OK, admit it. You love Tom Jones. How could you not? He is the “stage author” of at least five hit songs (”It’s Not Unusual” , “What’s New Pussycat?” , “The Green, Green Grass of Home” , “Delilah” , “She’s A Lady” ), and his stage act is a blend of power balladry, sexual braggadocio, and good natured “I can’t believe this is happening to me” wonderment. If the self-mockery comes ultimately from Elvis, the forceful voice is wholly his own. Like many singers he was a force for only a short window of time, but the songs were so perfect, or he was so perfect for them, that he was able to dine out on them for decades. If the Wales-born coal miner’s son has an American equivalent it is Johnny Rivers, whose creative bulb burned brightly for a brief time with numerous late 1960s covers of ’50s hits, along with tunes such as “Poor Side of Town” and “Secret Agent Man,” but who then fell out of fashion or favor while yet still being able to have a career touring.
Jones is probably someone you need to see live. He is one of those rare performers whose voice outmatches the physical source. You can’t believe that a sound that powerful is coming out of a human being. But it is not a crude, inflexible instrument. As the new box set, This is Tom Jones, shows, the man, who had been singing since he was three years old, could belt out “What’s New Pussycat?” but also old standards such as “Danny Boy” and modern quiet numbers such as “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again.” Though by the time he began appearing in his own show Jones had been somewhat desexualized and turned into a Vegas style showman, This is Tom Jones’s array of guests show that Jones could hold his own with Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, and even Little Richard.
Despite his jokey-serious sexual swagger, Jones can’t help enjoying himself and his good luck, and while bejeweled and decked out like a ’50s crooner he has the virtue of sincerity. You can tell as he claps along and watches his guests that he really likes them. And they appreciated him. According to the box’s liner notes, Joplin normally hated doing television but consented to appear on his show because she liked his voice, a high compliment coming from a fellow power belter.
This is Tom Jones (Time Life, Tuesday, June 26, 2007, three discs, $39.95) offers eight episodes of the variety show, which aired on ABC on starting Fridays from early 1969 through 1971. Guests that appear on the selected shows include Mary Hopkin, The Who, Burt Bacharach, Glen Campbell, Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Stevie Wonder, The Moody Blues, and Aretha Franklin (according to the Wikipedia, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were originally going to appear on the set, but due to rights issues, were replaced by Little Richard, which, as stated above, only serves to highlight Jones’s range better). Comedy acts include an early Richard Pryor appearance (which starts out awkward but gains speed), Peter Sellers, Anne Bancroft, Bob Hope, and the comedy troupes The Ace Trucking Company and the Committee, each troupe filled with now-familiar faces.
As with other compilations, such as those of the Dick Cavett Show, half the joy of the set is the guest stars who often perform with more commitment than you’d expect. The Who really tear into “Pinball Wizard,” with the busy, brilliant Keith Moon in the background “mooning” the band itself by singing along with the song. Janis Joplin is also fully committed, and Jones acquits himself well in a later “duet” with her, if that term can be used for two vocal cannons aimed at each other. And I have to admit that when Jones joined Joe Cocker for “Delta Lady” I felt chills of appreciation and nostalgia. As shown on the show, they could have kept riffing on the song forever, and eventually time constraints lead a fade out. It was considered something of a joke back in the 1990s when Art of Noise tapped Jones for collaboration but as usual he surprised people who had forgotten that Jones’s singing roots were in R&B, soul, and blues ballads and that he was up to date with current songwriting. Other performers are Burt Bacharach (who, when he sings, does so into his chest cavity), and Glen Campbell, whose ephemeral appearance doesn’t even constitute a full song.
The other half of joy comes from Jones’s persona itself. The “concert” section of the show, which constituted the final portion of each episode and recreated Jones’s stage act (and which usually began with him waiting “backstage” with a “bird” in silhouette until announced, kissing her before grabbing a microphone [so that he would bounce onto the stage with a partial erection?]), shows the full range of his vocal ability, and Jones is one of the few singers who can do African-American music convincingly. He is also a fantastic dancer, and nerds who practice their moves in the bedroom mirror would do well to cut a few moves from Jones’s playbook.
Seeing Jones’s easeful screen presence — remarkable given that he had only broken into the business a few years earlier — I began to wonder why he didn’t make more of a go of it as a movie actor, the way his predecessors such as Sinatra (and by the way Jones does a terrific version of “Angel Eyes” on the disc) or his later friend Elvis did. With his swagger and gold chains and dashing appearance in a tux, Jones would have been terrific in any number of British crime dramas, and I can easily visualize him as the gangster in The Long Good Friday, or even as James Bond. I am guessing that the deal is that Jones wasn’t much interested in performing for a camera. He needs the juice of an audience. He hasn’t even recorded all that many records, relatively speaking. However, he has a real jones about being on stage, and his career has been almost wholly live performances since the 1980s.
The transfers are taken from original source materials but nothing was done to spruce them up, so they tend to be rather soft looking, and one episode only survives in a black and white version. It can be said for the English 2.0 mono audio track that it is audible.
The extras are much more successful, however. Jones introduces most of the shows with an amusing anecdote and its airdate. Disc one contains three items. First, a short ABC commercial for the premiere that also cites the now forgotten The Generation Gap and Let’s Make a Deal game show the same night. Next, there’s one of those faked TV interviews, where the answers are shipped to local affiliates with the anchor reading from a list of questions (as also seen, for example, on the Dr. Strangelove extras). On this occasion, the noon time anchor for KATU-TV in my home town of Portland, Oregon, got the questions mixed up. Finally for disc one there is a new video interview with Jones in which he tells the story behind how he came to sing Burt Bacharach’s him to “What’s New, Pussycat?,” something he alludes to in one of the episodes. There are no supplements on disc two, but disc three offers a 30 minute video interview with Jones (shot on February 11, 2007), in which he discusses his own musical roots and the birth of the show. Finally, there is a 12-page illustrated insert with further information on each episode included.
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