Overlooked, Again

March 17, 2016   •   By Charles Taylor

Over the Top and Back

Tom Jones

THE ESSENCE of Tom Jones might come down to one night in the mid-’90s on an episode of his show The Right Time. Each week was devoted to a specific musical genre. This night the focus was soul, and the guest was Stevie Wonder. It wasn’t the first time the two singers had worked together. Wonder had been one in an impressive array of guests (Janis Joplin, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Cocker, and Ray Charles among them) who appeared on Jones’s late ’60s variety show. Here, Jones stood at a piano while Wonder played, the two of them dueting on soul numbers. And on almost every song, it was Jones who knew all the words. Time and again, Wonder would resort to la-la-la-ing while Jones was ready to sing straight through to the end. And time and again, Jones, not wanting to show up his guest, would conclude his vocal and the two of them would chat a little before moving on to another song. In the course of their talk, Jones brought up the subject of songwriting, admitting he was mystified by the process, and asked Wonder how he did it. Rather than answer, Wonder told his host that what every songwriter dreamed of was great singers to put their work across, and he made it clear that he believed he was in the presence of such a great singer. Jones, abashed and humble, quietly thanked him. But beneath that, you could sense Jones thinking, “Who am I to be getting a compliment from Stevie Wonder?”

It wasn’t false humility. It was the genuine response of a man who, like another boy from the Northern UK, Joe Cocker, had heard R&B and the blues and assented with everything in him. Jones has always approached this music with a fan’s devotion.

But that devotion doesn’t tell the whole story. To get that, you have to keep in mind the supple, muscular assurance that has long defined Jones’s vocals. No description has ever bested Dustin Hoffman’s, who reportedly told Jones that when he opened his mouth, it was as if a tiger had leapt out. No one who lacks confidence could sing that way. And while Jones has always been a great fan, no mere fan could set himself the challenges he has, let alone pull them off. At least three times he has covered songs whose original performances were considered well nigh definitive and triumphed. In 1988, when he was considered no more than a middle-aged has-been, a geriatric’s notion of a rock star, Jones (accompanied by the Art of Noise) had the audacity to take on Prince’s “Kiss,” managing a version arguably as sexy as — and funnier than — the original. When, right before the instrumental break, he proclaimed, “Think I wanna dance now,” it was an offhand boast, the proclamation of someone who had already killed it and was taking a victory lap. It was, in its way, as joyous as Elvis changing the lyrics of Billy Swan’s “I Can Help” to “have a laugh on me / I can help” on his 1975 cover. Jones did something completely different in tone, but even more impressive, at the Bowery Ballroom on the New York stop of his 2013 American tour when, in tribute to George Jones, who had died a few weeks before, he covered Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” He didn’t set out to best Jones’s recording of the song — one of the greatest in all of country music — or even to match it. Rather he seemed to approach the song itself — and the memory of Jones’s performance — as so powerful that to give it less than his whole soul would have been disrespectful. He was just as much of a supplicant on the number that opened the show — a song that had been such a memorable video for his 2012 album Spirit in the Room — Leonard Cohen’s “Tower of Song.” Cohen’s version had always been an aging hipster’s joke, the sound of an old croaker who knew he couldn’t sing for shit but had found a way to deliver his vocals with the ironic vanity of a tattered Lothario assuming gentleman’s airs. When Cohen sang about possessing “the gift of a golden voice,” it was a cue to the audience to laugh, a signal that he was in on the joke. When Jones, who really was born with a golden voice, sang, “I’m just paying my rent every day / in the tower of song,” he sang it as a workman, someone saying he had tried to do his damnedest, someone who, in sharp contrast to Cohen’s wryness, knew that Hank Williams was a hundred floors above him.

