Tom Jones (sorry, Sir Tom Jones) is nothing less than a pop music icon. The 81-year-old Welshman has had a decades-long career after first hitting it big in the ’60s with legendary hits like “What’s New Pussycat,” “She’s A Lady,” and “Delilah.” Jones went on to host his own musical variety series, and he remained within the pop culture conversation with covers like Prince’s “Kiss” with Art Of Noise in 1988, and appearances on sitcoms like The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, where “It’s Not Unusual” functioned as Carlton’s unofficial theme song.
Currently, the hard-working octogenarian is a judge on the U.K. version of The Voice. He’s also just released a new album, Surrounded By Time, with creative renditions of well-known songs like Noel Harrison’s “Windmills Of Your Mind” and Bob Dylan’s “One More Cup Of Coffee.” Sometimes the tracks even seem to be veering into 4AD territory, but as Jones explains the experimentation to The A.V. Club, “I wanted... to experiment in sound, even though a lot of the songs had been done before. They were going to sound different and the arrangements were going to be very, very important.”
Surrounded By Time entered the U.K. album charts at No. 1, making Jones the oldest man to claim a No. 1 album on the Official Albums Chart, and the oldest artist ever to do so with an album of new material. Naturally, he’s planning a tour: “I haven’t come out of retirement or anything. I’m doing shows. The only thing that stopped me was this lockdown situation… So we’re going to start with Great Britain, do a lot of British shows, from the middle of July up until about October. And then, Europe and America, of course, comes after that.”
Jones is famous for his connection with his audience: “I won’t be satisfied with this album completely until I do the songs live,” he says. “The audience is all-important. You know, all roads lead to the stage. That’s where I live, on the stage.” It was an honor for The A.V. Club to run our 11 Questions past Sir Tom, who is just as charming as his many years of success would suggest.
Tom Jones: Well, I come from South Wales, you see, which is part of Great Britain. We used to go to the seaside. There’s a place called Barry Island, and even though it wasn’t all that far away, we went on the train. And then you’d see the fairground as you were coming into the station. There was a thing called the scenic railway, which is like the Big Dipper. So I always used to get very excited when I would see that, because you could see it from a long way away.
Those were the most exciting trips that we used to go on as kids, because I was born during the Second World War. So you couldn’t really go to the seaside in the early years. But then again, I was 5 years old when the war ended. So after that, it was very exciting because you could go to the beach. That’s the first thing I remember would be going to Barry Island and the fairground especially. I used to love that Big Dipper. After being in a blackout and coming out of the war, it was a big, big deal. Just to go to the seaside was a big deal.
2. What’s something that’s considered a basic part of your current career that you struggled to learn?
TJ: No, no. [Laughs.] Because I was singing since I was a kid, I sang in school. I sang in chapel. I started singing in pubs when I was a teenager. So I was getting myself ready to get a hit record and to get on the television. It was all what I expected. So there was nothing, really.
Oh, the one thing, though, I must admit now, coming to think of it—because nobody’s asked me this question before—was the prices of things. I’d never been in a fine restaurant before I had my first hit record. So when I would go into a fine restaurant, I would look at the menu and think, my god, coming from Wales, you could live for a week—my mother and father and my sister and myself—for what they were charging for a three-course meal. Moneywise, we could make that stretch for a week. So that was a hard thing for me to grasp at the beginning, was the prices of things.
3. Did you pick up any new skills, hobbies, or get into something you hadn’t before during quarantine?
TJ: Not new ones. I sort of listened to a lot of albums and things that I had accumulated over the years that I hadn’t gotten a chance to get to yet. So I was catching up on some reading books that I have on my shelf, thinking, “Well, I’ll get to that one day.” I had more time to to do things like that. So it was sort of catching up on things really.
