If someone were to tell you the next pop superstar would be named after the bastard son in one of the English language's first — and finest — examples of the novel, you'd probably scoff. If someone also happened to mention the book in question was more than 200 years old, 1,000-plus pages long, and divided into 18 smaller "books" of outlandish satire, you'd scoff even louder.
Then after you learned the story in question involves lust, larceny, and the kind of love only a harlot and her suitor could share, things might make a little more sense. So would the fact that the man about to be given the title comes off like some randy Edwardian fop. Such was the case, way back in 1964, when a man named Gordon Mills took a fellow Welshman born Thomas John Woodward and rechristened him for Henry Fielding's immortal Tom Jones.
The rest, as they say, is pop music history.
Tom Jones: Saturday, April 25. The Fillmore Miami Beach, 1700 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. Show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $43.50, $53.50, and $73.50. 305-673-7300; livenation.com/edp/eventId/403966
Mills found Jones, the singer — who appears this Saturday at the Fillmore Miami Beach — fronting a beat group called Tommy Scott and the Senators. That night, the band happened to be playing a joint called the Top Hat, in Cwmtillery, South Wales. There was no Scott, of course; hell, there was barely even a Woodward. But the fledgling manager saw something in young Tom that spoke of certain stardom.
So he shuffled the lad off to London and gave him the name that would make him famous — and the target of generations of women who wanted to throw their underthings.
First, though, he had to get Tom to look the part of a star. Off came the by now hackneyed leather; on came the tight trousers and flouncy shirts. Jones already possessed a raw and overt sexuality, both in manner and in voice — in fact, Decca initially wouldn't sign him because of it — and Mills encouraged him to make it his mark.
Then came the songs. Mills, not yet 30, had just written a few hits for Cliff Richard, so he knew what radio required. What he didn't know was that radio would find what he wrote for Jones too objectionable for airplay.
That's right, the BBC initially banned Jones's "It's Not Unusual." It was perhaps the best thing that could have happened to either of the men.
An offshore pirate station called Radio Caroline didn't have such misgivings, and it immediately put "Unusual" into very heavy rotation. Before long, the BBC had to follow suit or risk losing its audience altogether. And within a matter of weeks, Tom Jones would be sitting atop the British pop charts.
Then Mills pulled another coup and got Tom the spot singing the theme song for the latest James Bond movie, Thunderball. Legend has it that Jones fainted while hitting and holding the final high note of the track, and that's the version they wrapped with, just days before the film's release.
By the end of '65, Jones would be off to La-La Land and accepting a Grammy for Best New Artist.
Seeing Tom in a tuxedo must've been another revelation for Mills, because he had Jones keep it on while singing his next hit songs, "Green Green Grass of Home," "What's New, Pussycat?" and "Delilah." In '67, Mills booked his sophisticatedly clad phenomenon into Las Vegas's Flamingo, which had then just been acquired by high financier Kirk Kerkorian. And the swoon the crooner would provoke began in earnest.
The next year, Jones took a stand at New York's Copacabana and the chicks truly started hitting him with their knickers. When executives at ABC saw what was happening, they quickly gave Jones his own show. And while This Is Tom Jones would run only from '69 to '71, it cemented the singer's place in the pop pantheon, not to mention in the hearts of millions of panty-throwing women.
It was just those women who kept Tom in some comfort while he faded from front and center. Sure there were the odd resurgences — 24 episodes of The Tom Jones Show in '80/'81; the play-based single "A Boy from Nowhere" in '87 — but for the most part, Jones survived only by singing for the die-hards.
And then Art of Noise came calling with Prince's "Kiss" and a whole new generation got to get with Tom's gifts.
Like Jones's previous smash singles, especially "She's a Lady," his "Kiss" found a man at once frisky and chivalrous. Beginning with a trademark belt and descending smoothly through that killer croon, Jones burst back onto the airwaves as if he'd never gone away. Better still, a clip began rotating heavily on MTV that showed Jones had not lost an ounce of his swivel either.
The ladies ate it up, again — even the young ones. And so did the music industry. Here was an interpreter from the old school who actually knew how to sing as well as how to entertain the new school. An LP on Interscope — The Lead and How to Swing It — spawned the hit single "If I Only Knew." And in '99, Jones hooked up with Portishead, the Pretenders, Stereophonics, and a dozen other newbies for Reload, an album of mostly re-imagined covers. It would be his biggest record ever.
Reload would also prime Jones for a vibrant 21st Century. From his Millennial Celebrations performance for the Clintons and company in D.C., through his knighting by the Queen of England, Tom clocked it nonstop. And in the process, this son of a coal miner proved that a working man still can rise well above his station — if, that is, he knows how to work it.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
It's a lifelong instance of grace and fortitude that's best revealed in the title track to Jones's most recent release, 24 Hours. The song is a somber one, albeit hopeful, with a halting beat offset by a groundswell of strings. And it finds Jones standing alone and looking back over a past that only he can reckon with.
"I had one more minute, 24 hours ago," he sings, deeply reconciling with the fact that he's on borrowed breath. There's no belting on this tune, no swiveling hips. But there is a certain wizened beauty to it all. And there's an unequivocal poignancy. In other words, this song does what a great song is supposed to do: It moves you.
When Tom Jones stages on Miami Beach this Saturday night, there's sure to be the shriek of many minions of women who've still got a crush on the crooner. But there's also bound to be a coterie of fans who know there are still singers of songs whose voices can send chills down to the very marrow of our beings. And whether Jones is working it wild or working it wise, there'll be no denying the man has earned all that he deserves.
And when he hits that refrain for "24 Hours," remember we're all basically living on borrowed breath, and it's up to us to take it in deeply — even if we've gotta swivel our hips to do so.