Tom Jones, 60 And Sexy

After 35 Years, Performer Still Draws Swoons

So just when does an aging sex icon hang up the leather pants, put away the gold chains and start to act his age? If he's Tom Jones, the answer is never.

He's a grandfather now. But you wouldn't know it, for after 35 years on stage, he's out there singing love songs that still make women scream and swoon. And as 60 Minutes II Correspondent Vicki Mabrey discovered in this 1999 interview, a new generation is embracing him, silk shirts and all.

Tom Jones is not a complicated man. He's a night owl who requires three simple things: A tour bus, a stage and a lot of applause. Born Thomas Jones Woodward in 1940, the son and grandson of Welsh coal miners, Jones always knew his destiny was not underground.

"Music, always in music, always," he says. "Anytime I could sing then I could shine, and I thought, I've got to be a singer. I've got to go the whole way with this thing."

In Jones' native land of Wales, residents are known by their profession. Neighbors call him "Jones the Voice," or "Jones the Trousers." And at his concerts these days, you'll see three generations acting like teen-agers: grandmothers cheering, granddaughters dancing, and men, probably wishing they had the sensual spirit and masculine moves that have made Jones an icon.

"I have to prove I can do it as good now as I ever did," says Jones. "I have to hammer; I have to do it hard, for myself as much as for the audience....It's proving a point."

The kids are listening because he's singing their kind of music. In the last 10 years, Jones has shed his lounge-lizard skin and become a bridge between generations.

"He rocks; he still has it vocally, the energy; he's got it all," says one enthused twenty-something. Another says, "I've been in love with the man since I was 12 years old, and I'll follow him wherever he goes, and I hope he never, ever, ever stops singing."

Jones doesn't write his own songs, and he doesn't play any instruments. He takes the music that others have written or performed and attacks it with maturity and a voice that he says gets better with age.

"It's gotten bigger, fatter, gotten more weight to it," Jones explains. "But that comes with experience; it comes with life."

"I don't think you can sing about certain things when you're a teen-ager or in your early 20s, because you haven't lived long enough. So I think living gives you character and that comes out in your voice," he says.

"I love singing. I have to do it. It's a thing I have to do. I can't help myself. It's like a drug," Jones says.

Performing is the only drug he's ever needed, as his high comes from playing to sold-out houses all over the world, he says. And his fans are committed, even though he hasn't had a major hit in years.

Traveling by night and sleeping by day, Jones performs more than 200 concerts each year, scheduled by his manager and only child, Mark Wooward.

Jones' performances don't require a great deal of preparation. He spends just an afternoon rehearsing before a tour; he doesn't need to know the layout of the stage; he doesn't need a run-through with the band.

He's the ultimate professional, and the lineup is carefully planned: two hours, 27 songs and a crowd-pleasing blend of old and new.

His international celebrity came after an extremely difficult adolescence. Jones was forced to spend two years indoors when he contracted tuberculosis. Then when he was a hell-raising teen-ager, his girlfriend Melinda became pregnant, and he ended up a husband and a father at age of 16. He and Melinda are still married, though he admits the flame has faded over time.

"I think teen-age love is a great thing," says Jones. "There's nothing quite like it and never will be for the rest of your life."

"It changes over the years because you get older, you know, and you're not as physically attracted to one another as you used to be," he observes.

As Jones' career took off, his wife and child were kept hidden in the background since they didn't help his sexy single-guy image. Now, Jones says, his wife won't give interviews and dislikes being in the public eye.

His first manager also steered him away from his true musical love - rhythym and blues - toward more commerical pop songs.

In the 1970s, Jones' career took a turn for the better with his hit television show. Even though he managed to sneak on some of his idols, like Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, he became enduringly mainstream.

He was a sex symbol for women of a certain age who came armed with underwear to throw. And that tradition has never ended. He plays it up if he's in the mood, but he can get defensive about it.

"Some people have said, 'Well you didn't have a lot of underwear tonight did you?'" he says.

"Is that what you judge me on? I mean what was the show like? You know, what was I singing like? I shouldn't be gauged on that and that's the problem."

The underwear ritual is not the only thing unchanged since his younger years. Jones still insists that when he sings, it's like making love to the whole audience.

"I want them to be as excited as they possibly can be, or as emotional as they can be. Then I know that I have gotten myself across to those people," Jones says. "And it's the same as being one on one with somebody, although there is a lot of people."

Over the years, Jones has come to have a reputation as a man who loves women, saturating his performances with the suggestion of sex.

Back in the '70s and well into the '80s, he was labeled a crooner. He wasn't recording, and his career was stagnant. But in 1988, his son Mark stepped in to revive his career with a remake of the Prince song "Kiss." It was then that he found a new audience: the MTV generation.

"What 'Kiss' did, it got it away from, it removed anybody that was iffy abut Tom Jones. You either got it or you didn't, and I think that's what made it grow. It really focused again on what he can do," says his son.

Jones currently lives in Los Angeles, but his heart will always be in his native land. When he returns to Wales, his concerts are like rituals of worship. Like an old- fashioned troubadour, he gives his audience exactly what they want.