Five years ago, Sir Tom Jones wondered if he would ever sing again. His wife Linda – the childhood sweetheart he’d married when they were both 16 – was dying of lung cancer, and wanted to know what her husband was going to do next.
“I said, ‘I don’t think I can sing – the bloody words will get stuck in my throat,’” Tom recalls. “And she said, ‘Well you must sing, you’ve got to. Don’t fall with me. I’m sorry, I’ve got to go. I don’t want to, but I’ve got to. But don’t let it pull you down. Promise me you won’t do that.’
“So I tried,” he adds. “I got a rhythm section together and tried a few songs I didn’t think I’d be able to do. A therapist that I saw in Los Angeles said, ‘What do you think will be the hardest song to sing?’ and I said, ‘There’s a Bob Dylan song, What Good Am I?’, which I’d recorded on my Praise and Blame album. She said, ‘Well, that’s the first one you should do. That’s the road to recovery.’”
Fast forward to 2021, and Tom has kept his promise with a new album, Surrounded By Time, and its highly-charged opening track – a cover of Bernice Johnson Reagon’s gospel classic I Won’t Crumble With You If You Fall that stands as a moving tribute to the love of Tom’s life (even if, famously, there has been no shortage of other lovers along the way).
But the record is also a defiant two fingers to the doctors who, when Tom got ill and had to cancel his upcoming tour dates a couple of years ago, advised him it was probably time to pack it in. Red rag, meet bull…
“He said, ‘You’re 78 years old, you don’t really need to do these shows’,” says Tom, sounding fighting fit and raring to go after receiving both Covid vaccine jabs. “I said, ‘Fuck yeah I do, I’ve still got an audience, for Christ’s sake. I want to go out as long as I possibly can.’ I had a urinary infection, and they put me on a drip, when really they could have just given me a fistful of antibiotics and I would have carried on with the tour. It was just a little glitch. No big deal.”
By 2019, he was back on the road. “We were sold out all over Europe, and were already selling out for 2020,” he says. “I was thinking, ‘I’m really looking forward to 2020. I’m alive and well, and singing well, and I turn 80 in June… what could stop me now?’” He gives a throaty, rueful laugh. “It was a bloody wake-up call,” he says. “Without an audience, I can’t do anything…”
Instead, he’s spent most of the past year in his new London flat overlooking the Thames, having recently returned from the States after 40 years. “Linda and I were looking for somewhere to move back to, because that’s where our family is – my son and daughter-in-law and my grandkids. And what did we have to stay in LA for? Been there, done that. So I came home. But sadly it was too late for Linda.”
Surrounded By Time is the fourth album in a fertile collaboration with producer Ethan Johns that has seen the 100 million-selling Welsh superstar pivoting away from belting out big, dramatic showstoppers like Delilah and What’s New Pussycat? in favour a stripped-back, more vulnerable sound inspired by his lifelong love of American gospel, blues and folk. (It is also, incredibly, the first record he’s ever made in Wales.)
One track in particular – the late Bobby Cole’s I’m Growing Old – is a song Tom’s been keeping in his back pocket for half a century. “Bobby came to see me in Vegas and said, ‘I’ve got this song I’ve just written, what do you think?’” he remembers. “I said, “Well I don’t think I’m old enough’ – I was about 32, 33 at the time – ‘hopefully if I get to 80 I’ll do it.’ And that’s exactly what I did. It’s right for now. I am growing old and some of the things in that song do happen. You feel the cold a bit more, you walk a bit slower… Also, I love that line, ‘I no longer ponder life’. Because when you’re young, you’re thinking, ‘I wonder what’s this and I wonder what’s that…’ But when you get older, hopefully you’ve worked out what’s happening.”
So, at 80, he’s got this whole ‘life’ business figured out? “Yes. I’ve gone through it. I’ve been through all the ups and downs of showbusiness. I’ve had slim years – in the 70s. And then, thank God, I started making some noise again…”
Linda said, ‘You must sing, you’ve got to. Don’t let it pull you down. Promise me you won’t do that…’Tom Jones
It’s nearly 60 years since Pontypridd coal miner’s son Thomas Woodward first emerged from the clubs of South Wales and began making some noise with his debut hit, It’s Not Unusual. In the years that followed, his baritone voice graced everything from a Bond theme (Thunderball) to his own top-rated US TV show and four decades of Vegas residencies, and he’s successfully reinvented himself several times over, finding new audiences collaborating with the likes of The Art of Noise (on a cover of Prince’s Kiss) and Mousse T (on 2000 Euro smash Sex Bomb). He’s performed for queens and presidents, won Grammies, BRITS and Golden Globes and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But the highlight of his career, he says, was receiving his knighthood in 2006.
