Possessing one of the most powerful and immediately identifiable voices in pop music, Sir Tom Jones was the dynamic performer of a string of hit songs between 1965 and 1972, including the irrepressible "What's New, Pussycat?" "It's Not Unusual," "Delilah" and "She's a Lady." A lengthy fallow period in the late 1970s and early 1980s preceded a comeback that remade Jones as an R&B singer and top-notch interpreter of contemporary material, as evidenced by his hit rendition of Prince's "Kiss." His revival continued for the next three decades, during which he continued to mine the soul material he loved as a youth while enjoying the praise of a generation that grew up on his '60s tracks. Knighted in 2006 for his numerous contributions to music, Jones remained among that rare class of singers who had both vocal strength and subtle phrasing, which carried his legend well into the 21st century.
Born Thomas John Woodward in Treforest, a village in the town of Pontypridd, South Wales, on June 7, 1940, he was the son of a coal miner, Thomas Woodward, and his wife, Freda. Dyslexia made his schooling an arduous chore, so he channeled his energies into singing at family gatherings or with his school choir. At 12, he was diagnosed with tuberculosis, and discovered American rock and soul music on the radio while convalescing in his bed. Jones drew particular inspiration from the earthy, explosive vocals of R&B wailers like Little Richard and Jackie Wilson, as well as country-rock artists like Jerry Lee Lewis In his teenage years, Jones developed a reputation as a hellraiser, but settled down at 17 to marry his high school sweetheart, Melinda Trenchard. A son, Mark, was born a month after their wedding, and Jones supported his new family by working at a variety of jobs, including a paper mill and a glove factory. Again, singing became a solace for Jones, and in 1963, he joined a local beat group, the Senators, billing himself as Tommy Scott.
Jones' vocals had matured into a rich, powerful baritone, and the Senators soon became popular favorites in South Wales. With the help of a pair of local songwriters, they recorded a handful of singles for the eccentric but successful London producer Joe Meek, who failed to secure them a label. Disheartened, Jones and the Senators returned to South Wales, where talent manager Gordon Mills caught their act at a club. Convinced that Jones was the next great pop singer, he took on Jones as a client, and after changing his surname to Jones - a nod to Tony Richardson's then-popular comedy about a randy young Londoner - brokered a deal with Decca to release his first single, "Chills and Fever," in 1964. The song failed to chart, but its follow-up, the jaunty "It's Not Unusual," which featured a pre-fame Elton John on keyboards, was a smash hit, rocketing to the top of the U.K. charts and breaking into the Top 10 in the United States.
From 1965 to 1967, Jones became one of the world's most popular singers, thanks to a string of hits that included such ballads as "Once Upon a Time," "Little Lonely One" and "With These Hands." He was also in great demand as a vocalist for movie themes, most notably the swinging Burt Bacharach-Hal David title song for "What's New Pussycat?" (1965), which became one of Jones' signature tunes, and the James Bond adventure "Thunderball" (1965). The combination of Jones' full-bodied voice and his stage presence, which radiated raw masculinity, helped to propel these and other songs to the Top 40 and higher; they also earned him the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1965. However, changing tastes in pop and rock music forced Mills to refashion Jones as a mainstream crooner with wider appeal to a more diverse audience. His recorded output now consisted of sweeping ballads in the vein of Paul Anka or Andy Williams, though the sonic force of his voice could never be mistaken for those performers. This new Tom Jones was warmly embraced by older listeners, which sent 10 of his singles between 1968 and 1970 to the Top 5 on the Adult Contemporary charts. Their success gained him entry into Las Vegas, where he held court in a semi-orgiastic show that featured Jones, shirt unbuttoned to the waist and crooning his hits while being pelted by undergarments and room keys by female audience members. The shows made him a rich man, but in the eyes of the music counterculture, he had grown stale and squandered his talents.
To combat this notion, Jones launched his own variety series, "This is Tom Jones" (ITV/ABC, 1969-1971), which featured him performing with such rock icons as the Who, Janis Joplin, Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin, as well as featuring cutting edge comedy from Richard Pryor and Peter Sellers. The show earned him a Golden Globe nomination in 1969, as well as helped to re-establish his credibility in popular music circles. He also branched out to other genres in his recorded output, including experiments with country on "Green Grass of Home," soul with "Detroit City," and hard rock and funk with "She's a Lady," which featured Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page on guitar. All three broke the Top 20 on both sides of the Atlantic, as did more mainstream material like the doomy murder ballad "Deliliah," but by 1972, the hits had dried up.
