Tom Jones: Time is my enemy

Tom Jones had a big hit with "It's Not Unusual" way back when. These days he's looking both back AND forward, as Mark Phillips shows us now in this Sunday Profile:
(The revised script below was broadcast July 10, 2011.)

You don't have to spend much time with Tom Jones around the green, green grass of his hometown of Pontypridd, in Wales, before two predictable things happen.

The first is, you ask him the dumb but irresistible question: "Does the old town look the same?"

"It looks the same from up here, I must say," he replied.

The other predictable event is that, before long . . . in this case while reminiscing in the chapel where he went to Sunday school . . . he'll break into song.

"Yea, yea, I wasn't expecting to sing today but ... anyway, 'The Old Rugged Cross':

On a hill, far away,
Stood an old rugged cross,
The emblem of suffering and shame,
But I love that old cross,
Where the dearest and best
Of a world of lost sinners were slain,
I will cling to the old rugged cross,
Where my trophies at last I lay down.
I will cling to the old rugged cross
And exchange it someday, for a crown.

Tom Jones - Sir Tom Jones - is now 71, and he's feeling a little nostalgic.

He's come a long way from Pontypridd, the town in the Welsh coal mining valleys where he was born. But in a lot of ways, including musically, he's coming home.

Watch Web exclusive video interview with Tom Jones

His latest album has shocked his fans and surprised the critics.

What good am I if I'm like all the rest,
If I just turn away, when I see how you're dressed,
If I shut myself off so I can't hear you cry,
What good am I?

The most recent Tom Jones CD is almost a repudiation of the glitzy pop career he's enjoyed for five decades. It's a return to the simple ways and musical values that he grew up with.

"My father was a coal miner, and both his brothers were coal miners," Jones said.

And Tom, too, seemed destined for a working life down the mines. It was not only good steady work; it was just about the only work.

Tom visited the house where he was born, in 1940, as Tommy Woodward. And he would have followed the predicted path if not for an accident of health.

"Oh yeah, I would have been a coal miner, I would think, if I hadn't had tuberculosis when I was 12," Jones said. "But my dream was always to be a professional singer. You know, I always had that, since I was a child."

For two years he was confined to a room in a house around the corner, where the family had moved. Recovering from TB turned into the best bad thing that ever happened to him.

The doctors told him, "'Whatever you do, you cannot go down the coal mine,' because of my lungs," Jones said.

Tom's lungs - and what they allowed him to do with a song - became a ticket to a whole other life.

After trying to get a break playing the pubs and working men's clubs of Wales, he cut a demo tape of a song that was supposed to be for another singer. But when the record company executives heard it, they knew it had to be his.

It became an international hit.

Not just a star, but a style was born . . . the Tom Jones style.

Other musical tastes could come and go, but Tom Jones belting it out would always be there.

His TV show - "This is Tom Jones" - was a living room favorite in the late Sixties and early Seventies on both sides of the Atlantic.

He was more than just a singer, of course; he was a sex symbol . . . famously the target on stage of women throwing their underpants at him.

Now, older, and finally greyer, he regrets ... nothing.

"I've always felt myself as being a serious singer," Jones said, "even if . . . "

"You were doing 'Sex Bomb'?" Philips added.

"Well, yeah, or 'What's New Pussycat?' which was a novelty song. But I've always sang it in the best way that I know how. I put myself in to it.

"But then you can be shooting yourself in the foot because then if you get a hit with a song that if you don't want to be known as a 'sex' symbol, then don't record 'Sex Bomb.' So at the time I wasn't really aware of it, but it has had an effect."

"But it's not like you ran away and hid from it," said Phillips.

"No, no, no, no, no, no. I've done what I've done and I've recorded what I've recorded and I have no regrets in that area because I've done It. So I've only myself to blame!"

"Praise and Blame" is the title of his latest CD. And when Tom performs numbers from it, his audience - old and new - responds, if not quite in the way they used to.

He's dialed back a bit. But then, he's had to.

"It would be silly to try and be 35 or 40, maybe even 50. You can't. There is no way and if you do then you're going to look silly. And people are going to take you less seriously than when you're a young person.

"It's to do with age, there's no getting away from it," he said. "Maybe I'm trying to."

"You're not going soft on us?" Phillips asked.

"Ohhh no, no, no, no. It's not soft. There's nothing really soft on this album. These songs are strong songs."

Going up the stairs at the house in Pontypridd, Jones remarked how steep they are. "Good God, these are steep. I can't remember them being like that."

So much has changed for Tom Jones from that front room in that small rented house where he was born. And here's a way to measure it: There was no indoor toilet back then.

"Ahh no, just out there," he pointed.

A lot different from a life of world tours and Las Vegas lounges and a big house in L.A.

"Can I ask you another indelicate question? Do you have any idea how many bathrooms you have in your house now?" Phillips asked.

"Urrr, the house in L.A., has about . . . Hmm, let me see . . . are there . . . 6, 7?"

Well, I guess that's a measure of something. For Tom Jones, it's a way to measure the passage of time.

"Some people say I can't stop. If I stopped working I'd die," Philips said. "Are you afraid to stop?"

"Um, yeah. I mean, I dread the day. Time is my enemy. Time will catch up with me vocally. And I dread that. I dread to think about life without singing.

"It's a wonderful feeling to get on stage and pour all this stuff out and for people to go, 'Yeah!'"

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