Some performers make a splash and fade quickly. Others have long careers that taper off. The Welsh singer born Thomas John Woodward, known around the world as Tom Jones, boasts one of the longest careers in music, with divergences and new permutations that keep him in the spotlight year after year. He’s reinvented himself when the need has arisen, and he still knows how to swing the lead. The fairly remarkable career of Tom Jones began in earnest 55 years ago today with the release of his debut album, Along Came Jones, or, as it’s since been retitled, It’s Not Unusual.
Born the son of a coal miner and his wife in 1940, Woodward got interested in singing at an early age, performing at school and weddings. Tuberculosis kept him bedridden for the better part of two years beginning when he was 12, during which he spent a great deal of time listening to music. In his teens, Woodward cultivated a number of his early blues and American rock and roll influences, including Elvis, Little Richard, and Jackie Wilson. When his girlfriend, Linda, became pregnant when they were 16, the two married.
By 1963, he was fronting a band called Tommy Scott and the Senators. Gordon Mills, a manager out of London, saw the group and recruited the singer, taking him to the city and giving him the stage name “Tom Jones.” Mills enabled Jones to land a deal with Decca Records; his second single, released in January of 1965, would become the centerpiece of his first album and an international hit. That song was “It’s Not Unusual.” It went to #10 in the U.S. and #1 in the U.K. The press lumped Jones in with the ongoing British Invasion of groups like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and Jones was soon appearing on American television. His May 1965 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show was timed with the release of the Along Came Jones album, which hit stores on May 21, 1965.
Mills made quick work of getting Jones in front of audiences across media. He set Jones up to sing the title tunes for the films What’s New, Pussycat? and the James Bond installment Thunderball. Jones won the Best New Artist Grammy in 1966. Around this time, Jones began shifting his repertoire, singing songs that would qualify as rock, blues, country, or easy listening as the venue or notion suited it. The strategy kept him from being tied to a single style and kept him active on the charts in a number of countries.
Tom Jones dueting with Janis Joplin on This is Tom Jones in 1969. (Uploaded to YouTube by Tom Jones)
In 1967, Jones “discovered” Las Vegas as a lucrative recurring performance location. By then, he’d become good friends with Elvis and the two frequently met up in the city. In a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone, Jones recalled meeting Elvis; he said, ““He said to me, ‘How the hell do you sing like that?’ And I said, ‘Listening to you, for one thing.’” Over time, Jones would focus more on the financially rewarding big ticket shows and less time in the recording studio. Between the late 1960s and 2011, Jones performed at least one show in the city every week. In 1969, Jones crossed over to television success with the variety program This is Tom Jones, which lasted until 1971.
Jones saw his popularity wax and wane in the 1970s, but he scored lasting hits like “She’s a Lady” and “Say You’ll Stay Until Tomorrow.” For the first half of the 1980s, Jones focused on country music, producing a number of hits in the genre. After Mills died in 1986, Jones’s son Mark took over the singer’s managerial duties. Jones re-emerged on the pop charts in a big way in 1988 when he teamed up with the synth group Art of Noise to cover Prince’s Kiss. The song went Top 40 in the U.S., Top 5 in the U.K., and won Jones and Art of Noise the MTV Video Music Award for Breakthrough Video for their effects-laden clip. The following year saw Jones receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Jones was also introduced to yet another generation of fans when “It’s Not Unusual” became the official song of “The Carlton” on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air; Jones even made a guest appearance on an episode.
Even with the huge changes in music in the 1990s, Jones managed to stay current. His album The Lead and How to Swing It was a hit in 1993. He played himself in a memorable scene in Mars Attacks! and continued to record music for films like The Full Monty. His 1999 duets album Reload included partners like his contemporary Van Morrison, but also younger acts like Stereophonics and Portishead; it sold 4 million copies around the world, went #1 in the U.K., and served up five U.K. Top 40 singles. Jones never slowed down in the 2000s, and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2006 for contributions to music. In a 2016 interview with The Washington Post, Jones talked about his substantial amount of cover songs and how he interprets other people’s work; he said, “You can’t lose the essence of a song. I try to enhance it more than anything else. Some of them are similar to the original, but not a copy . . . You’ve got to kick them around a bit to see what can you add to it or do something different to it, so you’re just not copying something somebody has already done.”
Since 2012, Jones has been one of the coaches on the popular U.K. version of the singing contest show The Voice. Jones’s wife Linda, Lady Woodward, died in 2016 from cancer. Though Jones famously philandered through many years of their union, they had remained married for 59 years. Their only child was Mark, though Jones did father another son during an extramarital affair in the 1980s.
Tom Jones occupies a unique space in the musical continuum. He’s sold over 100 million records and has produced work that extends to nearly every popular genre, including gospel. He’s released an impressive number of albums and singles, but those numbers pale compared to the sheer amount of live performances he’s done in his career. He’s shown a mad talent for reinvention that’s only outmatched by the power of his still mighty baritone. It’s tempting to ask what he might do next, but it’s not unusual for Jones to do the unexpected.
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