The Devil in Mr. Jones

How Tom Jones made sexual innuendo the lingua franca of rock and roll

Long before the birth of modern boytoy crooners, long before Justin would volunteer to bring sexy back, long before sexy would need bringing back, women by the scores (pun intended) excitedly tossed bras and panties at a stage occupied by a curly-haired hunk of singing beef named Tom Jones.

Possessed of a raw, booming voice, Jones (born Thomas Jones Woodward) exudes an erotic toughness. Despite the sly smile and swiveling hips, and even though he's just two months shy of 67, Mr. Jones remains a he-man among he-men.

But what stands out in my mind as his central achievement is this: He single-crotchedly baptized an entire generation of young men and women into the illicit pleasures of sexual innuendo. After all, we of a certain age — whose childhoods preceded today's open knowledge of sex — can still recall the songs Jones sang on his television show, and all the frilly underwear that came raining down on him.

Do you, Mr. Jones? Sir Thomas Jones awaits your undies
Do you, Mr. Jones? Sir Thomas Jones awaits your undies

Like Eartha Kitt, Jones offered throaty titillation — listening to his records felt like getting away with something. A track like "What's New Pussycat?" (so innocuous now as to be quaint) was to us kids of the Sixties and Seventies suggestive of activities we didn't quite understand. Whoa-oh-oh was just a hook, a cool sound that stuck in our heads. But the way he asked the titular question, and the sonic smirk of those sing-songy verses, made us close the bedroom door and lower the volume a bit.

Glen Campbell had cool hair and a cool guitar and cool songs, Sonny and Cher were weirdly funny, and Andy Williams was someone to goof on. Tom Jones, though — he was a high priest of the proto-horny.

This is putting aside his astounding musical versatility. Although he's written only two of his own songs, Jones has charted in a half-dozen genres during five different decades. ToJo is to his native Wales what his friend Van Morrison is to Northern Ireland: a chronic collaborator. (Naturally he and Van collaborated on the 1991 album Carrying the Torch.) Jones later teamed with Art of Noise to cover Prince's "Kiss," and took part in the Chieftans' confab, The Long Black Veil.

In 1996 he put out his most popular record, Reload, an assembly of duets featuring songs by Talking Heads, Iggy Pop, the Kinks, and Randy Newman. He sang with Pavarotti and made an album with Wyclef Jean. He worked on a documentary called The Blues and recorded a roots rock album with Jools Holland. Jones is the man who recorded "Sex Bomb" at age 60. He's both an archetype and an anomaly: craggy and dimpled, leathery smooth, blue collar but sophisticated, handsome but hardly pretty, soulful but square, macho but sweet. Married but, um, available.

But some historical reference, before we start, uh, gushing.

Jones made up a third of a triad that served music fans living outside the twin whirlwinds of Beatlemania and Elvisness: Jerry Lee Lewis was the trailer trash roughneck, Little Richard was where the boys were, and Jones represented a classy but rugged musical machismo. He was Engelbert Humperdinck with talent.

At his early-career gigs, Jones wore black leather, neck to toe. He continued to dress in the uniform of future clubland — boots, tight black pants, black button-down shirt — at a time when bell bottoms and paisley were the rage. He sported bling before the term had been invented. In 1965, after hitting the charts with the theme song to the James Bond movie Thunderball, he won a Grammy for best new artist. A year later, as his popularity waned, he switched to a tuxedo, his bow tie always unfastened, his pocket scarf employed to soak up facial sweat.

This is a guy whose story is such that his Website doesn't have a biography. It has a Tomography, which tells you that Thomas Jones Woodward — make that Sir Thomas, pal — was born in 1940 in Pontypridd, South Wales, where he grew up listening to cool American music on the BBC, quit school at age sixteen to work as a laborer, and fathered a son a year later.

Jones worked in a paper mill and drank like a fish. One night in 1963, the singer for the local beat band Tommy Scott and the Senators went AWOL and Jones, fortified by plenty of beer, sat in as guest vocalist at a YMCA gig. The Senators asked him to take over as Tommy Scott, which was soon enough changed to Jones, a winky allusion to Fielding's low-born stud of the same name. Jones and the Senators landed a deal with Decca in 1964. Alas, the mainstream wasn't quite ready for the Jones sexual revolution. His first single for Decca ("Chills and Fever") flopped, and the BBC refused to play the randy followup.

But a pirate station called Radio Caroline was only too happy to broadcast "It's Not Unusual," which became a hit, as did his cover of Burt Bacharach's "What's New Pussycat?" Jones soon began a stint in Las Vegas, where the tradition of throwing lingerie at him, born back in Great Britain, took hold. Then he went solo and the underwear showers continued on his TV show, which ran from 1969 to 1971 on both ABC and British television.

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