LOS ANGELES At 72, Tom Jones’ curly hair and neatly manicured mustache and goatee are more salt than pepper after his decision to give up black hair dye a few years ago. But Jones appears dapper as usual, ultra-tan and fit in his smart black suit and dark, ribbed crew-neck shirt.
Jones’ new album, “Spirit in the Room,” continues a career rejuvenation that kicked off in earnest three years ago with “Praise & Blame,” a collection produced by Kings of Leon producer Ethan Johns. That album revealed Jones as the powerhouse gospel and soul singer many long felt had been overshadowed by his sexy show-biz hunk public persona.
Jones’ career exploded in 1965 with the punchy, horn-driven pop-rock hit “It’s Not Unusual.” The song vaulted the South Wales native (born Thomas Jones Woodward) into the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart.
Forty-eight years later, in the opening track of “Spirit in the Room,” the first words out of the mouth of one of pop music’s quintessential sex symbols are, “Well my friends are gone and my hair is gray/ And I ache in the places I used to play/ And I’m crazy for love but I’m not comin’ on.”
The lyrics are from Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song,” and like all the material on “Spirit in the Room,” the message is one Jones feels in every pore.
“When I heard it, I thought, ‘This song could be written for me.’ My friends are gone, and my hair is gray, which is a fact; most of my friends anyway. … There’s another line in there: I was born like this, I had no choice, I was born with the gift of a golden voice.
“When I hear songs like that, the first thing I think is, ‘How can somebody come up with something like that? … They’re songs I wish I could write myself. But … if I hear something and I feel like I can put myself into it, then it’s my song anyway. The big difference is,” he says with that hearty Welsh laugh, “I don’t get the royalty payment.”
Elsewhere on the album, Jones reaches back as far as Blind Willie Johnson’s existentially inquisitive “Soul of a Man” and as far forward as the Low Anthem’s “Charlie Darwin,” stopping in between with deeply probing songs from Richard Thompson (“Dimming of the Day”) and Paul Simon (“Love and Blessings”).
He also sings Paul McCartney’s “(I Want To) Come Home,” which has never been included on a McCartney album. He’ll be touring the U.S. more extensively with the new album than he did with “Praise & Blame.”
Passion for the songs
Jones’ work with Johns on “Praise & Blame” would do more to stretch his image than the singer’s 1999 dance-floor hit “Sexbomb” or his 2008 album with Wyclef Jean. It upped Jones’ artistic credibility and elicited comparisons to Johnny Cash’s victory-lap run with Rick Rubin, with one key difference:
Where Cash’s voice was slowly deteriorating, Jones’ double-barreled vocal cords sound every bit as potent as when he was in his 20s and catching part of the wave of British Invasion rock led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
His passion for songs becomes apparent when he starts quoting various lyrics. “There’s a song on the ‘Praise & Blame’ album … ‘If I Give My Soul’ by Billy Joe Shaver,” he said. “It’s saying, ‘If I give my soul, will my son love me again?’ Because the man messes up in his life, playing the devil’s music. He succumbed to rock ’n’ roll.
“That one again, that could have been me. I could have gone down that road, but I didn’t, thank God. I held onto my wife, and I held onto my son,” he said referring to his wife of 56 years, Linda, and their only child, Mark Woodward. “He put some great lines in it – ‘Please put new boots on my feet’ and ‘If I give my soul to Jesus, will you stop my hands from shakin’?’ Things that I can relate to.”
Still shakin’ the hips
It would seem a natural turn for a singer in his 70s who grew up loving American blues, gospel and R&B, but Jones says bemusedly, “No one ever asked me to do a record like this before.
“I just thought of this: Because I’m of a certain age and I’ve been around a long time, maybe I can take advantage of that. Maybe I can not have to chase pop music or trends. Maybe now I can just do what I want – as long as people like it. It has to appeal to people, you know what I mean?”
But that’s not to say you’ll never see Tom Jones, the “What’s New Pussycat?” sex symbol, shake his hips ever again.
“I still get fired up by old rock tunes,” he said. “I still love to sing ‘Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On.’ When in doubt: ‘Great Balls of Fire.’ Those songs still resonate. If I was at a party and there’s a piano player there,” he says with a mischievous chuckle, “at the end of the night ‘Great Balls of Fire’ is gonna be in there.”
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