“There’s nothing to touch that,” he says. “My parents, they would have loved it. Well, my father not so much, he wasn’t a royalist. But my mother would have. There’s a picture, which my sister still has, of my grandfather. His name was Albert Rees Jones, he was in the Royal Engineers, and he died in the First World War. So when I got my OBE, the first thing I thought of was my grandfather, and his medals. And then of course to get a knighthood, a miner’s son… My god, that’s unbelievable.
“I love the Queen,” he adds. “I saw her being crowned, and I’m glad I’ve lived at the same time as her. Looking back over my life, the thing I think more than anything else is: ‘My god, I lived in the same time as Muhammad Ali, I lived in the same time as Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley. These people, these one-offs.”
Of course, Tom hasn’t just shared the same earth as these people – he moved in their orbit. “Yes, I knew them personally. Muhammad Ali came to see me in Philadelphia, and when he walked into my dressing room he was going ‘Tom Jones, Tom Jones’. I said, ‘Why are you repeating my name?’ and he said ‘It’s my daughter, she watches your TV show and that’s what she says.’”
Elvis became a good friend. Was that… weird? “It got to feel more normal the more I knew him, because he was a normal person,” he says. “But when I first met him in ’65, I was in Hollywood, doing The Ed Sullivan Show, and he was walking towards me, singing With These Hands, which was my recording. I thought, ‘my god, if the boys back home could see me now’. Because when I used to sing in the pubs in Wales, I’d do a lot of Elvis Presley, and I had a feeling I would meet him one day, which no-one believed. So as he was walking towards me, I could see all those fellas in my mind.
“Elvis was envious of me because I’d married my childhood sweetheart,” he adds. “Linda used to come up with me to his suite. He gave her a beautiful necklace. He said, ‘Tom, you’re lucky’. He told me he’d fallen in love when he was young, but it hadn’t worked out. It bothered him.”
Another regular face back in the day was Donald Trump, whose rise to the White House Tom tackles on recent single Talking Reality Television Blues. “He used to come and see me in Atlantic City,” Tom recalls. “He owned three of the hotels I used to sing at, and when he’d come to the shows he’d want the spotlight on him. I’d say, ‘the hotel owner is here tonight, ladies and gentlemen, Donald Trump’. I just looked at him as being this playboy business guy. I didn’t even know he was interested in politics.”
Some would say he still isn’t… “Well, there you go. It’s debatable.”
A rumbling, swampy, six-minute spoken-word cover of Todd Snider’s folk-country song, Talking Reality Television Blues follows the evolution of TV up to its natural end point, of “reality killed by a reality star”.
“I was there at the beginning of TV,” says Tom. “I was ill in bed with TB from ’52 to ’54 – from when I was 12 until I was 14 – and my mother and father got me a television set, and we watched the Coronation. I watched the moon landing live from trailer on the east coast of America. All those things.” (And now, of course, as a judge on The Voice, he’s a reality TV star himself.)
Surrounded By Time closes with Tom’s take on Terry Callier’s Lazarus Man. Does he feel like a man who’s risen again? “Definitely, because I’ve survived,” he says. “We did talk about finishing the album with I’m Growing Old, but that that felt a bit negative. So we decided on Lazarus Man, because that’s like a new beginning – a man who kicks off his sheets and walks out of his tomb.”
So this isn’t the final chapter of the Tom Jones story? “No, no,” he says. “If push came to shove, if this was the last one, then so be it – it represents me well. But I’ve still got the fire in my belly. Sir Geraint Evans, the great Welsh bass-baritone, once said to me, ‘I see you still have the fire, Tom’. And that was 30 years ago. As long as the fire is in you, you’ve got to do it.”
THIS IS TOM JONES:
Despite being one of Wales’ most famous exports, Sir Tom is actually three-quarters English, with family roots in Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire.
His manager Gordon Mills gave him the stage name Tom Jones to cash in on the success of the 1963 film adaptation of Henry Fielding’s novel, starring Albert Finney.
Tom played in Las Vegas for at least one week every year from 1967 to 2011.
In 1969, he was nominated for a Golden Globe Best Actor award – for playing himself in his TV show, This Is Tom Jones. He has also appeared in The Simpsons and Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks.
He celebrated his 80th birthday last June with a family gathering at his grandson’s house in Henley-on-Thames. “I had a few drinks and it was lovely.”
Surrounded by Time is out now.
A version of this article was first published in Waitrose Weekend on April 22, 2021.