GAB Archive, Redferns After a 1976 gig in Memphis, Bruce Springsteen hopped a…
- Posted on Aug 11th 2010 5:30PM by Steve Baltin
Neil Mockford, FilmMagic
'Praise & Blame' not only debuted at No. 2 in the UK, it has earned the icon some of the greatest reviews of his career, with Jones pointing out that one reviewer even said he never was a fan of the Welsh singer until this album. For Jones, who grew up on gospel and says this is an album he always wanted to make but was just never allowed to, the reviews and fan response have been some of the most rewarding of his 45-year career. But at 70, Jones is reinventing himself as an elder statesman of music, a title he's happy to take, as he shares stories of hanging with Elvis Presley, meeting the Beatles and the so much more he's seen in his storied run.
The early reviews for the record have been phenomenal. Given this is a record you wanted to make forever, how gratifying has the initial response been?
It's great; it's more than I expected. Some reviewers have said it's the best thing I've done in 20 years, and one guy said he didn't particularly like me before but finally I've recorded songs that are worthy of my voice. I knew it was going to be a good record because I knew most of the songs and I wanted to do them for a long time. And Ethan Johns, who's a great producer, produced it, the musicians we used were great, and we did it in Real World in Wiltshire[, England], which is Peter Gabriel's studio. So all the ingredients were there, but it really turned out better than I expected. I love the sound.
Even with all the ingredients there, that doesn't always translate into chemistry. So was there a moment for you where you knew it was all coming together and would be special?
Yeah, the first two we did were 'Run On,' which I knew from an Elvis Presley record, but I'd heard other recordings of it, as well, and we did 'Trouble Me.' We did those two first and then Ethan did rough mixes so they could play them to Island Records. Right from the off, once we had the roughs, I thought, "This is it, this is what I started doing when I was a young kid and I used to sing in Wales in pubs and clubs." I had a rhythm section, which in the '50s, of course, they called it a rock band. To me, the uptempo stuff on this album is rock 'n' roll and I think that's where '50s rock 'n' roll came from -- gospel and the blues and country. There's a mixture of that stuff and that's where you get early Elvis Presley records, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Those things could've been gospel songs with different lyrics. And then the ballads: I was looking for songs that were really meaningful lyrically. We used a Bob Dylan song, 'What Good Am I,' which I've loved ever since he did it, and then some of the older things like 'Ain't No Grave.' I felt that they were a really good mixture and I love singing that stuff.
Have you met Dylan over the years?
No, our paths have never crossed. But I'd like to now, especially after recording one of his songs, which I hadn't done before. I've always admired his work, I think he's one of the best writers still alive and maybe the best writer still alive. I've always loved what he's done, but this is the first chance I've gotten to record one. This one really worked as far as I was concerned because we put it into a different place. It wasn't like what Bob Dylan had done to it, or anybody else, for that matter. But 'What Good Am I' is a tremendous song; that's why I sang it low and as quiet as possible. That was Ethan's call. He said, "Why don't you try and sing this restrained?" It's not normal for me, it's a thing I have to think about. He said, "See if you can sing as quietly as possible, like you're just singing to yourself. Don't try and sell the song, only to yourself." So that's how we did that one and I thought afterwards, "Well, Christ, I'm 70 years old now and you're never too old to learn. There's always something," which I love. I love surprises and trying stuff and they turn out differently to what you're used to doing.
You say this is stuff you started out singing, but it also feels like there is a wisdom to some of the heavier stuff. So is this an album you could have made earlier or did it need to wait until this point in your life?
I would have loved to have done it when I first started recording if I had the chance. But looking at it now and listening to it now, and listening to my older records, when my voice was higher, the bottom end of my voice is much fuller it than was when I was young, so it wouldn't have sounded the same, I know that. And Ethan Johns is a big part of this as far as I'm concerned and he wouldn't have done it 'cause he wasn't around then. So I don't think we would've come out with the same result. When I started recording, 'It's Not Unusual' was my first hit and there were a lot of instruments on that. So I don't know whether we could've got this basic with it and as nitty-gritty with it as we've done. I think they would've wanted me to have done it smoother in the '60s than it is now, unless I'd done it with a rock band 'cause that's what it sounds like to me. And with songs like this, I think you have to have lived a while to understand the songs to get inside them.
What have been some of the great vocal moments you've seen or heard from other people?