Jones' plight earned the sympathy of another rock singer whose career had fallen on hard times. Elvis Presley - who had befriended Jones while the pair was performing in Vegas - would frequently host him in his hotel suite, where the pair would perform their favorite country and blues songs into the morning hours. Jones was a non-entity on both the U.S. and U.K. charts for most of the 1970s and 1980s. He shifted to country music in the early 1980s, and though he recorded at a furious pace, none of his material could break the Top 100. Compounding matters was the 1986 death of Gordon Mills, who had guided Jones' career for over 20 years. But in a surprise move, Jones' son, Mark, stepped in to oversee his father's career. He immediately recognized the problem as one of image: most listeners identified Jones as a campy pop singer from the early 1970s. Mark also noted that audiences responded positively when Jones performed contemporary material in his live shows, and changed the focus of his father's recordings from safe, establishment-friendly pop to material with more of a rock and soul feeling.
The first shot fired in this revolution was "The Boy from Nowhere," which shot to No. 2 in the U.K. in 1986. The following year, Jones earned his biggest hit in decades with an eclectic cover of Prince's "Kiss," which also featured the electronic act Art of Noise. The song entered the Top 40 in the U.S. and earned Jones a Breakthrough Video Award from the MTV Video Music Awards. The renewed interest in Jones' career also brought to light his reputation as a repeat philanderer when he fathered a child with model Katherine Berkery. Jones, whose list of celebrity conquests included Mary Wilson of the Supremes and one-time Miss World Marjorie Wallace, denied paternity, even after a 1989 court ruling proved via DNA evidence that he was the boy's father. He would remain distant from Berkery and her son, Jonathan, for the next two decades.
After joining Sinead O'Connor in "The Ghosts of Oxford Street" (Channel 4, 1991), a musical about the famed London shopping street by rock impresario Malcolm McLaren, Jones toured incessantly to rebuild his career. He scored a major coup with a 1992 performance at the Glastonbury Musical Festival, which was normally devoted to harder rock acts. The festival crowd warmly received him, and, feeling emboldened by this newfound respect, recorded 1994's The Lead and How to Swing It. Its first single, "If I Only Knew," opened with a paint-peeling soul shout that showed that Jones, in his fifth decade, had lost none of his fabled vocal prowess. After self-deprecating turns in Tim Burton's "Mars Attacks" (1995) and other features, he released 1999's Reload, which featured duets with the likes of Portishead, the Pretenders, Van Morrison, and Robbie Williams. It reached No. 1 on the U.K. albums charts and firmly established Jones as one of the pop world's most formidable figures. The receipt of an OBE underscored his renewed career in 1999.
In 2002, Jones teamed with Fugees mastermind Wyclef Jean for Mr. Jones, an album of contemporary soul and pop material. After earning the Brit Award for Outstanding Contribution to Music in 2003, he partnered with Squeeze keyboardist Jools Holland for an eponymous 2004 collection of roots-root songs that returned him to the Top 5 in England. The following year, he returned to Pontypridd for the first time in over four decades to celebrate his 65th birthday before a crowd of 20,000 fellow Welshmen. In 2006, Queen Elizabeth II knighted him at a ceremony in Buckingham Palace.
As Jones approached his seventh decade, his recording and performing schedule continued at a breathless clip, which soon encompassed a live collaboration with Australian singer John Farhnam in 2005, as well as over 200 concerts a year. In 2009, he returned to the top of the U.K. singles charts with a cover of "Islands in the Stream" with Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees, which was released in support of the Comic Relief charity. Praise and Blame (2010) was his return to country music and Americana, with stark covers of songs by Bob Dylan and John Lee Hooker. A brief firestorm of controversy swelled around the record when an email from David Sharpe, vice-president of Jones' label, Island Records, that expressed displeasure with the record, was leaked to the press. The publicity only benefited the album, which reached No. 2 on the U.K. albums chart.
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Joined local beat group The Senators, billing himself as Tommy Scott
Changed surname to Jones; released first single "Chills and Fever"
Follow-up single "It's Not Unusual" became international hit; song featured pre-fame Elton John on keyboards
Recorded title tracks for "What's New Pussycat" and James Bond film "Thunderball"
Made Las Vegas performance debut at the Flamingo
Hosted TV variety show "This Is Tom Jones" (ABC)
Released hit single "She's a Lady," penned by Paul Anka
Landed at No. 1 on <i>Billboard</i> country chart with "Say You'll Stay Until Tomorrow"
Recorded cover version of Prince's "Kiss" with synthpop group Art of Noise
Co-starred with Sinead O'Connor in TV musical "The Ghosts of Oxford Street" (Channel 4)
Resurrected career with covers album <i>Reload</i>; also featured original song "Sex Bomb"
Lent voice to Theme Song Guy in animated feature "The Emperor's New Groove"
Released <i>24 Hours</i>, his first album of new material to be issued in the U.S. for over 15 years
Returned to top of U.K. singles charts with cover of "Islands in the Stream"; recorded with Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees
Appeared on BBC talent competition "The Voice UK" as a judge alongside Jessie J, will.i.am, and Danny O'Donoghue
Performed at the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Concert in front of Buckingham Palace, singing "Delilah" and "Mama Told Me Not to Come"