Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Petri Dish 101: Tom Jones, God of Pump

It's Tom Jones's birthday today, and what better way to celebrate than by giving my faithful readership (both of you are the greatest!) a Petri Dish 101 crash course on the man's work?

You need to take out a mortgage to buy tickets to your average arena/big-deal venue show, and it cost me a king's ransom ($80+, each! Ay yi yi...) to score Tom Jones tickets recently. Normally I balk and rail against such obscene admission rates. But Jones (who struts into Seattle's Paramount Theatre on June 18) is one of the few artists who's a bargain at twice that price.

Tom Jones is a unique pop culture alloy; old-school crooner, soul shouter, furry-chested lounge lizard/kitsch icon, and all-around sex god, all rolled up into one iron-lunged, larger-than-life package. He's old enough to qualify for Social Security benefits, but can still tear the roof off the sucka at age 65.

Born in Ponty Prith, Wales on June 7, 1940, Jones came of age musically in the mid '60's. Graced by the gods with a voice of almost superhuman power, he started singing for his supper in various clubs around Wales and England before being discovered, signed, and groomed by producer/songwriter Gordon Mills for world stardom. The rest, as they say, is history.

Though Jones's baritone voice was muscular enough for the most raw and raucous R and B music, Mills chose a less obvious career path for his young talent at first, tempering covers of rock and soul songs with polished, brassy mainstream pop tunes like "It's Not Unusual" and "What's New, Pussycat?". Early on, the Welsh Wonder displayed a knack for turning even the most innocuous ditty into pure carnal throb. If the Beatles were the vehicle of sexual release for pent-up '60's teenagers, Tom Jones uncorked said sexuality for those same teens' moms and older sisters.

The '70's were arguably built for Tom Jones. His tight trousers, loose and limber hip-shaking, mythically libininous vocal delivery, and forest of manly chest hair made him the ultimate embodiment of the decade's mack daddy ideal. Hits kept coming, and the man comfortably segued into the disco era, his superstar status intact.

Jones weathered the fallow period of the '80's by turning to country music. Of course, with those pipes he could sing the phone book and cause seismic tremors (and his Nashville-tinged records sold), but his most of his forays into Kenny Rogers turf lacked the spark that made those '60's and '70's hits so essential. Most critics (and even a lot of the public) started dismissing the guy as a has-been.

But a funny and welcome thing happened at the close of the '80's: Tom Jones became hip again. The catalyst was his collaboration with the Art of Noise on a cover of Prince's hit, "Kiss". Jones made the song his own, substituting the Purple One's skittery falsetto with that mighty hurricane of a voice, and the result was an international chart-topper.

Since then, the guy's never looked back. Tom Jones has managed that near impossibility in show biz; he's actually sustained his career and gotten better with the passage of time. Successful collaborations with artists half his age, and a canny sense of what works for him, have kept Jones more vital than most of his peers; Elton John, Sting, and Rod Stewart, to name but three, sound like feeble old geezers in comparison (and they're all younger!).

The hell with James Brown--Tom Jones is the hardest working man in show business. I've seen him live four times previously over the last decade-and-a-half, and he still brings it home in spades. Expect him to set the ladies' hearts aflutter--women of every demographic continue to genuflect and toss lingerie in the God of Pump's presence--and count on him to categorically blow the roof off.

Essential Tom Jones CD's

Formidable as Jones's talents are, his recorded output runs hot-and-cold, with uninspired covers and bland arrangements sometimes taking up space alongside the good/fun stuff. The following recommendations cover his entire career, distilled to all-killer-no-filler status. Where you go from here is up to you, pilgrim, but below is Ground Zero for The God of Pump.

Your homework assignments, should you choose to accept them:

The Complete Tom Jones (Polygram, 1993) and The Best of Tom Jones (Pid, 1998): Either of these compilations provides a good starting point, capturing most of Jones's big hits over the last forty-plus(!!)years. The Pid Comp gets the narrow edge for including the volcanic early hip-shaker, "Chills and Fever" and the mightiest of all James Bond themes, "Thunderball" .

What's New Pussycat (Polygram reissue, originally released 1965/67): Not to be confused with the Burt Bacharach soundtrack of the same name, this Tom-only CD (with contemporaneous bonus tracks) is one of the high-water marks of Jones' early work, with the title hit sharing space alongside the lusty shoulda-been-a-smash "Kiss Kiss" and one of Gordon Mills' most soulful compositions, "Some Other Guy". Any doofus who writes off the vocalist as a cheesy lounge-cruiser will have the condescending smirk wiped off their face by Jones's smoky work on the latter track and the sandblasting cover of Little Richard's "Bama Lama Bama Loo".

