With a best-selling autobiography now in the bag, released last year in cahoots with his album, Long Lost Suitcase, Sir Tom Jones talks to us about touring America, his love of London, and the importance of portable CD players
Although there have been many books written about Sir Tom, he's never officially authorised any of them; and when Penguin first approached him to write his own, he admits he was in two minds.
“I remember when Kirk Douglas put a book out called The Ragman's Son, and went on the Johnny Carson show in the US. It was a great book, but all Johnny said was, 'what about all the chicks in the movies that you did?',” says Sir Tom, with a smile. “And Kirk said, 'but this book isn't about that, it's about coming from an immigrant family and making it to Hollywood'. And Johnny was all, 'yeah, yeah, but what about Lana Turner?' [laughs]. He wouldn't leave him alone! So I didn't want to make a tabloid book, and I didn't want to sensationalise anything; I just wanted to tell it as I saw it, and Penguin agreed on that, so we went with it.”
To coincide with the launch of the book (Over The Top And Back), Sir Tom released a new album, Long Lost Suitcase. It's a great fusion of blues and rock and roll: raw, emotional, and a real story-teller. And the two go very much hand in hand:
“I picked songs that I'd loved for a long time that I just hadn't got around to recording, so that's why we called it Long Lost Suitcase, because they literally came out of suitcases; and the photos we used in the book also came out of suitcases. When we were doing the album, [producer] Ethan Johns said: 'these songs sound almost autobiographical'. And I said, funny you should say that, I'm writing one at the moment! I wanted to get them out together, so we did that just before Christmas. One complements the other, and some of the chapters in the book share the same titles as the songs. He Was A Friend Of Mine [in the book] is about Dave Perry, who I grew up with in Wales. That song could have been written for him.”
Remarkably, it's more than 50 years since Sir Tom released his global mega-hit, It's Not Unusual. Each decade has brought more music, and more touring, of course, but it was back in 1965 when his world was turned on its head for the first time.
“It's Not Unusal completely changed my life,” Sir Tom reflects, “It also took me to New York; we did The Ed Sullivan Show there several times that year, so that city will always stick with me. I remember lying in my hotel room listening to all the horns blaring outside thinking, 'God, this is like the movies!' I also remember when I first toured the US – Jesus Christ, we did 17 shows in 16 states in one month! It didn't feel like a step up at the time, but of course America has been very good to me since then [smiles] - I have a lot of great memories from my time in Vegas, particularly getting to know Elvis so well, and now I live in LA, up on Mulholland, near Beverly Hills, which is a great spot.”
Conversation turns to performing, and I ask Sir Tom about his favourite places. Some are obvious, some not so much...
“London is always great – you know, you're right in it there, all the time; it's where my career kicked off, and it's also where I recorded It's Not Unusual,” he says. “And Cardiff is always a big kick - playing in front of a Welsh audience, because that's where I come from. When I sing to English speaking people, I always know where I am; I like to have a bit of fun between songs, and interact with the audience, you see. But then I went to Japan! [smiles] I had recorded Danny Boy on an album which had sold a lot of records out there, and I said to the promoter, 'what songs would the Japanese people really latch on to that I've recorded?' And he said, 'well, you've got to do Danny Boy'. And I said, 'Danny Boy? In Japan?' [laughs] Do they understand it? And he said, 'they feel it; they feel the passion and the story'. So things do travel; the feeling of the songs must get to them in some way.”
And when Sir Tom's not doing his thing on stage or in the studio, he likes to listen to music... On one of his many portable Sony CD Walkmans..!
“I like to look at CDs, and I like to play a CD, you see; I bought six of the bloody things, just in case you can't get them any more - in case they conk out,” he says, adding that he doesn't have a computer. “I have an iPod, which [my son] Mark loads my playlists onto, but I always use the CD Walkman on the road. Mostly with headphones, but sometimes I plug it into a speaker that I travel with, and put it on in the suite wherever I am staying.”
But the big question is, Sir Tom, who's going to win the Six Nations rugby this year? And have you ever sung the National Anthem at any of the games?
“Well, I'm not so up on the standings, you see, but I know Wales drew with Ireland, and I watched Wales beat Scotland on ESPN out here,” Sir Tom explains, choosing not to pick an outright winner. “And yes, I did sing the National Anthem once – it was at the old Wembley Stadium... When Wales beat England by a point! [smiles]”
We'll give him that one... Look out for the full interview with Sir Tom in the next issue of Headliner, which drops later this month.