What’s New, Pussycat? Tom Jones, Gospel Singer

He’s 70 years old. He once competed with the Beatles and The Rolling Stones on the music charts, and his most recent disc was kept from No. 1 in England by Eminem. He’s a knight, and he recorded a song by Prince.

Who is Tom Jones?

To many music fans, the Welshman who sang “It’s Not Unusual” and “Delilah” is just that – a trivia question. Jones is an old-school showman who emerged in the music world at precisely the time that began to be dismissed as a value, and it has handicapped him ever since in terms of critical respect.

Photo: AP Photo
Help for Heroes concert, Twickenham Stadium, London, UK

His recently released disc of gospel tunes suggests his voice shouldn’t be overlooked. Praise and Blame draws inspiration from his days as a boy hearing Mahalia Jackson on the radio. The songs, ranging from a ferocious version of John Lee Hooker’s “Burning Hell” to Bob Dylan’s searching “What Good Am I,” don’t always work, but the project is a brave left turn.

He proposed it as an alternative when his British record company wanted an album of holiday music. Veteran Ethan Johns produced, with keyboard player Booker T. Jones and singer Gillian Welch contributing their talents.

Elvis Presley often invited Jones to his suite to sing gospel songs when they were both performing in Las Vegas. Presley would say, “Why don’t you record that?” Jones recalled. “I said, `I will one day.'”

Jones had his doubters, even within his own record company.

Britain’s Sunday Times reported this summer that David Sharpe, an executive at Island Records in Britain, wondered in an e-mail whether the disc was a “sick joke.” The missive, which was leaked to the media, reportedly quoted Sharpe saying that “we did not invest a fortune in an established artist” to get hymns.

“The thing that I didn’t like about it, more than anything else, is that they said he was the vice president of the company … and he’s on the accounting side,” Jones said. “Whatever he thought has no bearing on it, and the people don’t know that.”

Jones greeted with a profanity media speculation that the leaked e-mail was a publicity stunt. “How can you get good press from a negative thing?” he asked.

The disc is already a gold record in England, where it debuted at No. 2 in the British album charts. The going is slower in the United States, where it has sold about 20,000 copies since a July 22 release. Lost Highway Records here is pitching Praise and Blame to Americana music formats and independent record stores, said marketing executive Andy Nelson. Nelson would not comment on what was said by executives at Lost Highways’ British counterpart.

Disrespect is nothing new for Jones, who recalled one critic’s incredulous reaction upon hearing Jones’ music was featured in Martin Scorsese’s film series about the blues.

“How about listening to it before you start making jokes,” he grumbled.

The showmanship, the underwear-tossing fans, some bad choices of cover songs (“Sex Bomb”) never helped his reputation.

“He’s similar in a lot of ways to Neil Diamond, someone who started out with a fair amount of credibility and moved over into this corny shtick,” said Anthony DeCurtis, a Rolling Stone contributing editor and University of Pennsylvania writing instructor. “Back then it meant more than it means now.”

Jones is a singer, not a songwriter, and his career took off around the same time as Dylan, who profoundly changed the landscape.

“It’s shortsighted and a little ridiculous: Someone who sings well does have something to say. But at that moment it felt important that people did write their own material,” DeCurtis said.

Jones believes that his staying power and his voice, a formidable instrument barely diminished by time, are worthy of respect. He never thought poor choices in cover songs would overshadow his talent. “I thought my vocal power would dominate, instead of `You know, Tom, if you want to be taken serious, why are you wearing those tight pants?'” he said.

“To me, singing is like when an actor takes a role,” he said. “You’ve got to get inside that role, you’ve got to give it personality. It’s like a mini-film, a song is to me. You’ve got to get inside it and put your personality into it and make people believe it.”

He’s got a suitcase of great stories, like when he thought Burt Bacharach was joking when he first asked Jones to record “What’s New Pussycat.”

There was the night he met Paul McCartney in a club and asked if he would write a song for him. A week later, McCartney sent one over, with the requirement that Jones record it as his next single. Jones was good to go, but his management didn’t want a last-minute change in plans to release another song.

Thus, “The Long and Winding Road” became the Beatles’ last single before their breakup and not a Tom Jones song.

Photo: AP Photo
Glastonbury Festival, Somerset, England

Even though Eminem kept him from the top spot in the charts this time, he won’t start rapping to keep up with the young competition.

“No,” he said. “There are limits. Rap is one of them.”

Then again…

“I wouldn’t be opposed to doing the singing part if someone else raps, as long as I like the song.”