Well, I experienced it when I was doing my TV show ['This Is Tom Jones'] and the people that I was doing duets with. When you're doing the band rehearsal you're not using microphones or anything, so you hear the singers live without any amplification. And Aretha Franklin, when I did a duet with her, standing next to her, she's a quiet lady, she speaks quietly, and then when she opens her mouth it's unbelievable, something takes over where I'm not even sure if she's in control of it or not. She really knocked me back standing right there next to her, and hearing the emotion that comes out of this woman and the volume, of course. That was one of the times where I thought, "Good God, this is tremendous! This'll make you shake, she can make you believe!" And I think that was the big one for me standing next to someone like that.
I did a duet with Ray Charles, but I knew what Ray sounded like, which was great. But the most exciting duet for me was with Jerry Lee Lewis, because I was a fan of Jerry Lee Lewis since 1957, when he had a 'Whole Lotta Shakin' [Going On]' and I thought, "I would love to be able to sing with this fellow." And in '69 I did on my TV show, so I think that was the biggest thrill of singing with somebody and really, really getting off on it. And then Elvis Presley -- when I sang gospel songs with Elvis in his suite at the Hilton in Vegas; I was at Caesar's Palace and he was at the Hilton, and after his shows we would get together. Elvis loved singing gospel songs more than anything else, so he would be singing in his suite afterwards with his singers and a piano player, and once in a while I'd jump in. If I knew one of the songs I'd come in on it and he was very interested that I knew these songs, and what was the gospel in Wales. How did I know these songs? So that was a great feeling, as well. Standing in front of Elvis Presley listening to him singing live in the room in a suite, it affects me more than sitting in the front row of a concert and hearing somebody come across strong onstage.
Those stories are amazing! Do you still get that sense of fandom or wonder when you think back to singing in a suite with Elvis or duetting with Ray Charles?
When I do tell stories, when I'm telling people about it and they're going, "Wow," I'm still going, "Wow" myself. It's a thing that I haven't got used to. The younger performers now come up to me and say, "Wow, could I have a picture taken with you?" And I still feel that about those people that I met and that excitement is still with me. I've never got used to it. I've never got like, "Oh, yeah, I met Frank Sinatra." And especially as time has gone on, I've thought about it more. When you're actually doing it, you're caught up in the moment and you're not thinking.
It's later on that it sinks in that that's happened and I still love telling stories about it. It still thrills the s--- out of me that all this has happened to me. It's tremendous. Like the first year I got into show business, 'It's Not Unusual' came out in January of '65, and in that year I must've met everybody that was in show business singing-wise, musician-wise, 'cause I did all the TV shows in Britain with the Beatles, the Stones, the Animals, all the bands then. And then I go to do 'The Ed Sullivan Show' in New York and I did about five 'Ed Sullivan Shows,' so during that space of time in '65 I had met Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Elvis Presley -- that was unbelievable.
This album, just by the nature of the songs, has a lot of mortality in it. Do you feel like in a way you're carrying the tradition and the legacy, especially vocally, when so many people use Auto-Tune and other tricks of the trade?
Yeah, I'm a real singer like those people were. They were singers and there was no trickery with recordings. Most of the songs that Sinatra ever recorded, they must have been live with the bands that he worked with. And Elvis Presley, the same thing: They recorded that way. And this now, doing this album like this is proof that it can be done. You don't have to have Auto-Tuning. Well, I don't anyway [laughs]. Maybe some people do, I don't know. But it's great when you can do it live without a lot of trickery. With me, as a singer, I like to record the same ways I always did but with different instrumentation.
This record is stripped-down like I always used to do when I was in Wales. We got back to that. But you're right, bands come up to me and ask ... There's a band over here now called Mumford and Sons, and they were on the show, and I was chatting to the fellows backstage. And they were asking me about people that I've met and it's wonderful that I'm still going strong. They were really interested in what I had done 'cause I've been around a long time. So it's great, like I used to ask people when I got in the business about things that they had done, and now younger people are asking me. And I'm glad that I've got so many memories to share with them. If they ask me, "What was Frank Sinatra like?" I can tell them from my point of view or Elvis Presley or any of those giants that a lot of people never met, people that have been in the business a long time. I don't know many people in show business that knew Elvis Presley. So I'm glad I've got stories to relay to younger people. Oasis were asking me one time; they said, "You knew John Lennon?" 'cause they're big Beatle fans. I said, "Yes, I did." "And you met Elvis Presley?" "Yes." I like relaying stories to younger musicians. I'm still here and I'm still doing it.