And of course, learning the lesson constantly about not taking life for granted. As a learning thing, my god, you go to restaurants and you’re with people and you think, “Wow, this is life,” until you have it taken away. But see, I had a taste of that when I was 12 years old because I had tuberculosis. I was quarantined for two years in my house in Wales. I used to see the kids playing in the street from my window, but I couldn’t go out and play with them. So I sympathize with kids through this lockdown situation that they couldn’t go and do what they normally do because I know what that’s like. It’s very important when you’re young, to to be able to do things like that. So I learned to appreciate things with this lockdown thing, because I had a taste of it before.
4. What restaurant do you not live near, but make a point to hit every time you’re in the right town?
TJ: Well, it all depends where I am. When I’m on the road, which takes me all over the world, I like to sample local food. Because I love food, maybe a little too much, but I do love it. So if I’m in Japan, of course, sushi is a big deal, but I eat sushi anyway. If I’m in Germany I’ll eat German food, and France of course. Of course! So I like to sample, but if I haven’t been to a city before, I’ll find out which represents wherever I am the best—not just a tourist place, somewhere, but I do what I can to find out what the local people eat. I like to do that.
TJ: Time travel. I don’t know about going forward, but I’d like to go back and see the stories that I heard about. And I’m a big historian. When I was at school, I loved history. So I’d like to be able to go and see what it really looked like or what we read about: Is it an accurate description of what life was like before? That would be interesting. And we can’t do that at the moment. But it would be nice if we could. Not so much going forward. But looking back at stuff, that I would be really interested in.
AVC: Is there a specific time period you’d like to go back to?
TJ: A lot of them, to find out what it was like when the Romans came to Britain, how powerful they were, taking over all of Europe like they did. What influences they had and what life was like before. What was Celtic life like in Britain and across the continent, because the Celts lived all across Europe. Because when we were in school, we only got the Roman account of what it was like. And what was it like when the Vikings invaded? We could only get what people wrote down. So it’s finding out what was true and what what we think was true, but maybe not.
TJ: Well, I learned something: that the bigger the entertainer was, the nicer they seemed to be, the more relaxed they were, the more sure of themselves. I realized that the ones that had not quite made it, or maybe they thought they should have made it and then they didn’t quite do it, they’re the ones that tried to put you down sometimes. They don’t give a lot of encouragement to people because they’ve got an ax to grind, you see. But the ones that really made it… like Elvis Presley was a gentleman. Frank Sinatra was a gentleman. Sammy Davis was a gentleman. And some of the comedians, Milton Berle—I got to know him. All those old comedians, they were so funny and relaxed. They were all nice. They all really lived up to the expectations that I had of them when I was a kid. To see Bing Crosby and Bob Hope in those Road movies, I got to meet them, you see. They were all wonderful people, too. So it was reassuring to me that show business doesn’t really change a person. It only brings out what what was there to begin with. I realized that early on because of these lovely people that I was meeting. So I was never really disappointed, to be honest with you, by any of the big stars that I met. They all lived up to it.
AVC: You’ve met so many famous people, was there anyone who really intimidated you or that you were scared to meet?
TJ: The queen. So the queen, she’ll make you shake. I don’t care who it is. She doesn’t mean to, but she does. I mean, to me, if you’re a royalist. I remember Sammy Davis telling me the only time he heard Nat King Cole, Mr. Cool, the only time he heard him sort of go [Yelps.] when he was singing was when he did a Royal Command Performance for the queen. She could, just by being there, to me anyway. If you’ve got any problems, you better make sure that you know what you’re doing before you step out there. Because that’s the biggest deal that I have ever come up against, I think the most scary thing, was doing that first royal show, at the London Palladium. Live television, and the queen is up there in that box. If you don’t twitch then, nothing will make you twitch after that. [Laughs.]
AVC: What was it like then to actually get knighted ?
TJ: I got my OBE, first of all, which was the Order Of The British Empire. That’s a medal that I got in the ’90s. And I thought that that would be it. But then when they said, “You’re being considered for knighthood,” I thought, “My god, do I have to change anything? Do I have to change my ways? Have I got to straighten up?” I didn’t know what that means. So it was a little difficult to accept the fact that it was happening. But once it happens—once she puts the sword on your shoulders—you know, that’s it. It’s a big deal. That’s the biggest thing that’s happened to me in my life.
