Sir Thomas Jones Woodward, aka “Tom Jones”, is a singer from Pontypridd, Wales, just twelve miles north of Cardiff, the Welsh capital. Blessed with a powerful baritone voice, Jones’ singing style is reminiscent of the great American soul singers of the fifties and sixties. Married with a child before his 17th birthday, Woodward worked by day and honed his musical skills by night. In 1964, as lead singer for Tommy Scott & The Senators, he attracted the attention of producer Joe Meek, but efforts to land a recording contract were unsuccessful. However, later that year, Gordon Mills, a songwriter and fellow Welshmen, signed Woodward to a management contract, changed his name to Tom Jones, and brought him to London. Once signed with Decca Records, his second single, Mills’s own “It’s Not Unusual”, was a breakthrough hit in both Great Britain and the United States, and the catalyst for Jones’s lifetime, worldwide success as a professional singer and entertainer. In appreciation for his contribution to British society, Jones was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his “services to music” in 2006.
The Aging Sex Symbol
Tom Jones was always a mainstream performer, and never considered a rock musician. He was renowned for his sex appeal, which he and his management used to great benefit. In this wonderful early video, It is apparent that Mr. Jones is a powerfully built man. He actually looks a lot like a college roommate of mine who played football.
As his initial success waned, Jones transformed himself in a middle of the road crooner, singing popular songs from many genres. Here he sings the American country hit, “Green, Green Grass Of Home”:
For the next few years, Jones was a consistent presence on popular and easy listening radio programs. From 1969 to 1971, he even hosted a successful TV variety show. He performed regularly in Las Vegas, where he was an object of intense adulation. Women threw undergarments and hotel keys onto the stage, and Jones played to his desirous audience by dancing suggestively, or wiping sweat from his brow and gifting the soiled handkerchiefs to his admirers. A few videos online capture this nonsense, which I find rather vulgar.
Though his star faded in middle age, Jones stayed hip by interpreting new songs using contemporary instrumentation, but he would never have earned a spot in my countdown without a late career renaissance. I was surprised how effectively Jones sang the blues in Martin Scorcese’s 2003 documentary “The Blues”. When an authority like Van Morrison suggests that Tom Jones is one of his favorite singers, further research is merited, and finds that Jones has crafted a fitting culmination to his career. Two recent albums, Praise And Blame and Spirit In The Room, are gentle and thoughtful, with spare, traditional instrumentation. Jones interprets songs of a spiritual nature, that contemplate life’s great mysteries — life and death, and Heaven and Hell.
Over the past century, popular music of the English speaking world has come full circle. The formalization of peasant music into jazz and blues, and the major music forms that followed — be-bop and free jazz, rhythm and blues into guitar-based rock, electronics and computerized sounds, the incorporation of Latin and African rhythms, and the spoken word set to a beat — these innovations have exhausted the possibilities for further exploration. Like classical music before it, popular music is a finite art, and has already enjoyed its peak period of innovation.
Wikipedia states, “the Avant-garde are people or works that are experimental or innovative, particularly with respect to art, culture, and politics”. In this recent blog posting, Charles Hugh Smith argues that disruptive avant-garde movements in the arts have reached a point of diminishing returns, and that the avant-garde movement’s true concern is social innovation.
“It’s art that’s irrelevant, not the avant-garde. This is a boring age for art, mainly because of how boring the collectors are. These days collectors actually want to buy contemporary art. How boring can you get? It’s like they are buying fantastically expensive bespoke IKEA furniture for their homes. Now, art is not a bad day job if you can pull it off. I don’t begrudge anyone trying to make a living at it, like any other day job. But as day jobs go, it has no more glamour or dignity than doing public relations or corporate law. Not to mention academia! We’re all servants of the most boring and clueless ruling class in a century.
Avant-gardes, on the other hand, are always interesting, but they are not really about art, whatever some silly art school textbooks might say. Avant-gardes are about media, about social relations, about property-forms, but they are only ever incidentally or tactically concerned with art. The most interesting ones around at the moment might be about pharmacology or horticulture or even ‘business models’.”
– McKenzie Wark
To most music fans, Tom Jones will be remembered as a sexy pop singer, but these modern updates of folk songs deserve to be a significant part of his legacy. These big picture songs, with clearly sung lyrics and impeccable musicianship, are the logical conclusion to the popular music era. They are the only innovation in modern music worth preserving for posterity. In the coming century, pop music will endure in its current unimaginative form, at least for a while. The only music worth remembering will be the masters of the various instruments, the occasional jazz composition, and the rare songwriter who eloquently captures the misery of the dying Industrial Age.
Tom Jones Songs:
It’s Not Unusual, Tom Jones ★★★★
What Good Am I?, Tom Jones ★★
Burning Hell, Tom Jones ★★
Nobody’s Fault But Mine, Tom Jones ★★
Help Yourself, Tom Jones ★★
If He Should Ever Leave You, Tom Jones ★★
Hard Times, Tom Jones & Jeff Beck ★★
Sometimes We Cry, Tom Jones & Van Morrison ★★
Tower Of Song, Tom Jones ★★
If I Only Knew, Tom Jones ★
Hit Or Miss, Tom Jones ★
She’s A Lady, Tom Jones ★
In Style And Rhythm, Tom Jones ★
Goin’ Down Slow (Live), Tom Jones & Jeff Beck ★
It’s Not Unusual, Willie Bobo ★★★
It’s Not Unusual (Instrumental), Willie Bobo ★
Hard Times, Ray Charles ★★★
Hard Times, Ray Charles & David Newman ★★
Hard Times (Live), The Crusaders ★★
Goin’ Down Slow, Duane Allman ★
Goin’ Down Slow (Alt), Howlin’ Wolf ★★