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TOM JONES IS FROM THE HIP

Tom Jones doesn't just have fans. He has devotees. Most of his ardent followers are women over 30. Linda Tinkler of St. Petersburg is one of them. In 20 years, she has seen the Welsh heartthrob in concert more than 100 times. She owns every album, every single, a cache of private tapes, lots of collectibles. She has 70 of Jones' TV appearances on tape. Tinkler is not alone.

"I've met so many wonderful people at Tom's shows who are just as

enthusiastic as I am," she says, but adds that she has her fan-dom in

perspective: "It falls into the category of a fantasy. You know it's never going to come true, so you keep it at arm's length."

Tom Jones is a lucky performer. His devotees never waver. The lusty-voiced singer has not exactly dominated the pop charts in the past two decades, but he stays busy performing for sold-out audiences in the gambling meccas and concert halls around the world.

Jones can't say exactly why his fans are so fervent, but he thinks it has something to do with him being a regular fellow. "I try to be as natural as possible," he said in a recent phone interview. "I do not put on airs and graces. Some entertainers go out of their way to be polished. With me, there's a rawness in there."

Jones, six months shy of his 50th birthday and a 25-year music veteran, still gets plenty of mileage out of his sexy, virile image. "If you sing sexy songs you should have that label," says the man who still mops his brow with lady's lingerie on stage. "If you don't, you're not getting across. The only thing I wouldn't want to happen is to let the image side overshadow the music."

Above all, Jones views himself as a musician, a singer. His voice is a powerful bellow, imbued with a fair helping of soul. He has been singing as far back as he can remember - back to Pontypridd, South Wales, where he inherited his father's voice and his mother's lack of inhibition. Young Tom would always oblige with a song.

Welsh culture celebrates singing. "You could have a night of entertainment in the pubs without ever having to book anybody," Jones says. "If you want to get across to those people, you have to do what they do, but do it better - or different. A lot of today's pop singers, if they were born where I was, would have never even gotten on stage. They wouldn't have held the audience."

It was clear early on that Thomas Jones Woodward was something special, even in Wales. He started his career singing and playing guitar in working men's clubs. Although he learned all kinds of tunes, from saloon sing-alongs to cabaret standards, his heart was in rhythm and blues and early rock 'n' roll.

One night some guys in town buttonholed Jones to front their band for a YMCA dance. It opened his eyes. "I realized that I could do much more with a band than I could just playing guitar," Jones says.

With his new group, Jones went back to work at the pubs, where rock 'n' roll was about as welcome as a cup of warm milk. "It was a bit of a job at first getting a rock band into these places," he says. "You had to learn your pacing. Sneak some rock 'n' roll in there."

One night, Jones was discovered by Gordon Mills, a fledgling songwriter who soon became his manager. At 24, Jones moved to London, wife and child in tow. He started by singing demonstration records at Leeds Music. Mills penned a song called It's Not Unusual and was going to pitch it to pop singer Sandy Shaw.

Jones heard the tune and knew "this was it." It's Not Unusual had a fitful start. Several arrangements were tried: a rhythm section with a Hammond organ, a Brazilian feel. "We needed something to hit it off the top," Jones recalls, "And somehow the idea came up to use brass.

Brass was unusual at the time (1965). The charts were dominated by rock bands and guitars."

The bold, bouncy It's Not Unusual is one of the great pop singles.

But BBC radio in England didn't hear it that way at first. "They thought it wasn't in vogue," Jones says. A pirate station based in a boat off the coast of England began playing the song - the humble beginnings of an international hit.

Jones followed with Burt Bacharach's theme for the film What's New

Pussycat?, and his fate as a adult-oriented entertainer was cast. "I was still thinking that these songs were getting me forward, then I'd change to rock 'n' roll," Jones says. It never happened.

Jones finally scored his rock hit in 1988 when he covered Prince's Kiss with the British techno-dance duo Art of Noise. After two decades of shaking his stuff for casino crowds and an ill-fated stretch of making country albums, Jones showed that he could still come up with something hip. It's because he never got fat and lazy, never took his audience for granted, never stopped pressing forward.

It's also because, Jones says a trifle defiantly, "I can still sing rock 'n' roll."

AT A GLANCE Tom Jones at Ruth Eckerd Hall on Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $31 and $28, available through the Eckerd Hall box office. To charge by phone, call 791-7400 in Pinellas; 854-1538 in Hillsborough;

collect from other parts of the state.

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