TOM JONES

A year after all those British artists stormed the U.S. (about two dozen of them seemingly appearing from nowhere to dominate the stateside music scene in 1964), two singers launched a mini-Welsh invasion of their own. Shirley Bassey landed first, early in '65, with "Goldfinger," the most successful song yet from the James Bond series' third theatrical installment in as many years. Tom Jones appeared right after her in the spring, or more accurately was heard, as it was the idea of someone at London Records, the American arm of the U.K.'s Decca, to keep his image a secret. "It's Not Unusual," the impact track that had just hit number one in England, sounded like it could have been by a black singer, or so the label figured, so the song was promoted to R&B stations; a backup plan of sorts in the event the record failed to become a pop hit. As it turned out, there was no need to promote the single in such a roundabout way. It was a hit, not of the chart-topping magnitude as on its island of origination, but it reached the top ten on the pop charts and made a fair showing in the top 30 of the R&B charts. By that time he had made an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and the "cat" was out of the bag; afterwards, the white Wales wailer went suspiciously absent from black radio playlists.

He did, however, overcome the "one-hit" pitfall, as Bassey came very close to doing with her top ten Bond blast (of her more than two dozen U.K. hits from '57 to '73, no others connected in such a big way). Just as "Unusual" was hitting the top ten on London subsidiary label Parrot at the end of May, Tower Records (a Capitol subsidiary) unleashed an unofficial follow-up, "Little Lonely One," then within a few weeks Parrot released "What's New Pussycat?" and by the end of June, there they were: three songs by this soulful singer in the top 50 at the same time! Tom was suddenly a hot property, and once American women got an eyeful of the dashing ladykiller from the small village of Trefforest in Pontypridd, it was all over for them. He eventually became a superstar thanks to a mostly-female fan base.

It didn't seem, at first, that he would be anything more than working-class Welsh. Born Thomas Woodward, he spent much of his childhood battling tuberculosis. His father was a coal miner and his childhood health issues may well have kept him from a similar fate. Music was his passion, and he had a gift for it; American R&B singers like Brook Benton, Jackie Wilson and even Ruth Brown provided inspiration for the soul-stirring style he developed. In 1957, when he was just 16, he married his girlfriend, Melinda Trenchard, weeks before she gave birth to their one and only child; he worked in various warehouses and on construction sites until 1963, when an opportunity presented itself to sing with a local band, Tommy Scott and the Senators. Tom wore black leather and put forth a tough-guy image as the band gained a following performing in South Wales dance halls and pubs. Within a year, producer Joe Meek (best known in the U.S. for The Tornadoes' hit "Telstar") recorded a few of their songs, but nothing came of it.

While performing one night at a club in nearby Cwmtillery, songwriter Gordon Mills stopped by and singled out Woodward, offering to become his (but not the rest of the band's) manager. Setting him up in London, he suggested the singer change his name to Tom Jones, an odd choice as that was the title of a recent blockbuster film starring Albert Finney, a Best Picture/Film winner at both the U.S. and British Academy Awards. Confusion over the two seemed likely, but before long the movie took a back seat to the singer in notoriety. He signed with Decca Records, but his late-'64 debut, "Chills and Fever" (written by Bobby Rackep and Billy Ness, it had been a minor U.S. hit for Ronnie Love in 1961), met with indifference. The Les Reed-Gordon Mills tune "It's Not Unusual" was nearly overlooked as well until Radio Caroline's pirate trendsetters jumped all over it, and suddenly Tom, his face exposed for all to see, became the latest sensation as the song hit number one mid-March '65. Thanks was owed to Sandie Shaw, who passed on recording it; Tom's career might have stalled had she gone ahead (Sandie hit number one a couple of months later with "Long Live Love," so ultimately everyone was happy).

Then again, the "sensation" wore off quickly as successive releases performed respectably but fell short of the top ten. In the U.S. he fared better, as his rendition of Burt Bacharach and Hal David's theme from the film What's New Pussycat? (with its circusy arrangement and groovy girl singers) went top ten during the summer, outdistancing "Unusual," reaching number three (behind Brit invaders The Rolling Stones and Herman's Hermits) for two weeks in July and August. The single's picture sleeve (his first in the States) had no photo of Jones; in its place was a painted "pyramid" scene featuring the movie's stars caricatured by former comic book legend Frank Frazetta.

