Sir Tom Jones
At the peak of a career that spans five decades and after a fourth hit series with The Voice, sold-out shows in the UK, Europe and US, it’s been another successful year for Sir Tom Jones.
Alongside fellow judges Rita Ora, Ricky Wilson and Will.I.Am, Sir Tom’s appearance on The Voice has made it the most successful series of the BBC show to date.
Here he talks to Jacqui Swift about how his voice has gotten better and deeper with age, why The Voice this year was the best yet, how he keeps hits like “Delilah”, “Kiss” and “It’s Not Unusual” sounding fresh and why fans are in for a treat from his headlining and festivals shows across the UK and Europe this summer.
With your shows and appearances on The Voice it’s been quite a year for you would you agree?
Sir Tom: Yes. Doing the Voice for the BBC is planned early, and we have to fit in recording and touring in the year as well. I’ve got a really good touring set-up; I have a band made up of guys mainly from Nashville when I do work in the States, and also have a UK-based band for doing gigs this side of the world. Working with different musicians keeps it all exciting and fresh for both myself and them. We play songs from my two recent albums “Praise and Blame” and “Spirit in the Room” plus a couple of new ones from my new album coming out later this year. We’ve also worked out some fun new arrangements on favourite tracks like “Delilah”, “Kiss” and “It’s Not Unusual”. It’s important for me to keep reinventing songs with the band. It’s good to come up with different arrangements to invigorate the hit tunes and to keep us all on our toes.
Does it surprise you that you’re popular across the generations? The Voice has introduced you and your work to a new audience.
Sir Tom: It happens with every generation. Whenever I put out new stuff I’m introduced to a new audience. If new material gets a good reaction they’ll also rerelease back catalogue and often people will appreciate some lesser-known tracks from back in the day, as well as the hits. Now, with The Voice, I go to restaurants in London and get kids shouting at me in the street. Even when I disguise myself in a hoodie and dark glasses, I get shout outs from kids.
Why was this season of The Voice such a success?
Sir Tom: In the television world, the first series is always breaking new ground, which is a difficult process, particularly with such a big production. We all learned a lot from the first year, and applied some good changes to year 2. So by Series 3 & 4 people knew what to expect, the production had settled in and the addition of Rita as a coach worked well, she’s fantastic.
Rita is so impressive. She’s been in the business only a short time but is very smart, savvy and articulate.
I’ve done a few shows with the Kaiser Chiefs and had drinks with Ricky, so I knew him before we started, we’re friends. Will.i.am is a producer so he fits the bill and then there I am, the old godfather. We have a lot of fun, we’re in and out of each other’s dressing rooms all the time.
The hardest part of The Voice is saying no and shattering contestants’ dreams. I’m always pleased when it’s up to the viewers to decide and it’s out of my hands. I still ponder, weeks later, whether I made the right choice or not?
I take DVD recordings of the show back to LA for my wife to watch – and she tells me off for not picking certain singers!
The Voice does take me back to the early part of my career when I’d go on talent shows. We used to do these things called “Go As You Please” and I remember losing to a ventriloquist one week. She wasn’t even that good! But she looked pretty good and I think they were looking at her rather than the dummy.
Will you return for series five?
Sir Tom: We’ll see, I still have to find out about a few things.
And you’re in the best form playing live than you’ve ever been?
Sir Tom: Yes, I’ve surprised myself how good the shows are. My singing voice is still as strong as ever, though as you get older, your voice gets lower and so my tone and range has gone from a tenor to a baritone. My lower tones are much richer than they were. What you lose on the swings, you gain on the roundabouts.
I know my voice pretty well and if people like my voice they will like what I record. ”Praise and Blame” was number one in the midweek charts but got pipped at the post by Eminem. I love to tour and I love to sing.
It’s been three years since you released your album “Spirit In The Room”. Can we expect another album soon?
Sir Tom: Yes hopefully. My producer Ethan Johns and I have continued working together. Whenever we get a chance, we gather the musicians together and get to work.
We’ve recorded 29 songs over last year and now we’re in the process of putting together a selection that will form a body of work. Singing to me is like acting. You take on a role and a song to me is a role. It’s like Jude Law doing Hamlet, whose interpretation would be completely different than a performance by Laurence Olivier.
