time is a thought-provoking record that culminates his life’s work up until this point.