"With These Hands," written by Abner Silver and Benny Davis, had been a hit for Eddie Fisher in 1953 (and Bassey in the U.K. in '60). Tom performed it during his third Ed Sullivan appearance in October as it became his fourth hit in the U.S. over a five-month span. By this time his image was taking hold; in addition to the Sullivan stints, his album It's Not Unusual (with a cover shot of him fronting a band - the Senators, perhaps?) was a strong seller and the latest 45 sleeve showed him off in all his ruffled-shirt glory. His own James Bond connection came next when producers decided he'd be the second Welsh singer in a row to sing a 007 theme. "Thunderball," composed by John Barry and Don Black, was the hit song from the movie of the same title, the top box office moneymaker of the original six installments starring Sean Connery.

1966 began with another Bacharach-David film theme, "Promise Her Anything," and a Grammy Award for 1965's Best New Artist. The Gordon Mills-penned "Not Responsible" came next, a disappointment in sales and airplay. Tom tried a new angle, recording a tune with prison, death and mourning as its subject matter: Porter Wagoner had scored a country hit the previous year with Curly Putnam's "Green, Green Grass of Home" and Tom's remake became his biggest hit in England, number one in December '66 and January '67; in the U.S. it was his highest-charting single since "Pussycat." After that he could do no wrong in the British isles as the next six releases went top ten, though it took a little longer to achieve anything comparable across the pond.

Tom stayed in a country-pop bag through the remainder of 1967. He made his debut in Las Vegas that year, a move that would feed and enhance his image for decades to come. Female fans of all ages began attending his shows with more on their minds than just seeing him perform; on a typical night any number of undergarments might be thrown on the stage and some of the bolder fans would toss their hotel room keys at his feet. Word has it he often returned the keys to their owners, indulging in whatever extracurricular activities each woman had in mind, giving equal time for sensual icing on the cake with a variety of showgirls. Such carrying on naturally caused a strain on his marriage, yet amazingly the couple has stayed together throughout the years.

Starting in 1968 he hit the upper reaches of the U.S. charts more consistently, with hits like "Delilah," "Help Yourself" and "Love Me Tonight." In February 1969, he launched his own weekly variety series, This is Tom Jones, taped in London and broadcast in the States on ABC-TV, later produced in Hollywood (with some episodes still originating from London studios). The show lasted three seasons and featured many top stars as guests along with comedy relief from improv troupe Ace Trucking Company. The greatly increased small screen exposure helped keep the hits coming and he enjoyed a pair of back-to-back top tens, "I'll Never Fall in Love Again" (a U.K. hit in the summer of '67, reissued by Parrot in the summer of '69) and "Without Love (There is Nothing)" (a remake of Clyde McPhatter's 1957 hit), giving him a solid foothold as the '70s began. The popularity of the TV show prompted ABC to try a similar approach with Jones labelmate Engelbert Humperdinck, but his weekly show ran its course after several months in 1970.

"Daughter of Darkness" and "I (Who Have Nothing)" (the Jerry Leiber-Mike Stoller song that went big in the U.S. for Ben E. King in 1963 and gave Shirley Bassey another British top ten shortly afterward) were among his biggest hits of '70. In March 1971, just two months after the final broadcast of his ABC series, "She's a Lady," written by Paul Anka, was the hottest single of his career in America, peaking at number two (held from the top spot by Janis Joplin's posthumous chart topper, "Me and Bobby McGee"). "Puppet Man" (a Neil Sedaka-Howard Greenfield song) and the frenzied "Resurrection Shuffle" went top 40 that summer (the latter a simultaneous hit for London-based band Ashton, Gardner and Dyke). Back home in Britain, "Till" and "The Young New Mexican Puppeteer" put the top ten total in his homeland at a baker's dozen.

With his most explosive years behind him, Tom Jones reinvented himself as a country singer, scoring a top 20 pop and number one country hit on his first try with "Say You'll Stay Until Tomorrow" in early 1977. He was a regular on country radio through 1985 before revisiting his pop beginnings with "A Boy From Nowhere," a major Brit hit in the spring of 1987, and a big American and U.K. hit in late '88 as featured vocalist with synth-pop band The Art of Noise on a remake of Prince's smash from two years earlier, "Kiss" ('...think I better dance now!') Through it all he's released records regularly and has kept a high profile schedule of live appearances, including regular stops in Las Vegas, well into the 21st century.

- Michael Jack Kirby

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What's New Pussycat? With These Hands Love Me Tonight Daughter of Darkness