The arc of Tom Jones’s career, from the brash hits that made his name in the ’60s to the brief ’90s comeback to the country and gospel that have comprised his last three albums, is one in which the enthusiasm of fandom deepens into the devotion of discipleship. It’s also the story of a man determined to not be treated like a joke, and that’s the story he tells in Over the Top and Back, his relaxed and charming new memoir (written with Giles Smith). The title alone acknowledges that Jones has long been aware of being nothing more than a camp gag. The glitz of presentation, the tight pants, the shirts open to his waist (displaying, as the ’70s came in, ever larger medallions), the ritual of panty tossing that fast became a cliché at his live shows: All of it has for too long been the first thing mentioned of Tom Jones. He knows that. One of the pictures in the book, taken some time in the ’80s, shows Jones wearing a big grin to go along with his big Crocodile Dundee hat and lizard-skin boots. The caption: “Feeling like a twat in a hat.”

Jones isn’t only aware of how he’s been perceived, he holds himself accountable for it. The book opens in the early ’80s along Route 9 in the dreary Boston suburb of Framingham. Even now, the road is a procession of strip malls, building contractors, chain restaurants, home improvement businesses, car dealers. And, in the early ’80s, when Jones sets the scene, it was an outpost of a dinner theater franchise called Chateau de Ville, a place where lodges and other organizations held nights out for members and their wives. A dinner of prime rib or chicken was followed, on the tiny stage, by a production of a Broadway musical, usually starring some star reduced to the dinner-theater circuit. (My folks saw Betty Hutton in Anything Goes there; I went on a school field trip to see Man of La Mancha.) By the ’80s the place had become a kind of nightclub with headliners who could no longer fill big rooms. Jones remembers the joint in piercing detail:

Here I am backstage at […] Framingham’s premier “function room,” home to weddings and sales conference parties and the annual Natick High prom — and tonight, home to Tom Jones, international singing superstar and globe-girdling sex symbol, who must remember not to go too far downstage in this venue or the spotlight at the back of the room won’t be able to reach him through the ornamental chandelier.

Here I am in the eighties in the dressing room of a drive-up dinner theater in the American suburbs. Bright lights round the mirror. Stage clothes in zippered covers hanging from a rail. Sandwiches and fruit under plastic wrap on a Formica table. Vase of flowers trying to make up for the lack of windows. 

Two shows per night, to a predominantly white, middle-aged crowd, seated at tables, eating chicken or premium-plate surf-and-turf. Seven thirty until 8:30; shower and change; then 10:00 to 11:00, plus encores. Thank you. Thank you so much. Good night. And afterward a car back to Boston, moving fast to get there before the good restaurants shut. And then a meal and some drinks — quite a lot of drinks — and eventually a hotel bed. 

I’m here again tomorrow. 

What draws blood in those lines isn’t a sense of injustice but what’s between the lines, Jones admitting he knows exactly why he was considered a relic. When he talks about sprinkling Kool & the Gang’s “Ladies’ Night” or “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” among the expected hits, he remarks, “Bringing it up to date, or thereabouts.”

Of course that scene sets the stage for a comeback, the story of a man who finally becomes comfortable in his own skin, the one who stopped dying his hair a few years back and has returned to the music that matters most to him. (At that Bowery Ballroom show, the only older hit he sang was “Green, Green Grass of Home,” the only one that fit in with the country and blues and gospel on the program.)

But what separates Over the Top and Back from the typical showbiz rise and fall and rise is that in large part the book is the story of a man who was always a bit behind the curve. Having risen from the bars and working-men’s clubs of his native Wales, places evoked in sharp and not-always-loving detail, places where he had to satisfy the younger crowd who wanted to let loose on Saturday nights and, then, the older hard-drinking men to whom anyone with a quiff of hair and a guitar was just a yob making noise. The hostility compounded with the drinks, but so did the sentimentality. “With a ballad,” he writes, “I would show these miserable old bastards that I could actually sing. What never seemed to fail me was ‘My Yiddishe Momme,’ in A minor.”

