Top of the pop

Jul 8, 2009 at 12:00 am
He’s a legendary performer — a titanic crooner, R&B rocker and soulful balladeer who, at 69, still oozes the smoldering sexuality of his early years. He really doesn’t need much of an introduction, aside from: Ladies and gentlemen, this is Tom Jones!

Metro Times: You’ve influenced punk rock, country and jazz musicians, as well as everyday folks. How does that feel?


Tom Jones: It’s a great feeling! And it is all kinds of people. There are young bands out right now, like the Kings of Leon, who I met the other day [at Britain’s Glastonbury Festival], and they were telling me how much they listen to my stuff. And British bands like the Kaiser Chiefs. They all know who I am and what I’ve done. It’s just a great feeling to be appreciated like that.


MT: You became friends with Elvis Presley in Vegas. What do you remember about those times?


Jones: I was at Caesar’s Palace and Elvis was at the Hilton. We used to work a month at a time in those days, and when he was finished with his engagement, he would stay on a few nights to watch my shows. One night, I came off stage and he was there in my dressing room. He said, "Tom, I have this song I want you to hear!" I said, "Great! Let me just jump in the shower quick and I’ll be out and we’ll have a listen." So I’m in the shower, washing my hair, and I can suddenly hear Elvis Presley singing. I thought "I must be going nuts"... but when I opened my eyes, he was leaning over the shower door, singing to me! It was unbelievable! He couldn’t wait for me to get out of the shower! To be honest with you, I don’t know what song it was. There was an echo going on in the shower and Elvis mumbling. But I thought the experience was better than the song itself.

In all our meetings, I must say there never was a time that was really crazy. We talked about music most of the time. Or he’d be singing. He’d have his vocal group and his keyboard player up in the suite at the Hilton, and we’d sing gospel songs all night. He was a private man; he wasn’t really a wild guy, not in my presence. When he was wild, it was when he was onstage. In the ’50s when I was a teenager and watched Elvis, he was the one who went onstage and moved as he sang. The thing that got me was that he just let it all hang out and he just threw it at all the people on and off the stage. He wasn’t scared. He wasn’t inhibited, and that rubbed off on me. It gave me confidence to get onstage and dance as well as sing. That came from watching him.

MT: Apparently that respect went both ways …

Jones: Elvis loved "Delilah." He put that record on to warm up before his shows. He thought that my version — which was the original — was so powerful that if he could sing it, then he was ready to go onstage. That was a big compliment to me from Elvis.


MT: You reportedly have some strange stories about Milton Berle.

Jones [laughs hard]: Well, Milton Berle was very well-endowed and he was known for it. He had this "big thing," right? So they were trying to do a version of Top Of The Pops in L.A. and I had a song called "I’m Never Going To Fall In Love Again," a big ballad in the ’60. I was doing this song on the set and I’ll never forget it. In between takes, Milton Berle walks onto the set and his opening line to me was "Do you want to see my cock?" So I said, ‘Yeah, sure. Come on!" And he showed it to me, on the set! I think he was taken by surprise because nobody had ever said "OK" And then he just walked away! He used to do a lot of that with me. Sometimes he would just call and tell me a joke and then hang up. But if he was close, he would come in personally.

One day I was in Miami and I’m singing at a big hotel down there, the Fontainebleau. So one afternoon, I’m in the suite having lunch with the fellas that worked for me, and a knock came at the suite door. My bodyguard got up and went to the door and said "It’s Milton Berle." He walked over to me and said "I haven’t had a blow job in so long, I forgot what it tastes like!" And he walked out! He used to say outrageous things like that all the time, he wouldn’t even say "Hello." He’d just throw this outrageous joke out and then he’d leave


MT: Was your TV variety show where the whole "throwing the lingerie thing started? Or was there an earlier genesis of that bizarre ritual that still exists today?

Jones: The first time was at the Copacabana in New York. The band was up on risers, but the performer would be on the same level as the audience — you know, right on the dance floor. So the tables and chairs were all around you. When I was performing, women would throw me table napkins because I was sweating. Well, there was this one woman, I saw her fiddling around and all of a sudden, there was this underwear, and she handed it to me to wipe my brow! Which I did. I then handed it back to her and said, "Watch you don’t catch cold!"

MT: How did you come to cover "I’m Alive!’? You certainly own that song now, as much as you own "It’s Not Unusual," "What’s New Pussycat?" or "She’s A Lady."

Jones: There was another version other than the Tommy James and the Shondells recording that I heard. By some obscure band. I can’t think of the kid’s name but he’s not a well-known person. It was more up-tempo, more of the way I’ve done it. I give it a bit of a stick and pump it up a bit and I open my shows with it now. That’s my entrance.

Tom Jones plays Sunday, July 12, at Freedom Hill Amphitheatre, 14900 Metropolitan Pkwy, Sterling Heights; 586-979-7010.

Amy Yokin writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]