Every Christmas, that rare span of relaxation when he's not being pelted by catcalls and underthings, Tom Jones stops dyeing his hair. "I take about four or five weeks off, and I let my hair go," he says. When showtime rolls around, the singer darkens his 'do and hits the road. • Except this year. The Voice, it seems, has stayed gray. • "It's looking pretty good," he says, adding with a low chuckle: "But it's a lot whiter than it used to be."
The Welsh Wonder turns 69 in June. But those curls of natural silver — and ooh, are the ladies loooving those — are pretty much the only allowance he's made to Father Time. The classic belter still tours the globe most of the year, including epic stretches of sweat and thrust in Las Vegas. And during the encore of those gigs, Jones famously lifts his shirt, a flirty flash of chiseled abs that sends wives into weeee! fits and hubbies back to the gym.
"I used to jog an hour a day, but my right knee started to give me some trouble," he says. "My doctor tells me, you gotta stop pounding the pavement, even on the treadmill. So now I go down to the hotel gym, get on the elliptical machine. You sweat your b---- off, get a good workout, sign a few autographs. It's good."
This Friday, a toned, tan Mr. Jones comes to Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, where he'll hit 'em with old hits (Delilah, She's a Lady, It's Not Unusual), new hits (Sexbomb, If He Should Ever Leave You) and other people's hits that he has made his own (Kiss, You Can Leave Your Hat On). "My throat doctor said the worst thing to do is take a break," says Jones, who used to do two shows a day. "Better to do 90 minutes straight."
Even with the brutal workload and fitness regime, Jones remains a fan of the nightlife, an old-school entertainer playing the party. Calling from his home in Los Angeles, and with that thick blue-collar accent still intact and charming, Jones says, "I've always enjoyed a good drink. I love a good pint of beer, but it has to be British ale, real ale, the kind you pull from a pump. . . . I've never been involved in the drug scene. I've been to so many parties with mountains of cocaine and air thick with marijuana. But that was never for me. I've always been a drinker."
Many of Jones' stories — and he has a ton of them — start with drinks and end with laughter. He's not a name-dropper, but he is a guy's guy, a down-to-earth dude who knows what makes a good barstool story. "I used to drink with Sinatra at Caesars Palace. I have a picture hanging in my home of Sinatra with his hand on my shoulder." Could he out-drink the Chairman of the Board? Jones laughs: "I never tried! Frank loved to drink Jack Daniels with Coca-Cola."
Whether chatting on the phone or singing in the limelight, Jones' forceful below-the-belt tenor is still mighty. Last year he unveiled critically acclaimed 24 Hours, his first U.S. release in 15 years. Among a host of blue-eyed soul and high-flying moments, the disc features Sugar Daddy, a song penned by a certain Irish frontman.
"Bono and I were hanging out in a Dublin pub, a place called Lillie's Bordello. It's not a real bordello," Jones says. "We were drinking Champagne. I asked Bono to write me a song, and he said he would love to. But if he was going to do it, he said he wanted the song to be about me. He wanted to write a Tom Jones song, not a U2 song."
The grindy, swaggery Sugar Daddy is a straight-up love letter, with lyrics including I'm the last great tradition and The show must go on, what else can it do? Bono isn't the only contemporary musician who appreciates the pride of Pontypridd, Wales. 24 Hours was produced by the drum-and-bass electro duo Future Cut. In recent years, Jones has also teamed with Wyclef Jean and the Barenaked Ladies. In 1999, Jones recorded the song Sexbomb with German DJ Mousse T; that record moved more than 6 million copies.
Jones isn't quite sure why the younger generation is crushing on him these days. However, he will allow that the current pop movement of retro swing and '60s R&B is something he knows well. "Amy Winehouse, Duffy, they've been doing my stuff! That's what (producers) Future Cut said. I've been doing this stuff all along!"
A few years ago, the singer's camp started playing down the panty-throwing ritual of the Tom Jones show. They instead focused on a kitschy icon who just happens to be a brilliant singer as well. The frillies still occasionally fly — and he'll unh! and ahh! with each shot to the chest — but now more accolades come his way, too.
Case in point: On 24 Hours, Jones does a mesmerizing cover of Bruce Springsteen's broken-boxer ode The Hitter, which is essentially the summation of one man's life. To hear Jones talk about it is not just a history lesson, but also hints as to why the one-time door-to-door salesman is going strong five decades into his career. For all the glitz, all the money, all the Champagne with Bono, Jones remains a regular bloke, the humble son of a coal miner who knows when it's time to go gray.
"There's great sentiment to it. It really could be about any singer who left home. And now he's coming home and asking for his mother's forgiveness. It reminds me of Howlin' Wolf's Goin' Down Slow, which was the flip side of Smokestack Lightnin'. Goin' Down Slow was about this fella bragging about his life, all the places he had been. . . . But at the end of the song, he says please write my mama and tell her the shape I'm in. That's what The Hitter does. In the end, it's just about a guy who wants to make good with his mama. That could be any of us."
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.