Tom Jones Live in Las Vegas (Polygram reissue, orig. released 1969), Live at the Talk of the Town (Decca 1967, vinyl only), Tom Jones Live at Caesar's Palace (Varese reissue, orig. released 1972): Tom Jones studio recordings are, to an extent, like viewing a big jungle cat in an enclosure at the zoo; impressive, but to get the full impact you need to view/hear the beast out in the open, on safari, in its natural habitat (in this case, the concert stage). You can't go wrong with any of these powerhouse live efforts. Live at Caesar's Palace is probably the most readily-available on CD (get a load of the Bacchanalian disc cover), but the vinyl-only Live at the Talk of the Town captures one of Jones's most brilliant vocal performances, a sensitively sung, sublime live version of "My Yiddishe Momme" (no kidding; it's amazing).

The Tom Jones Fever Zone (Parrot, 1968, vinyl only): It's criminal that Jones's pale and wan country records have all been reissued, yet this gem of a disc still hasn't made the digital transition. Songs made famous by Sam and Dave, James Brown, and Wilson Pickett get the God-of-Pump treatment to sweat-shaking shouting perfection here, and Fever Zone marks the first recorded appearance of the drama-drenched homicidal-jilted-lover ditty, "Delilah".

Tom Jones Sings She's a Lady (Repertoire Records/EMI reissues, originally released 1971): There are some great ballads here (the covers of "Ebb Tide" and Roy Orbison's "In Dreams" really click), but the best of She's a Lady showcases the sex potentate in full pasha pageantry. The hit title track, "Puppet Man", and "One Night Only Love Maker" capture the seventies-model Tom Jones in all his swaggering, God-of-Swingers glory. You can almost smell the Hai Karate and hear that trademark gold chain and crucifix rustling against Jones' hairy chest.

Tom...Sings the Sixties (Music Collection Int'l reissue): This British import CD cobbles together covers of '60's (and early'70's)-vintage tunes, from various points in Jones's career. Worth seeking out to hear the Welsh Wonder transform the innocuous Archies hit "Sugar Sugar" into near-porn.

Darlin' (Polygram, 1981): By far the highlight of Tom's country years, Darlin' reconciles Jones's lusty bellow with mainstream Nashvile better than any of his other C and W records. His cover of "One Night With You" makes Elvis sound like a gawky asexual schoolboy, and "Lady Lay Down" hilariously updates the Jones Sex King Manifesto in country-ballad drag.

Reload (Gut/V2 Records, 1999): This is import-only (a few tracks appear on the most recent Tom Jones Greatest-Hits comp), but it's one of Jones's best ever. Reload unites the singer with several high-profile (in Britain, at least) collaborators for a series of duets. What's amazing about this effort is how perfectly most of these songs fit the man's singular style. Jones takes command of Lenny Kravitz's "Are You Gonna Go My Way" so flawlessly, you'd think Kravitz wrote it for him (The Welsh Wonder decimates duet partner Robbie Williams here). A rip-snorting cover of Talking Heads' "Burning Down the House" with the Cardigans opens the album with a bang, and there are highlights in abundance; his take on "Mama Told Me Not to Come" with Stereophonics cooks, Jones and Brit popsters Space trot gracefully through The Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon", and Jones and Heather Small raise the roof on the soul chestnut, "You Need Love Like I Do". Highest high point: the cover of Portishead's "All Mine" with The Divine Comedy--it's like the greatest James Bond theme never written, with Thor the Thunder God providing the high notes.


Burkiworks said...

Wow! As a writer myself, I have to heap kudos at your feet and clumsily tap out praise for the potent connection between the rambunctious ramblings
of your idea-spewing brain and your typin' fingertips!
Seriously, I thoroughly enjoyed everything I read, from the New Orleans commentary to the Tom Cruise diss to the Tom Jones homily.
Please tell me...are you a professional writer by trade? It would seem so.
Now, back to reading more...

mahmut said...

Tom Jones can sing a B. He's a dramatic tenor, not a baritone. A baritone cannot sing an A or a B. Just wanted to clarify that.

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