TJ: Working long hours in a paper mill. Because I got married when I was 16 years old. So I had to work these long hours in this paper mill to make money, because I had a son and I had to hold this job down until I was 21. So from the time I was about 17 to 21, I had to put up with a lot of shit from people because I was getting a man’s wage, because I could do the job. So that’s the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to do. They called it a paper mill, but it was actually a cording mill. They used to do 12-hour shifts, and that was hard.
TJ: I don’t know. I always like to read facts, anyway. I’m not big into fiction. If I read books, I have more interest in things that really, really happened. So I’ve never really thought about belonging to a fictional family.
AVC: What about a historical family?
TJ: I don’t know, because I don’t really know what they were like. And being born a royal, I think that’s a big chore, you know what I mean? You think, “Oh, wouldn’t it be great to be a prince or the king?” But that’s a big job. I don’t think I’d like that. No, no. I’m happy where I am, thank you. I was born to a working-class family, and that’s fine with me. So I don’t want to be a member of a fictional family.
9. What’s the first piece of art, or earliest piece of media, that inspired you to go into your field?
TJ: I come from a lot of aunties and uncles and cousins and all the kids could sing. So we would be asked in any family gatherings to sing. I loved it because it was easy. I felt it was the most natural thing for me to do was to get up there. And all children, they love to show off a bit, and that was my way of showing off. I felt I had something that the other kids didn’t have. I knew that I was singing in a different way to the average kids that were around. So that was the time I realized that singing was a part of my life. And if I could become a professional singer, that would be it for me. So I aimed at that since I was a child. I knew that I was put on this earth to sing, and that’s what I do, thank god.
AVC: You’re a big record collector. Do you remember the first records that you bought?
TJ: It was when I was a teenager. We had records at home, but my parents would buy those. I had a blind uncle and he had a record collection. But that’s when I really took it seriously about collecting records, in 1955 when rock ’n’ roll first came out. So you know, when you were younger, you don’t have a lot of money. You think, “Well, I can buy a single this week, but which single will that be?” So the first purchase, it was a song by a man called Clyde McPhatter, and he had a song called “Treasure Of Love,” and that was the first one that I bought. And that was quickly followed by “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” by Jerry Lee Lewis and “Heartbreak Hotel” by Elvis Presley. “Rip It Up” was my first Little Richard. I had all those early ones, you see. But the first one was “Treasure Of Love,” Clyde McPhatter.
TJ: Well, Milton Berle, who has passed on now. I would say Mel Brooks is the funniest person that I know now that’s still alive. Because when I had a hip replacement in the hospital, he called me every day telling me, you know, “How’re you feeling?” But he’d say something funny to make me laugh. Because he knew I was in pain. So I would say Mel Brooks. Yes.
AVC: What would he say when he called you?
TJ: At the end of a lot of calls, he’d sort of say, “Are you in pain now?” I said, “Yeah, I am.” And he said, “Well, you see, those doctors, they lie because they say, ‘Oh, you’re going to be up walking in four days.’ Bullshit. You just got a new hip.” And I think he had the same thing. He never told me how many things he had done, but he’d gone through things himself. Then at the end of the conversation, sometimes he’d say, “So you’re feeling all right now, are you?” And I say, “Yeah, yeah, I’m good. Thanks a lot.” And he goes, “Well, you know, I’ve called you again today. And I don’t know really why I call you, because I don’t even like you.” And then he slammed the phone down. [Laughs.] That’s so funny to me.
TJ: Ever since I was old enough to afford smoked salmon, I have it. If there’s bagels available, I love smoked salmon on bagels with cream cheese. But if not, I’ll just have a sandwich. So that would be my favorite would be a smoked salmon sandwich.