Jones says he didn’t mind giving the audiences what they wanted, which alone differentiated him from the performers making their mark in the ’60s. And for teenagers who identified with the look of the Beatles or the Stones, Jones was hypermasculine, already an adult. (Having a wife and child before he was out of his teens may help explain why, even when young, he didn’t radiate youthful exuberance.) The closest equivalent to Jones may have been the hard-set faces of the Animals out of Newcastle who were, as “House of the Rising Sun” made immediately and irrevocably clear, nobody to fuck around with. You can understand the things going against Jones, chiefly that he didn’t get the great songs that other artists who didn’t write their own material could rely on, and the gradually decreasing acceptance of cover versions, even though the early Beatles and Stones albums are rife with them. (Some, like Paul McCartney’s attack on “Long Tall Sally,” are better than the originals.) And then, as psychedelia and the push to be “relevant” came in, Jones, tuxedoed as he often was, began to seem to have nothing to do with the generation calling the shots in pop. 

Without straying into ego or self-pity, Over the Top and Back becomes a story of wounded pride and ambition that never subsided. Jones describes playing the New Musical Express Poll Winners Concert at the venue that was to become Wembley Arena. He’s sharing the bill with the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, Dusty Springfield, Donovan. “I have the impression,” he writes, “that a lot of these guys from the groups are looking at me suspiciously, trying to figure me out: like, who is this guy and what does he want?” And he follows this up by describing an appearance, a few months later, on Sunday Night at the London Palladium (the British equivalent of The Ed Sullivan Show) where he appears in a tux in front of an orchestra singing “Autumn Leaves.” “And after that,” Jones writes, “I will be hailed as having ‘arrived’ — a verdict which suggests a gradually solidifying sense, in the world at large, of who I am and what I do. […] As far as I’m concerned, I’m the white Wilson Pickett, if only people realized it.” 

It’s bracing to read that. Bracing not just because of the false humility of so many performing arts memoirs, but also because Jones deserved to be thought of that way long ago, might have been if his longtime manager, Gordon Mills (to whom Jones is grateful and about whose failings he is honest), had had a more adventurous vision of what his client could achieve, or if people had bothered to hear the voice and not just the schlock too often piled on top of it.

It’s even more thrilling, toward the end of the book, to read this: “I’m not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. I’ve not been inducted. Even though there’s more rock ’n’ roll in me than there is in 90 percent of those fucks that are in there.” He’s right (Jackson Browne? Crosby, Stills & Nash? The Eagles?), and there’s something thrilling about a man who has stopped apologizing for himself. Thrilling because it’s heartbreaking to read things like Jones wondering, when he is booked on the Glastonbury festival, if he’s only being booked as a joke, and given the penchant in the culture right now for turning people into jokes, who can blame him?

At bottom this is a book about a man who wants to be taken seriously, and a man who doesn’t take a thing for granted. There’s a good deal more to say about Over the Top and Back — the evocative details of working-class life in a Welsh mining town; the discreet and loving way he speaks about his wife Linda, to whom he’s been married for years and who, for reasons he does not go into, prefers to stay out of the spotlight.

And it’s ironic that, in a season dominated by rock memoirs that have gotten deserved acclaim (I’m thinking of the new volumes by Carrie Brownstein, Patti Smith, Elvis Costello), Jones has been overlooked again. But in a way this adds to the book’s charm, reminds us that despite the glitz that has often wrongly defined it, Jones’s career has been one of a journeyman, a guy who’s kept working through moments of popularity and indifference.

There are performers who, defined by one image, have more dimensions than that image can contain. Jones is one of those performers. He provides a large satisfaction that we don’t get from subtler acts. The mischievousness that always existed in Jones (really, how else could you put across “What’s New, Pussycat?”) is still there in his recent recordings. Just listen to his sly take on Kenny Rogers and the First Edition’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” It’s been joined now by a kind of stripped-down desire to get to the root of the gospel and country and blues he has been recording. It would be easy, now, to imagine Jones having the mastery to cover his friend Elvis’s “Burning Love,” in particular the great lines “It’s coming closer / the flames are now licking my body.” And it’s easy to imagine Jones singing them as a man consigning himself to the flames or, having come so close to hell, embracing salvation. Either way, at this point in his career, he is finally singing as himself.


Charles Taylor’s writing on movies, books, music, and politics has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Yale Review, The Nation, Dissent, and other publications.