Tom Jones is an expert in the art of memory. You can feel it in his bluesy, rootsy new album, Long Lost Suitcase, and in his new autobiography, Over the Top and Back.
On the cover of Suitcase, and on the back of Over the Top, there's the same black-and-white photo: a young Tom Jones, then 24, in a leather jacket. Taken in summer 1964, the shot finds a casual, cool Jones - staring toward the horizon - on the precipice of fame with his first smash single, "It's Not Unusual."
Talking last week from his home in Los Angeles, Jones laughs at the memory of the photo. "I knew it was the start of something big," he says. He recalls his then-manager, Gordon Mills (who also cowrote "Unusual"), fussing with him outside his flat while a "fashion photographer" snapped the picture. "I just felt it, you know. I was like a model, though I was wearing clothes I normally wore. It just felt different, like, 'Get ready and come to grips with signing to a big label.' I was happy. It was finally happening."
Jones, 75, has an excellent memory. He used it to retrieve details for his new book: the boozy escapades of Dave Perry, his childhood buddy-turned-bodyguard; raising homing pigeons; singing loudly as a child in Wales at the weddings of his cousins. "I sang at all their parties, events, funerals, birthdays," he says. "I loved the attention." He remembers listening to British radio as a teen, and knowing that "I could sing those songs - any song, because I had versatility."
Jones says he had many offers from publishers for an autobiography, but he didn't want to focus on the trashy (rumored infidelities with groupies throughout years of having panties thrown at him) - he wanted to focus on his life as he knew it. He remembers watching a 1988 episode of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Kirk Douglas was the guest - as it happens, to discuss his autobiography, The Ragman's Son. "That was dignified," says Jones, "but Johnny didn't want to know that. He wanted to hear about the ladies. Kirk, being a gentleman, went around Johnny, said this was his rags-to-riches tale. I thought if I ever wrote my story, that's what I would do, write about what made me tick. Everything bad has been written about me already. This would be the real me, humble beginnings and all."
He also remembers Elvis Presley ("Elvis and I used to sing a lot of gospel songs together in his suite") and Las Vegas - for better and worse, especially when Jones ground his career to a halt with schmaltz.
"In the 2000s, I signed with Island, who didn't quite know what to do with me," he says, laughing. The label also was talking with producer Ethan Johns - son of Glyn Johns, engineer/producer for the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, and others - about working with their artists. "The only one he was interested in working with was me," Jones says. Johns heard something in Jones' raw, powerfully soulful voice "that has not been brought forward," he says, "the voice Gordon Mills heard in 1964, that lustful sound."
Johns went back to Jones' beginnings - singing in clubs in Cardiff - for the rough-edged albums Praise & Blame in 2010 and Spirit in the Room in 2012. Those were swaggering albums without the pomp and Technicolor arrangements of the 1960s. Gone, too, was the big beat of "Kiss," the 1988 cover of the Prince tune that Jones did with Brit synth-pop act the Art of Noise. The Ethan Johns-produced albums were Jones, naked and blunt. "This Johns," says Jones, "knew what he was doing."
Memory played a role in these albums, too, bringing Jones to find an honest-to-goodness satchel in storage that held cassettes of songs he had long wanted to cover - rugged R&B like Eddie Floyd's " 'Til My Back Ain't Got No Bone," country like Hank Williams' "Why Don't You Love Me like You Used to Do?" - tunes radically dissimilar to showier hits like "She's a Lady" and James Bond themes such as "Thunderball."
Jones says there was no pressure to rage or roar. They went back, "as I did in Wales," to singing live with a band in one room. They did Jones' selections, such as the gospelish "He Was a Friend of Mine" and latter-day Dylan like "What Good Am I?" He calls the process "liberating - hearing one great track would trigger a memory for another old tune. I did songs I always wanted to do in ways I craved. Like Lonnie Johnson's 'Tomorrow Night.' Honestly, I loved that song, but it never fit what I was up to at any given time. Same with Sonny Boy Williamson's 'Bring It on Home.' "
Recording gutsy old songs in gutsy old ways on a brand-new album, Jones is like the guy who left Cardiff in 1964: a man working two jobs, doing new things, but long married to the girl he's still with today (Linda, the mother of his son and manager, Mark). Ethan Johns "told me that the songs I had chosen for Suitcase sounded autobiographical, like a map of my life," says Jones. "Which was odd, because I was finishing the book around the same time. These were all my memories."