Your last number one album was in 1999 with Reload but you’re more popular than ever. Is getting another number one important to you?
Sir Tom: It’s great to know that my records are selling and people love them but it’s important to remain creative so it’s a bonus when they do well in the charts. Both my last albums were Top 10 hits which is great — and I wasn’t expecting “Praise & Blame” to be number two! It’s good that my music is out there, but the music business is in a very different place presently, as far as record sales go. It’s extremely hard for musicians to earn a living from recordings now. But often it’s knowing that your music means something that is the most satisfying. Will.I.Am came up to me and said he’d heard one of the older hits and he said: “Hey man, that record’s sick – I’ve got to sample it!” It’s gratifying knowing that my music means something—and it can be anything, and for different reasons—to anyone who gets a chance to listen.
You’re soon to embark on a mammoth tour across the UK and Europe. Excited?
Sir Tom: Yes! I’m playing over 40 shows. I have a few days rehearsing with my British band and then off we go. I’m performing at places I’ve never been to before; it’s always good to visit new places. And I’m doing some festivals, which I always like. It’s so nice to see kids’ faces when they’ve never seen me play live before. At festivals, there are a lot of people who see you for the very first time, which is always great.
You were 75 on June 7. Does it surprise you that you’re still performing at your age?
Sir Tom: Yes, and particularly when I’m invited to be on a line-up with bands at big pop and rock festivals. Who’d have thought it? It’s also great fun and a privilege to share the bill with some fantastic acts —there’s some very talented artists working out there! I’m just thankful that my voice is still powerful and my vibrato hasn’t slowed down. With singers, the voice can show its age and you start to sound like an engine turning over. But thank God that hasn’t happened to me. I’m still singing naturally and I don’t’ have to put a spike into it. I look after myself too, I drink plenty of water, I don’t get dehydrated and I make sure I get eight hours sleep.
Is there anything special happening this year in your diary?
Sir Tom: Well, since you’ve asked, yes…I’m not only releasing an album but also my autobiography (Penguin). Both will come out around the middle of October. I’ve had so many offers over the years to do a book, but never felt ready. But I kept seeing other people writing books about me and often they weren’t very accurate or telling the story very well. It’s really only me who knows the whole story, and once I got into it I really enjoyed the process and am really pleased with how the book is shaping up. The album will sit very nicely alongside the book and reflect musically a lot of what I’m about. I’m really excited about these two projects.
You were friends with Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley in the day, what were they like?
Sir Tom: Elvis had a great sense of humour and he used to clown about a lot but he loved music. He loved singing as much as I do. After his shows in Las Vegas, we’d go to his hotel suite and sing gospel songs around an electric piano for most of the night. I used to say to him: “Elvis you’ve finished your shows and you’re still singing.” We’d be singing until the sun came up and that’s when I knew I had to leave.
As for Frank, the thing that sticks in my mind about him was that he called me “Thomas”. I remember going to see Sammy Davis in Las Vegas once and Frank was sitting at the bar in Caesars Palace He said: “Thomas, come and sit with me.” And I thought: “Who’s calling me Thomas? Oh it’s Frank Sinatra.” So I sat with him at the bar, and then when I got up to see Sammy’s show Frank said: “Stay, he can wait.” If anyone can say that it’s Frank Sinatra. Some people said that Sinatra was difficult-but he never was with me, he was always a gentleman.
You’ve lived in Los Angeles for many years now. Do you miss Wales?
Sir Tom: I moved to LA in 1976 and I’ve been here since. My Welsh accent is not as strong as it used to be — I had to slow it down when I went to London as no one could understand me! But coming to America wasn’t so bad; if you can get a cockney to understand you then so can an American.
I don’t get back to Wales as much as I would like. Sadly, my family is dwindling as a lot of them have passed away, as have some close friends who I grew up with. Parts of the towns have changed and look different, which is a natural thing, and a lot of the buildings are different – many of the pubs I used to go to have gone, as has my school.
But I love to play shows in the UK and Europe and if I get a chance to play in Wales I’ll I drive over to where I was born and raised — just to have a look around and reminisce.
Sir Tom Jones plays Newmarket Nights on 7th August – click here to buy tickets for all of the Newmarket Nights events.